Dina al-Shibeeb: Is Iraq’s stance on Syria justified?


Last month, the Iraqi prime minister’s media advisor “absolutely” denied making the statements printed in The New York Times in which he is alleged to have said that his government had urged Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Ali al-Moussawi denied telling the newspaper that the Iraqi government believes “that the Syrian people should have more freedom and have the right to experience democracy.”

Shortly thereafter, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told the Hezbollah-backed Manar TV that the region would be exposed to a sectarian tremor if the Syrian regime fell.

He encouraged the Syrian Baathist regime to move forward on its promised reforms. 

In both men’s statements, including Moussawi’s retraction, one finds double standards. What if Iraq was witnessing the same situation Syria is experiencing today prior to the U.S.-led invasion? Would the Iraqi opposition give another chance to their long-time dictator, Saddam Hussein, given all the blood and the brutality exercised against the Iraqis?

The answer is most probably no. 

Why then is Iraq exhibiting such double standards? Shouldn’t Iraqis be the first people to support their Syrian brethren in their ordeal? 

Is Iraq’s fear of the rise of a Sunni power in Syria justified?
 Iraq’s fear of such a scenario is misplaced, but it shows just how much of a hold Iran has over the country. 

Shortly after the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the notorious jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian native, met with Osama Bin Laden’s military chief, who asked him to coordinate the entry of al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq via Syria. Iraq has since accused Syria of harboring Baathists and Islamists who, they alleged, fund terror cells in Iraq. 

Syria’s porous border has proven to be one of agitation for Iraq, but that has nothing to do with Sunnis being in charge in Syria. 

Iran’s influence on Iraq can be gauged from the fact that an Iraqi Shiite politician is unlikely to accuse Iran of meddling in its country affairs. However, the same cannot be said for Syria or Saudi Arabia, who are often accused of meddling in Iraq’s affairs by “exporting Sunni extremism”.

It is important to note a stark difference between Syria and Iraq, namely the role of the opposition in Syria abroad versus its counterpart in Iraq in 2003.

During its press conference last week in Turkey, the Syrian opposition announced the formation of the National Unity Council, which saw the coming together of various groups under an agenda that was inclusive. 

The Council rejected the use of sectarian and ethnical jargons, quashed any idea of foreign intervention ─ save those related to U.N. resolutions ─ and opposed the dismantling of the Syrian army. This last point was sorely lacking in Iraq and has resulted in the precarious law and order situation in the country seen during the past few years. 

Unlike the scenario in Iraq, in which all Baath members were shunned and vilified, the newly formed council did not reject the idea that Baath party members be able to participate in any future Syrian government if the regime falls, and that in itself shows the democratic spirit of the Syrian opposition. 

The inclusivity of Syrian ─ versus the exclusivity of their Iraqi counterparts ─ ensures that no group feels alienated and reduces chances of groups pitting themselves against each other in the long run.

The Syrian opposition has also shown a great deal of maturity in understanding the risks sectarianism poses to its country and has actively worked to ensure that threat is not realized. 

Furthermore, a Sunni Arab doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she is against President Bashar al-Assad just because he belongs to the offshoot Shiite sect known as Allawite. One can find Sunni supporters of Assad. 

Syrian Sunnis do not suffer a Shiite complex of not holding reign of power within their sect. Shiite parties in Iraq were far hungrier to get into power. Some extremists went as far as to claim they had been denied power for 1,400 years ─ since the inception of Islam! 

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which was long-banned in the country, has claimed that it is seeking a civilian state, so here, too, there is nothing to fear. 

While Shiite parties in Iraq had the obvious backing of Iran and the U.S., do the Sunnis in Syria enjoy similar support within the region? 

Some analysts believe that Turkey is supportive of the Sunnis in Syria, and that belief stems from Ankara once offering its support to Assad in exchange for government seats for the Muslim Brotherhood (that offer was turned down). 

However, Turkey has always projected itself as a secular state with a Muslim majority, and so seeing it purely in the prism of a Sunni state would be a mistake. 

If it does, for example, wield influence in a post-Assad set-up, it will do so as a secular state. 

While no one can deny the existence of Islamists or extremists in Syria, culturally, the Levant country is more moderate. Secular and religious lifestyles have always co-existed in Syria. 

Also, Syria’s minorities, including its largest minority, the Kurds, could prove to be a large secular force. (Kurds in Iraq have shown to be the most secular in the country.) 

So even if a Sunni-backed group was to form the government in Syria, minorities would be a counterbalance force, unlike what we are seeing in Iraq. 
In this equation, we cannot ignore “the silent majority”, the term coined by the Syrian opposition. It is this group that identifies itself as being against the Assad regime but also recognizes the realities of Iraq as well as the multi-confessional system in Lebanon ─ and it wants none of it. 

The opposition has also blamed Assad’s regime of inciting sectarianism and using the Islamists scarecrow as a card to keep people from not wanting a regime change. 

Iraq’s stance on Syria – its unjustified fears of a rise of Sunni power – only reflects on its own simpleton politics that it sees only through a sectarian lens vis-à-vis Iran and its wishes. Iran has been responsible for fanning the flames of sectarianism in the region, and most recently started threatening Turkey, a country that is against any assault targeting the Islamic republic, for showing an anti-Assad stance. 

If the fear is justified, then Iraq might as well fear itself. Iraq is, after all, soaked in sectarianism that has sent tremors throughout the region.