Both Iraq and Syria are of great political and economic importance in drawing policies and devising power equations in the Middle East. Their bilateral relationship has special importance which as they affect each other’s policies. This relationship is also important to Iraq because Syrian policies affect its economic circumstances. The two rivers that irrigate Iraq — the Tigris and Euphrates — pass through Syria. The geographical and social closeness of the two countries give the relationship a new dimension. On the other hand, both countries are diverse in their ethnic, sectarian, and religious realms, hence the similarities in their internal crises and problems.
These similarities, instead of drawing both countries closer, have resulted in conflicting policies as though the historical and blood-drenched differences between the Amawids and Abbasids are still alive in the eyes of decision-makers at the presidential palaces in Baghdad and Damascus.
In the past few decades, the differences between Baghdad and Damascus have arisen from issues that relate to political leadership, one that attracts public opinion and strengthens its position as an Arab and regional leader.
Iraq’s stand on the Syrian uprising raises concerns regarding the future of bilateral relations. The outstanding feature of this stand is vagueness and instability. Spectators have seen contradictions between the stand of the Iraqi foreign ministry and that of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki. There is also an acute difference in the stands of Baghdad and Arbil.
During the 22nd Foreign Ministers conference in Doha in July, Iraq expressed its reservations regarding the Arab League’s call to the Security Council to intervene in Syria according to the UN Charter’s Chapter Seven. However, Iraq stood with the international community at the UN General Assembly on August 3, when it denounced the Syrian regime and called for the transfer of power.
Following that, Iraq attended the 9th Tehran meeting for Syria’s friends, which even Lebanon, a country very close to Syria, refused to attend. Iraq’s decision not to allow Syrian refugees into the country was surprising. It was followed by the government’s acceptance to receive the same refugees after it was pressurised by the Iraqi people and the international community. Moreover, the statements made by key Iraqi officials were also contradictory as Iraq does not have a unified opinion or policy regarding the Arab Spring.
At the official level, Al Maliki was never sympathetic to the Arab Spring because he felt that his government was threatened in the light of the fragile political situation in Iraq. Al Maliki had also expressed on several occasions his reservations regarding the developments in a number of Arab capitals; he alluded to this in his speech about Syria, without naming it, on August 12.
Al Maliki said Iraq was part of an inflamed area, and that the fires are either set by ignorant individuals or foreign interests. The fear expressed by Al Maliki of the ‘fires in Syria’ is justified as sparks may easily reach Iraq and beyond. However, Al Maliki’s reading of the situation in Syria is not objective. All indications show that the Syrian regime is about to collapse and adopting a hesitant stand is not in the interest of Iraq because it will mean additional regional and international isolation.
A stand supporting the Syrian people is an important issue for Iraq and it provides an excellent occasion for Iraq to announce its return as a pivotal Arab state in the Middle East with an independent free stand, free from external political influence.
It is in Iraq’s interest to have good relations with the new government that will emerge in Syria once Bashar Al Assad is toppled.
The fighting in Syria will not just affect the country’s future, but the repercussions are bound to impact future Iraqi-Syrian relations.
Iraq has had its share of misery as a result of the porous Syrian borders crossed by terrorists to carry out their lethal operations in Iraq. Therefore, it is not in its interest of Iraq to have a repeat of the situation.
On the other hand, Iraq’s stand on the Syrian crisis raises questions regarding its national security policy.
National security can be achieved by objectively foreseeing the future of the region and accordingly devising appropriate policies to generate good neighbourly relations instead of creating enemies of governments next door.
Dr Mohammad Akef Jamal is an Iraqi writer based in Dubai.