Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned on Saturday of the danger that the Syrian crisis might spill over into neighboring states, and insisted that Iraq have a role in the future of Syria.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani meanwhile expressed concern that extremists in Syria will promote sectarian strife in the region.
Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a brutal crackdown on opponents in March 2011 that has left thousands dead, shares a roughly 600-kilometre (372-mile) border with Iraq.
“Our main concern is the spillover of the crisis ... into neighboring countries, and no country is immune from this spillover because of the composition of the societies ... the connections, the sectarian ethnic dimensions,” Zebari told a news conference in Baghdad.
“If this conflict were to turn (into) an all-out sectarian or civil war, Iraq would be affected, Lebanon would be affected, Jordan will not be immune,” as would also be the case with Turkey, he said, speaking alongside the foreign ministers of Poland, Sweden and Bulgaria, who were on a visit to Iraq.
“We don’t want to see chaos reign, you see, in the region, in the neighborhood, and that’s why Iraq should have a say, a role in what is going to (happen) in Syria. No country can ignore or bypass Iraq in this regard,” Zebari said.
A statement from Shahristani’s office said that he had expressed concern in a meeting with the visiting European foreign ministers over “takfiris” in Syria, referring to those who declare others to be infidels, justifying their killing.
Shahristani said that Iraq supports “democratic change for the Syrian people,” but also expressed “concern about takfiri partisans who are trying to push the Syrian people into sectarian conflict which will affect the region,” the statement added.
A brutal Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict tore across Iraq from early 2006, leaving tens of thousands of people dead.
Zebari also said Iraq was in contact with the Syrian opposition, including armed groups, but reiterated Iraq’s opposition to providing weapons to either side in the conflict.
“Iraq has continuous contacts with the Syrian opposition sides, and we have meetings and contacts with the Syrian National Council ... and even with some military sides,” he said.
But “providing the regime or the opposition with weapons leads to deepening and continuing the crisis.”
The Iraqi warning came a day after Swedish, Bulgarian and Polish foreign ministers met politicians in Beirut in an EU-backed attempt to urge Lebanese political blocks to cooperate in preventing violence in Syria spilling over the border.
“There is a clear worry (of a spillover). The worry is probably greater than we want to say it is,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told Reuters.
Lebanon has seen clashes between supporters and opponents of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the border region has been used by rebels to smuggle arms into Syria and take refuge from Syrian troops.
“Lebanon is involved in a sensitive balancing act ...between the different forces in Lebanese society which are looking in different directions on the Syrian conflict,” Bildt said ahead of meetings with Lebanon's President Michel Sleiman and Speaker Nabih Berri.
Lebanon’s politicians are at odds over Syria, with Shiite Muslim Hezbollah supporting long-time ally Assad, and others supporting the revolt.
Most agree that Syria’s crisis has the potential to destabilize Lebanon.
Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov said after the talks that he was encouraged by willingness expressed among the politicians to engage in keeping Lebanon insulated from the situation in Syria.
“Lebanon, which has gone through several wars and knows devastation but also the benefits of peace and development, must speak louder in support of democracy and in support of the need for people to avoid the violence which is now occurring in Syria,” he told Reuters.
Bildt said the talks had made him more confident the blocks would be able to cooperate towards preventing the Syria unrest from spilling over to Lebanon.
Bildt said the European ministers had made no specific pledges on behalf of the EU, but said border control was one area where the EU might boost its support.
“There is an increased interest in helping with the building of state institutions,” he said. “Border control is for example one area where we give some support but more needs to be done.”
Noting that Lebanon is on the “frontline of the Syrian conflict,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said: “The Middle East is even more in flux than usual, and while we have Syria sliding into civil war, the last thing we need is Lebanon to revert to the bad old ways.”