Iraq opposing strike on Syria highlights region’s complexity

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Iraq has long opposed toppling the Syrian government, and on Monday renewed its “fixed” stance against the use of its airspace or territory for any attack on its neighbor.

Iraqi politicians came to power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust the former Baathist regime.

The Baathist Syrian government, dominated by the Allawite minority, is fighting rebels mainly drawn from the country’s majority Sunnis.

However, the current Iraqi government, which shared a similar experience to its Syrian opposition counterparts, has chosen to side with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, whose ideology it has long loathed.

This contradiction highlights regional complexities and fears.

“Iraq believes that a good part of the Syrian opposition consists of hard-line Sunni jihadists who oppose the Iraqi government dominated by Shiites. There’s a sectarian angle,” Asharq al-Awsat columnist Amir Taheri told Al Arabiya.

Iraq fears that its Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Nineveh and Salah al-Din may secede and join a “greater Syria,” Taheri added.

Sunni Iraqis, inspired by Syrians, started their protests in late 2012 to call on the government to implement reforms and release political prisoners. They say they are still marginalized and their demands have not been met.

Another reason for Iraq’s stance is Iranian influence, which is expected to increase if the latter’s interests and allies in theregion are threatened.

“Iraq believes that the United States is undecided, confused and unable to be a reliable friend. That’s why it reluctantly relies on Iran,” despite “not wanting to be a stooge” to Tehran, said Taheri.

“Iraqis despise the Baathists. They have a bad memory of them,” he said, adding that the Shiite-dominated government, stuck between “a bad and worse choice,” has a deep-seated fear that a hard-line Sunni or anti-Shiite Syrian government may come to power.

“In 1802, Shiite shrines in [the holy Iraqi cities of] Najaf and Karbala were burned,” he said. “In Syria recently, jihadists attacked Shiite shrines, including that of Sayida Zeinab.”

Fighters from Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah said they entered Syria to defend the shrine and back Assad’s regime against the rebels, whom they accuse of being hard-line and anti-Shiite.

That has prompted Sunni fighters, including Iraqis, to join the Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups, accentuating the sectarian and regional element of a conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations.

This also prompted al-Qaeda in Iraq to unite with hard-line Syrian jihadist groups to form the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in April.

While Baghdad is siding with Damascus and its allies Iran and Hezbollah, “the Iraqi people aren’t with the Syrian government,” said Najem al-Qassab, a Baghdad-based political analyst.

“The Syrian regime is killing its people, and Iraqis had a similar experience with Saddam Hussein,” Qassab added.

Iraq is very concerned at the regional and national fallout of a Western strike against Syria, let alone regime change, said Hussein al-Adly, a Baghdad-based analyst.

“The main reason why Iraq is against military action on Syria is because it fears that the strike could develop into a full-fledged regional war, bringing dire consequences on Iraq,” Adly said.

“There are efforts by regional countries to... instigate instability” in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, due to their mixed demographics and Shiite prominence, he added.

While Iraq is “frail politically, socially as well as security-wise,” it cannot jeopardize its commercial trade with Syria, said Adly.

“Imported goods reach almost 70 percent in Iraq. They come mainly from the big three: Turkey, Syria and Iran,” he said. “If Syria goes into further turmoil, this could affect prices.”

Bilateral trade was $2 billion in 2010, according to official Iraqi and Syrian figures.In 2009, 31.4 percent of Syria’s exports went to Iraq, according to the Syrian Centre for Statistics.

The Iraqi government “is already facing problems, with people planning protests at the end of this month against soaring prices and corruption,” said Adly.

The Interior Ministry on Tuesday said it “welcomes peaceful protests,” but urged that they be “postponed,” citing the “difficult situation the country is experiencing, and the over-crowdedness in streets due to security measures.”

Rising violence in Iraq has killed more than 3,600 people since the beginning of 2013, according to figures compiled by Agence France-Presse.

“There will be protests in Iraq, and the government is scared. It’s damned if it confronts the protests, and damned if it doesn’t,” said Amman-based commentator Ahmed al-Abyadh.

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