What is impossible in Syria is impossible in Iraq

George Semaan

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Following the reemergence on the scene of Ezzat Ibrahim al-Douri, i.e. Saddam Hussein’s vice president, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was left with nothing to do but wait for a new Zarqawi to revive the Organization of the Islamic State of Iraq, or for the announcement of the unification of the Jihadists in both Iraq and Syria. This would tighten the siege around the leader of the State of Law Coalition who has mastered the art of provoking all his opponents at once, both domestically and abroad. These opponents include Turkey, whose Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is saying that Maliki’s government “is acting as a sectarian Shiite government,” thus calling for a government of “fair democracy.”

They also include the Gulf states which have yet to forgive the transformation that affected the legitimacy of the authority and power in Baghdad, considering that these states do not appreciate Maliki’s positions towards the Sunni sect, his submission to Iran, and his open lines with the regime in Damascus. There is also Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood, which sees itself as the sponsor of the Sunnis in the Arab world and is naturally supporting the Anbar province population and the remaining provinces showing solidarity with it.

The conflict over power in Baghdad will strengthen the idea of sectarian federations in Iraq

George Semaan
Domestically, Maliki knows he is engaged in an open conflict with Kurdistan, although Washington and Tehran intervened to contain the situation for the time being. In addition, President Jalal Talabani, who is now being hospitalized, might not be able to act as a safety valve between the prime minister and President of the Kurdistan province Massoud al-Barzani, as well as between him and the Sunni forces. Indeed, at the level of the latter, Maliki did not settle for banishing one of their symbols, i.e. Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi, thus launching a battle against one of their most prominent leaders Finance Minister Rafeh al-Issawi.

More dangerously, the leader of the State of Law Coalition missed a very important point – which was not missed by his partners/opponents within the ruling Shiite coalition – related to the fact that what is happening in Syria will be deeply echoed inside Iraq. This is why these partners, at the head of whom are Moqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, expressed solidarity with the Al-Anbar population and its demands, fearing the expansion of the Syrian revolution to the Iraqi provinces under the slogan of the “injustice” affecting the Sunnis. For their part, Sunni leaders called for the containment of the situation to prevent its slide back to what it used to be in the middle of last decade - during which the voices of Al-Qaeda and the extremists rose – as this would cause Iraq’s fall in a new sectarian war.

No real alliance

This time around, Maliki who overcame domestic crises in the past without any regard for the objections of his partners before his opponents, can also rely on the division prevailing over his detractors on the internal scene. Indeed, the Sunni forces are not unified, although they converge over the same demands related to the return of balance to the state institutions, namely the military, security and judicial ones. He also knows there can be no real alliance between the Arab Sunnis and Kurds, in a way capable of threatening the authority in Baghdad, in light of the Kurds’ conviction that the alliance with the Shiites guarantees Kurdistan’s security and stability. In other words, the weakness of the central government and the Shiite coalition’s need for an understanding with Kurdistan, constitute key factors preventing the repetition of the tragedies endured by the province for many years, under powerful and tyrannical central governments. On the other hand, the conflict over power in Baghdad will strengthen the idea of sectarian federations in Iraq. However, this will not serve the country’s unity but will rather mark a prelude for the independence of these provinces. At this level, there is no need to recall the demands made by Sunni and Shiite districts to generalize the Kurdistan model.

The State of Law Coalition should not have been surprised to see the demonstrators raising the flags of the Free Syrian Army and anti-Iranian slogans. And instead of issuing threats and practicing intimidation, it should have listened to the other Shiite forces that want to avoid any connection between the action in Al-Anbar, Mosul, Salahuddin and Ninawa on one hand, and the Syrian revolution on the other. This time however, he should not expect to see Tehran exerting any pressures on these forces, as it had done when it pushed them to accept Maliki as prime minister following the 2010 elections. This is due to the fact that the Islamic Republic is fearful of an Iraqi spring that would erupt in parallel to the Syrian revolution, thus increasing its troubles and Baghdad’s, especially since the blocking of the international roads in the Sunni provinces is suffocating President Bashar Assad’s regime and making it even more difficult for Tehran to reach Baghdad and Beirut.

The State of Law Coalition’s government rushed to implement an enablement policy, by taking over all the positions and controlling the main posts of military and financial power. It did so without any regard for the deteriorating services, the security mayhem and the spread of corruption, or for the Arab hostility belt which surrounded it when it practiced exclusion and isolation against Sunni leaders, either under the pretext of the anti-terrorism law or the Justice and Accountability law (i.e. Debaathification). Furthermore, it might have become overly appeased when it smothered the first actions and demonstrations in Baghdad, which were inspired by the winds of the Arab Spring that swept Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. But today, the Iraqi scene is completely different, after the storm reached the heart of Damascus.

‘Hezbollah’s monopolization’

So now, one of the first tasks of Maliki’s government will probably be to reconsider its policy in light of what is happening on its Western border, in order to alleviate the negative effects these developments will have on Iraq’s stability and unity. It is no longer guaranteed that the Sunnis will succumb to or remain silent towards the transformations affecting the authority and its institutions in Baghdad, as the possibilities of change in Syria will push the population of the rebelling provinces to raise their voices and oppose what they consider to be Shiite monopolization. Such a development will fuel the stifled sectarian conflict throughout the region. This is true in the case of the Sunnis in Lebanon, considering that Damascus’ collapse will push them to act against what they believe is “Hezbollah’s monopolization” of the authority and the state in Beirut.

Unless Maliki’s government rushes to contain the situation in Iraq, it will be impossible for it to dissociate what is happening in the Sunni provinces from what is happening in Syria, where it seems there is no hope in seeing a political solution since the diplomatic action to ensure concord over such a solution at the Security Council is not likely to succeed. Indeed, this issue is not only linked to a Russian-American agreement, in the presence of other actors in the region – from Iran to Turkey and active Arab states – without whose participation no settlement or deal can be sealed. And this means that the solution will require time.

Moreover, nothing guarantees that the two sides involved in the conflict in Syria will succumb to the pressures. The regime, which is using all its forces in the battle and might not hesitate to use internationally-banned weapons, is still convinced it will be able to settle the battle in its favor, or at least persist as long as the military institutions or their fighting troops are rallied around it, and as long as its threats to set the region on fire are still provoking fears in the neighboring states. In the meantime, it still believes it can impose the solution it sent to Moscow, knowing that Assad’s last speech shut the door before any solution which might be sought by Moscow before any other.

As for the opposition, it has no interest in seeing a settlement after two years of sacrifices, as it feels it is growing closer to a resounding victory in the capital to completely undermine the regime. In addition, its main powers that are imposing their control in Northern Syria, consist of extremist groups which were placed by the United States on the terrorism list. So why would they consider themselves concerned about any settlement? Even the opposition coalition which Washington tried to form, opposed the classification of Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group according to the American standards. Consequently, it was forced to defend the Front and its actions on the ground, although that same Front rejected the establishment of the Coalition.

Can Iraq live to the beat of the Syrian crisis and link its fate to that of its neighbor, as is the case in Lebanon? Iraq and Syria were an essential part of the Arab system, constituting its eastern front or gate. So, will Iraq – whose unity is at stake – be led towards further anarchy in light of the sectarian or ethnic conflict, while waiting for the international inability to solve the Syrian crisis to split the country, push it towards division, and drag its neighbors towards this option or towards a deal that would draw up the facets of a new system controlled by the big players inside and outside the region, and going against the Syrian people’s will?

Is the absent or impossible political solution in Syria also impossible in Iraq? Are the Iraqi components which experienced the harshness of civil war and before that the oppression of dictatorship, unable to find a settlement that would disengage them from the Syrian war and its internal and external sides? Will they settle for exchanging accusations like the Lebanese, thus consciously moving towards a fall into the Syrian hell?

*This article first appeared in al-Hayat on Jan. 7, 2013. Link: http://alhayat.com/Details/470182

(Lebanese writer George Semaan started his career as the local political affairs editor in An-Nahar newspaper. He moved to London where he contributed to re-establishing al-Hayat, and was appointed as the managing editor. Being a deputy editor in chief at al-Hayat, he was also assigned as the editor-in-chief of al-Wasat newspaper. Later, he was assigned editor- in-chief of al-Hayat. Now he is the chief editor of the newsroom at al-Hayat LBC, an Arabic newspaper and television channel.)

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