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Is Iraq’s stance on Syria the same as Tehran’s?

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Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government have paint-brushed Baghdad’s stance on Syria to being similar to Iran’s, but in defense, the country’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has come out and said Baghdad’s stance on Syria is independent, nationalist, and unified.

However Iraq’s foreign policy on Syria does bear similarities to that of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s closest ally in the region, Iran.

On Sunday, Iraq who has long-cautioned for neutrality and a centrist position on Syria, rejected the Arab League’s call for Assad to step down, and said others should “not interfere” in Syria’s affairs.

“On the outside, Iraq tries to play mediator; there are Iranian pressures with an alliance inside the government, therefore Iraq succumbs to the Iranian axis that supports Bashar al-Assad,” said the Jordan-based Ahmed al-Abyath, a political analyst on Iraq and a TV commentator. “But on the inside, Iraq rejects an authoritarian and dictatorial regime that kills its own people.”

Maliki’s Islamist party, al-Da’awa, like other Iraqi political parties that were able to be in power after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, was previously shunned with its members eradicated during the secular one-party Ba’ath reign. However, Iraq not having a sharp stance against Syria’s also Baathist regime, has shun a light on what is perceived as Baghdad’s double standards.

Another contradiction critics point to, is why Iraq has emerged as an Iranian ally in spite of U.S.’ help in toppling Saddam’s dictatorial regime that allowed previously quelled parties like Da’awa from exercising its political rights.

Instead, Iraq is increasingly allying itself with the ‘Eastern camp’ (Russia, China and Iran) that is supporting and backing Assad’s regime, as opposed to the Western camp which includes the United States.

“One has to always remember that throughout Iraq’s recent existence, it has been a very nationalist country, and whatever post-Saddam climate, it will emerge as Iraq and not as a client to the United States,” said the Washington-based, Tony Cordesman, a national security analyst on a number of global conflicts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“While the strategic agreement did not allow the continuing of U.S. troops in Iraq, the irony is that the U.S. and Iran continue to compete in Iraq,” said Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the CSIS.

Cordesman said that in reality “Iraq is still dependent on U.S. advisory team and U.S. arms sales, particularly for the modernization of its air force and for the modernization of its army.”

Meanwhile, in March, a report by The Washington Post said that American officials protested against the Iraqi government lifting air cargo from Iran filled with up to thirty tons of weapons to be handed over to the Syrian regime. Iraq claimed that the planes were merely carrying humanitarian aid.

“Iraq allowed arms to some degree to be at least transited from Iran to Syria, and it is also not clear that Iraq is making any concerted efforts to secure its border with Syria.”

Divided government, internal strife

Meanwhile, Abyadh and Cordesman both agree that Iraq is a country that is deeply divided politically, but the former does not see Iraqi politics as nationalist or as living up to the country’s interests.

Baghdad has long-accused Syria of aiding terrorism in Iraq, however, Maliki ended tensions with Damascus, Abyadh said, on grounds that Iran was to help him win elections in 2010.

Ayad Allawi, head of the secular yet Sunni-backed Iraqiya List won the 2010 elections by one seat, however with the forming of coalitions and Iranian backing some critics claimed, Maliki managed to become the country’s prime minister.

“There are other talks that Maliki is not capable on changing Iraq’s stance on Syria; the Iranians have used [head of Sadr bloc, Muqtada] al-Sadr in pressuring no-confidence vote on Maliki.”

Iraq has been swarmed with political tension, as many of Maliki’s opponents see him as a rising dictator. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, together with Allawi and even Sadr pushed for a no-confidence vote against Maliki. However, the attempt to unseat him has been thwarted so far.

Sadr, whose bloc is a powerful movement in Iraq, called for more political reforms by Maliki and said he would back the no-confidence vote if reforms were not made. This change of position, from calling for an outright no-confidence vote to a more consolatory tone has helped Maliki to secure his position.

“Politics in Iraq is not stable and not built on a nationalist basis, but it is politics that is clearly affected on what is happening in the region,” said Abyath, who described Maliki as “pragmatic” and would change alliances including foreign ones to secure his position as prime minister.

Iraq having diplomatic clout?

U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan before his trip to Syria to meet with Assad in late May, said that Iran is part of the solution and should be included when trying to find an exit to the crisis.

After Annan’s visit to Assad, the peace envoy visited Tehran and thereafter Baghdad.

When asked why Annan chose to visit Iraq, Cordesman said that “Kofi Annan has dealt with every country that can affect the situation. Going to Iraq, is the only way you can find out what the level of support or influence can be, and that’s particularly true, it is such a divided country at this point.”

However, Cordesman dismissed that there is role for Iraq to play. “When you talk about an Iraqi role, there isn’t an Iraqi role,” adding “Kofi Annan is an extremely skilled negotiator, he is trying to find a negotiated option, he is trying to find some way other than letting the violence go on, and put an end to this.”

Cordesman showed cynicism that that situation in Syria can be settled by bringing outside parties. He said “through time maybe it is possible to negotiate Assad’s departure, but even Assad himself has no intention to step down,” despite promises by Western powers to secure his exit.

“Whatever is going to happen in the future, largely deals with the level of tension between Sunnis and Allawites and the regional split in Syria, and the level of anger.”

Terrorism, an excuse?

Baghdad has previously accused Damascus of supporting terrorism in Iraq but it is no longer pointing at Syria as being the culprit. Instead Baghdad is taking a similar position to that of the Assad regime by sounding the alarm that there are Islamists and terrorists who are working to hijack the situation in the Levant country.

Asked if that is a good-enough excuse for Iraq to keep its stance on Syria, Abyath said “Israel was scared from Islamists reaching power to Egypt, but what has happened is that the [new Egyptian President] Mohammed Mursi phone called [Israel’s Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“It is better for Qaeda to be in government and to work with the other Syria bodies than working clandestinely.”

While Israel has warned of a security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula, it changed its stance on the future of the Syrian regime, saying that Assad’s days are numbered and his fate is sealed.

“Iraqis cannot be independent as they suffer from internal issues, the escalation between Kurdistan and Baghdad mimic over what had happened between north and south Sudan a fight on oil,” Abyath said.

“There is no only fighting; as a result this will make Iraqis think more of their national interest, thereby closing down prospects of foreign intervention.”

On Tuesday, Al-Sumaria News TV quoted a member of parliament from Maliki’s State of Law Coalition as saying that the Iraqi government is not supporting Assad’s regime but it is against Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

“Iraq is against all dictatorial regimes, and we are not happy to be neighbors with a country ruled by the Ba’ath party…it is not far-fetched that Qatar will wage the same camping against Iraq,” Izat al-Shabindar said. “All Iraqi officials are dealing with events in Syria via Iraqi nationalist interests.”

Abyath, meanwhile, said, unlike the Russians, it is better for the Iraqis to be remembered by the Syrians as being on the right side of history.