Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s visit to the United States is quite a reversal from just a few years ago. In 2011, Maliki and his cohorts could not wait for the Americans and other allies to leave his shattered country in order for Iraqis to fix the post-Saddam state themselves. In fact, the Iraqi leader openly opposed keeping even a limited number of U.S. soldiers in Iraq after 2011, insisting the country could take care of itself.
Violence in Iraq during October 2013 surged to the highest level since 2008, with 964 Iraqis killed, and some fear the country is slipping back into civil war. Over 7,000 Iraqis have died since the beginning of 2013. To drive the point home, Maliki, in an opinion piece in The New York Times, blamed al-Qaeda and its affiliates, and portrayed the attackers as common enemies of the United States and Iraq. The tone of the piece, combined with the meeting with U.S. President Barak Obama, may signal American sales and support for counterterrorism equipment and training.
Already, there are some 200 American “non-military” advisors on the ground in Iraq, in addition to U.S. contractors helping to build-up Iraq’s ability to monitor and track “individuals of interest.” Finally, since July 25, 2013, the Pentagon notified Congress of more than $4 billion worth of Foreign Military Sales to Iraq that include infantry carriers and ground-to-air rockets along with equipping, logistics, and maintenance deals for external and internal defense. These weapons of course are not geared towards pure counterterrorism missions so more aid to the beleaguered state may be necessary.
The longer Syria crumbles, the more vulnerable Iraq becomesDr. Theodore Karasik
Currently, the Iraqi president sees his country under increasing threats from Syria’s Salafist- Jihadists as well as from Iran’s al-Quds. Make no mistake; analysts who see the Iraqi government as a puppet of Tehran are perhaps making a simplistic assessment as Baghdad is increasingly stuck in the middle of two opposing poles of the sectarianism spreading across the core of the Middle East in the Levant. The situation in Iraq is deeply affected by the violence and score-settling in Syria itself. The longer Syria crumbles, the more vulnerable Iraq becomes. Thus, the two states are interlinked and locked together.
Another factor is the changes in the Turkish-Iranian relationship. What is worrying Baghdad may be the possible reconciliation between Turkey and Iran that further complicates the present troubles for Baghdad and ultimately threatens Iraq’s unique religious, ethnic, and regional mosaic. Just last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif held talks with Turkish President Abdullah Gül in Istanbul and met Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, stating that sectarian unrest posed in Syria is an even greater risk than the use of chemical weapons. Although referring to Syria, the point of the message was clear from Zarif: “I believe sectarian conflict is even a greater threat, and it is not confined to one region. If the flames of sectarianism rage in the Middle East, you will see the results in the streets of London, New York, Rome and Madrid.” Iranian grandstanding aside, the comment is equally applicable to Iraq, the principal point of impact of the Syrian multi-level, dimensional civil war.
Clearly, Iraq continues to fracture and the implications for the region may be just as serious as the destruction and mayhem found in Syria. Indeed the “Syrian Effect” is spreading, forcing Baghdad to seek assistance and mediators in order to stop the spread of violence before it is too late to prevent Iraq’s slide into wanton violence. Will Iraq end up like its neighbor to its west without some type of soft intervention? Or will non-state actors - both violent sides of the sectarian divide - tear apart the very fabric of the country?
There are several factors hindering Iraqi unity, now more than ever. The first is the transnational smuggling via tribal networks between the two countries because of the chaos in Syria. The traditional tribal routes are becoming more robust because of the ungovernable nature of the Syrian state. Consequently, it is now even easier for fighters and equipment to move freely and unimpeded. The Syrian tribes involved appear to be the Anza, the al-Bakara, the al-Jabbour, the al-Obeid, and the al-Ouqeidat. These tribes are affiliated to larger tribal confederations or groups notably in Iraq, specifically the Shammar and the I’nniza. The traffic guarantees a “trans-regional” super highway that runs unimpeded, allowing not only fighters from Hezbollah to use transit corridors but also Salafists entering from Turkey.
Overall, this development is allowing the trans-regional Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and other smaller groups, to control Syrian towns near the Iraqi border for Salafist-Jihadist factions who cross the Iraq-Syria border at will to launch attacks in Iraq proper. Hence the growing death toll and attacks on numerous soft and hard targets with sophisticated and coordinated bombings.
A second, more nefarious, factor is the activity of Iran’s al-Quds in Iraq. Primarily, al-Quds is helping pro-Assad forces in Syria through the trans-regional networks described above. One al-Quds avenue of support is through Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Iraqi Hezbollah for strategic and tactical gains. But al-Quds is more than likely to be using these groups to fight against the Salafist-Jihadists leaking into Iraqi territory, notably not only in al-Anbar but also in the areas controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Importantly, al-Quds is using front companies in Iraq to organize, train, and equip their supporters including shipping and construction companies, material production companies, agricultural cooperatives, banks for money laundering, Shiite foundations and cultural centers, and also travel companies. Significantly, this Iranian-backed activity is helping to establish Iraq as a battleground, thus helping to force al-Maliki to turn to the United States.
A sign of the times
Clearly, al-Maliki’s visit to Washington, D.C. is a sign that his administration and ability to rule is in deep trouble.
The implications of an Iraqi disintegration, based on the actions of tribal networks and al-Quds activity due to the Syrian morass, portend major security problems. First, Iraq is already becoming a battlefield between Sunnis and Shiites, in addition to Kurds. Although these divisions are not new, they are taking on increasingly dangerous trajectories that influence perceptions in other surrounding states not seen since the heyday of sectarian strife during America’s occupation of Iraq. Given the current and future security environment, increasing involvement similar to that in Syria may be in the cards.
Second, from the GCC point of view, Iraq is becoming a front line state for proxy, non-state forces from many countries across the region. In the past weeks, some GCC states, along with Egypt and Jordan, have been attempting to form a Sunni bloc to deal with the ongoing struggles in Syria. That same group, based on sectarian notions, will likely also need to focus on Iraq, complicating their mission. Although GCC investment in many regions of Iraq, notably in the KRG, are at all-time highs, a serious rethink on the safety and security of such projects may be warranted. Other countries from Europe and East Asia, specifically in the energy sector, may need to rethink their projects as well.
Finally, the rapprochement between the United States and Iran in the wake of the United National General Security Council meeting is playing a role too.
Instead of being an actually ally of Iran, perhaps Maliki sees Iraq as “surrounded” by Iranian interests - from East and West - and thinks perhaps that America can help negate Tehran’s activities in the Levant. But this idea is wishful thinking; from the Iranian point of view, the Islamic Republic is winning the war in the Levant, and against the West as well. This perception, prevalent in the Gulf, makes the region increasingly subject to significant potential policy reactions, by all regional and international players alike, to rapid-fire events. Iraq’s violent upward course is a concern for more than just Baghdad but also for all neighboring countries whose vested interests are increasingly becoming high risk. But, as with Syria, only when the death toll mounts beyond incalculable numbers, and refugees begin to flow again in waves, will leaders and governments heed Maliki’s calls for help. That is if he is still capable of holding Iraq together, or worse, still in power.
Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.