BAGHDAD (Reuters) - With Syria in turmoil across the border, Iraq’s government is treading a fine line between condemning the crackdown by Damascus and supporting a neighbour whose future could shift the power balances in Iraq and beyond.
Where other Arab and Gulf nations have hit out at President Bashar al-Assad, even recalling envoys over the crisis, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has taken a more muted response, which reflects his juggling of regional realpolitik with pragmatic domestic demands, say diplomats and lawmakers.
Since the 2003 invasion which toppled Sunni Muslim autocrat Saddam Hussein, U.S.-sponsored elections have put Iraq’s Shi’ite majority in the ascendant, drawing its leadership closer to Shi’ite Iran as well as to Syria, Tehran’s main Arab ally in a regional power struggle with U.S.-backed Sunni-ruled states.
But Iraqi officials, striving to mark out an independent foreign policy as they negotiate a final withdrawal of U.S. forces, worry that unrest could splinter Syria along sectarian lines and, ultimately, create a hostile, hardline Sunni government in Damascus. Assad is from the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, but four in five Syrians is Sunni.
Any collapse of the Assad family’s four-decade rule could also unsettle Iraq’s own delicate sectarian balance. So doubts over if Assad can hold on, and over who might replace him, has kept Iraq’s parties — Sunni, Shi’ite and Kurdish — low key in their responses, unsure how the Syrian crisis will evolve.
“It’s very worrying for us. There doesn’t seem to be a conclusive end to what is happening,” said one Shi’ite lawmaker close to Maliki. “It is a dangerous situation, and could polarize Syria along sectarian lines.”
While not sharing democratic ideals that have driven much Western criticism of Assad’s crackdown, other Arab states have been more forceful than Iraq in condemning Syrian government actions. That partly reflects the regional power play.
Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, notably, has viewed popular protests in other Arab autocracies with concern, mindful of its own unsettled Shi’ite minority. So in criticising Assad’s hard line, it sees a weakened Syria as a diplomatic route to strike out at its Shi’ite rivals in Iran and Lebanon, analysts say.
Some Sunni leaders in the Middle East have talked since the fall of Saddam, a bitter foe of Tehran, of the emergence of a powerful “Shi’ite Crescent” running from Iran, through Iraq and Alawite-ruled Syria to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon.
Neither Iraq nor non-Arab Iran are likely to want to lose an ally in Damascus, let alone see a hardline Sunni takeover in Damascus. Tehran benefits from Iraq’s more cautious approach to Syria as Assad becomes increasingly isolated internationally.
“Although Iraq’s leadership is not united on its Syria policy or its pro-Iranian outlook, Prime Minister Maliki has fallen into line with Iran’s desire to help bolster the Assad regime,” Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Oklahoma University.
Iraqi officials dismiss an idea their Syrian policy is set on sectarian lines or by pressure from Iran. But they do acknowledge Syria is becoming a difficult balancing act.
“It’s complicated. What they say is that they would prefer to keep Bashar if he would carry out reforms but they can’t say that openly,” said one Western diplomat in Baghdad. “It’s a problem because Iraq is caught between Iran and Syria.”
Relations between Baghdad and Damascus have long been complex and religion is only a part of the jigsaw.
Assad’s and Saddam’s Baath parties had common, secular roots. But Assad’s father favoured Iran when it fought Iraq in the 1980s. Iraqi Baathists — and hundreds of thousands of Sunni refugees — later found a haven in Syria after Saddam fell, as did other Sunni Arabs who passed through to attack U.S. forces.
But Maliki has forged a pragmatic new relationship with Assad, winning Syrian backing for the coalition government he formed after an indecisive election last year, said Iraqi analyst Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie. Two weeks ago, he hosted ministers
from Damascus and called Iraq and Syria “brother countries.”
“He made the relationship work. Syria was one of the countries to support Maliki to head the government,” Sumaidaie said. “I don’t think Maliki will forget this favour easily.”
He recently ordered the shutdown a U.N. camp set up for refugees from Syria, a government source said, after reports of Syrian Sunni militants possibly taking refuge there.
And when Syrian tanks moved into the border town of Albu Kamal, drawing offers of support for Assad’s opponents from Sunni neighbors inside Iraq, Maliki pointedly warned protesters to avoid violence, while also urging Assad to make reforms.
“We call for guarantees for citizens to demand their rights, and it is the duty of governments to respond with needed reforms,” he said. “But we don’t support the idea of armed action or sabotage and bringing down regimes in this way.”
Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Alastair Macdonald