Iraq’s government is increasingly worried that a prolonged and bloody standoff in neighboring Syria could upset its own fragile security and fractious political order, especially as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its last troops from the country.
Syria on Friday missed a deadline by the Arab League demanding that Damascus comply with a plan to end its violent crackdown on antigovernment protesters. That set the stage for the 21-nation group—Syria’s membership was suspended two weeks ago—to impose economic sanctions intended to cripple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, on Friday said it would work with the Arab League and add its own sanctions to any the pan-Arab body decides to impose. Arab League measures could be formally announced or adopted on Sunday.
But Iraq has resisted Arab efforts to further isolate Syria and has tried to cast itself in the role of mediator between the regime and Arab states pushing against Mr. Assad.
Iraq fears the fall of Mr. Assad largely because his regime began last year to collaborate with Baghdad in curbing militant Islamist groups linked to al Qaeda. The regime’s collapse could revitalize those militants, said Hussein al-Assadi, a senior security adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Iraq is also in the middle of a high-stakes regional power play that pits neighboring Sunni-dominated states such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia against Shiite Iran, a Syrian ally that wields significant influence over the Shiite-led government in Iraq.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose anti-American movement is a key partner in Iraq’s coalition government, last week called on Syrian protesters to avoid violence and embrace dialogue with the Assad regime.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari says a worsening crisis in Syria coupled with the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, which is to be completed by the end of the year, will only sharpen the regional struggle.
“Nobody knows what the day after will be like, what kind of a regime would be there, how long this will take,” he said, referring to Syria. Mr. Zebari signaled that Iraq wouldn’t abide by any prospective Arab League sanctions on Syria, which would be nonbinding.
Despite its strained military capabilities, Iraq has stepped up security this month along the 375-mile border with Syria in an attempt to protect itself from the fallout of clashes there.
“I do not know if we are fully ready if a civil war breaks out in Syria,” said Mr. Assadi.
Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, warned on Monday that al Qaeda-linked militants could seek to increase their freedom of movement in Iraq after American soldiers leave. Such groups suffered setbacks in Iraq from U.S. and Iraqi military operations and cooperation from Syrian authorities in stemming the flow of extremists into Iraq.
He urged the Iraqi government to maintain pressure on all extremist groups including those allegedly backed by Iran. Gen. Austin said Iraq’s concerns about events in Syria were understandable but added that it was “very difficult to speculate on outcomes.”
Iraq has long had a complex relationship with Syria. Both societies are similar mosaics of ethnicities, sects and tribes, and the threat of civil war in Syria between the majority Sunnis and President Assad’s Alawite minority has rattled a polarized Iraq still reeling from years of sectarian warfare. There are also over 112,000 registered Iraqi refugees living in Syria, and more that have not registered with the United Nations refugee agency.
Antagonism and mistrust between the neighbors reigned during the rule of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whose Baath Party was rival to the Baathists that have ruled Syria for decades.
When Mr. Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003, Damascus was hostile to the new U.S.-backed order in Iraq. U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Syria of providing refuge to former senior figures in Hussein’s regime who were plotting against the government in Baghdad.
Syria was also accused of turning its borders into a gateway for extremists flocking to Iraq.
“In the past hundreds if not thousands of suicide bombers came through that border,” says Mr. Zebari. Syria has denied this.
The low point in relations between Iraq and Syria was in August 2009 when Mr. Maliki publicly lashed out at Mr. Assad’s regime for sheltering the alleged masterminds and perpetrators of a series of devastating suicide truck bombs against ministries in Baghdad that killed and wounded hundreds.
Diplomatic relations were suspended at the time but the two sides mended fences a year later with pledges of security cooperation by Mr. Assad and inducements by the Iraqi government that included strengthening economic ties and implementing future oil and gas projects.
Mr. Maliki’s adviser, Mr. Assadi, said Syria last year stationed more forces on their side of the border, provided Baghdad with intelligence and lists of suspects and restricted the movements and communications ability of Iraqi government opponents still residing in Damascus.
Mr. Assadi says this security cooperation with Syria has almost disappeared with all military and security resources of the Syrian regime channeled toward battling the eight-month uprising. He says this has prompted Iraq to take unilateral steps to try to protect itself against a worst-case scenario in Syria. This has included more soldiers, patrols, outposts and reconnaissance at the border, he says.
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