Baghdad and Washington at Odds Over Syria’s Future

U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry was sworn in on February 1, 2013

The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that Iran is still using Iraqi airspace to shuttle weapons to Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria. This arrangement was first reported a year ago, to the dismay of U.S. officials who hoped Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would stop it. Baghdad promised last year to inspect Iranian cargoes. However, according to anonymous sources quoted by the Times, they have not done so since two planes were brought down in October, one of which was inspected after its cargo was discharged in Syria. On February 25, the New York Times quoted an American official who said the shipments were so routine they could be called “a milk run.”

No doubt these shipments have taken on greater importance in recent weeks. Syria’s rebels “scored a string of strategic victories” early this year and aid from outside sources is strengthening the resistance. Even though the war has not reached a tipping point, Assad needs all the help he can get. And Iran is happy to help. He may need more assistance now than ever before, as the U.S. reconsiders its options, the second anniversary of the uprising approaches, the capital becomes less secure, and the death toll eclipses 70,000.

The sectarian conflict in Syria is deeply unsettling for Maliki. Assad and his most loyal forces belong to the Alawite offshoot of Shia Islam, while certain religious minorities have gravitated to his side or remained neutral out of fear. By all accounts, the resistance draws its power from the country’s Sunni majority; it represents both secular and ultra-conservative trends, all of which aim to drive Assad from power.

Maliki’s logic is simple. The prime minister, who belongs to Iraq’s Shia majority, is worried that Assad’s ouster could inspire Sunnis to rise up in Iraq or—at the very least—resist his rule, which many complain is autocratic. He fears the spill-over effects of a new insurgency, like the one Maliki faced when he first became prime minister in 2006. “Neither the opposition [in Syria] nor the regime can finish each other off,” Maliki told the Associated Press in a February 27 interview. “If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq.”

More specifically, Maliki is worried about the strong cross-border ties that connect Sunnis in Iraq’s Anbar province with those fighting Assad next door. For years, Anbar was the beating heart of the anti-American, anti-government insurgency following the 2003 invasion. Violence there subsided only after Sunni militias joined forces with the U.S. to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq.

At the end of last year, outraged Sunnis took to the streets in increasingly large demonstrations against Maliki’s government. They accuse Baghdad of systematic intimidation and abuse. As proof, they point to high-profile cases in which Sunni politicians, including Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, were charged with crimes against the state—despite a lack of evidence and the use of forced, televised confessions (a hallmark of Saddam Hussein’s rule). Hashemi has been sentenced to death five times in absentia; he now lives in exile. In December, the security detail of Sunni politician and Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi was arrested, kicking off the newest wave of protests. Channeling demands heard elsewhere in the Arab world, demonstrators are calling for the downfall of “the regime.”

Maliki says the Anbar protests can continue but he is eager to dismiss them. Like other Arab heads of state—both democratically elected and self-appointed—he swears the demonstrations are sponsored by foreign powers. At the same time, he has made some concessions, freeing about 4,000 prisoners in order to satisfy Sunni demands. Thus far, his calls for dialogue have not gained traction.

It’s worth noting that Maliki is already locking horns with the Kurdistan Regional Government, the semi-autonomous grouping of provinces in Iraq’s north (these are administered by Erbil rather than Baghdad). The two sides have exchanged threats over oil contracts, export rights, the constitution, and revenues. The KRG and federal government even deployed forces and heavy artillery to disputed provinces in November.

For the prime minister, raising the stakes and risking conflict in the country’s west at the same time may not be an option, especially if it backfires or changes attitudes ahead of Iraq’s upcoming provincial elections. Instead, Maliki has relied on a friendly judiciary to undercut his enemies, security forces to do his bidding, and the Assad regime to suffocate an insurgency before it can poison Iraq’s western territory. Turning a blind eye to Iran’s aid achieves this end.

Iraq’s refusal to intercept Iranian aid to Syria has not been overlooked by Washington. In a September 2012 hearing, Senator John Kerry told Robert Beecroft, now the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, that aid to Baghdad should be conditional. Informed that Iraq had already been engaged on the matter, Kerry said:

“Well, I mean, it may stop when it’s too late. If so many people have entreated the government to stop and that doesn’t seem to be having an impact, that sort of alarms me a little bit and seems to send a signal to me maybe we should make some of our assistance or some of our support contingent on some kind of appropriate response… it just seems completely inappropriate that we’re trying to help build their democracy, support them, put American lives on the line, money into the country and they’re working against our interest so overtly—against their interests too, I might add.”

Kerry is now Secretary of State. He is closer to President Obama than ever before and his counsel will carry additional weight. It’s unclear if he still thinks holding back aid is a wise choice. But it is one of the only remaining points of leverage the U.S. has now that the occupation is over. In FY 2012, the U.S. provided $1.7 billion of aid to Iraq. That sum could climb over $2 billion in FY 2013.  And, in 2014, Iraq is set to receive its first batch of American-made F-16 fighter jets. This administration doesn’t want to act directly in Syria by arming rebels or intervening militarily. So cutting off Iranian supplies to Assad may be the easier option, even if it complicates relations with Iraq.

Maliki, for his part, may seek to avoid being leveraged, however, as I’ve argued before. Last year, a $4.2 billion deal for Russian military hardware collapsed at the last minute when accusations of corruption were revealed. Officials later said that the deal would be renegotiated. This past week, another deal—this one for roughly $1 billion of Czech aircraft—also fell through.

If the U.S. attempts to leverage Maliki by making aid conditional or withholding military sales, look for both of these deals to be revived soon. Any American threat would be conveyed quietly at first, behind closed doors, so that Maliki is not humiliated. And given the tremendous investment made by the U.S. in Iraq over the past decade, we should expect Washington to give Maliki another chance to redeem himself. But if the Russian and Czech arms deals are seriously expanded in the coming months, it may be the first signal that Maliki is preparing other options in case he’s punished for enabling Syria’s crackdown.

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