The American Interest
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Spinoff: The Syrian Crisis and the Future of Iraq
Published on December 26, 2012

There is an unremarked paradox in the tumult of the contemporary Middle East. Syria is an economically impoverished country of a little more than 20 million people that has been politically stagnant until 23 months ago. Egypt, by contrast, never socially at rest and with its ancient energies newly bestirred, is at 80.5 million people more than four times larger. Yet it is the carnage in Syria, not the continuing multiparty political tightrope act in Egypt, that is more likely to unleash a torrent of violence and instability throughout the Middle East. Before it has run its course it could undo multiple existing regimes and even alter the region’s post-World War I territorial boundaries. 

This is because as a consequence of the Syrian uprising the fate of Iraq now hangs in the balance and, with it, the fate of the Middle East. The overflow of Syria’s civil war into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and even Israel (via the Druze in the Golan Heights) has been often noted, but, surprisingly, the mainstream Western press seems to have forgotten that Syria also shares a border with Iraq. Iraq’s strategic location and its cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic fault lines make its implosion a great threat to the long-term stability and well-being of the region. The shock waves—unbridled sectarian and ethnic violence, possible interstate interventions and warfare, and much higher oil prices—could also jolt the international economy, sparing no one.

It is helpful to contrast the Syrian crisis with the 2011 Egyptian revolt and its aftermath. Only a few years ago, the suggestion that a Muslim Brotherhood government would one day replace the solidly pro-Western Mubarak regime in Egypt, through elections no less, would have sent shivers through most regional as well as Western capitals. Egypt’s military-backed regime collapsed without grave effects or a dramatic shift in the regional balance of power, at least not yet. Iran, which had assumed that Mubarak’s demise would herald a new anti-Israeli and anti-Western power center in Cairo, has been sorely disappointed. Egypt’s new President, Mohammed Morsi, has demonstrated that he can be an adept realpolitiker in regional politics, particularly during the December 2012 edition of the Gaza crisis.

Only a few years ago, too, the notion that the Syrian police state would be brought to its knees by a profoundly under-armed and disorganized opposition movement would have been dismissed as fantasy. But it is happening now before our very eyes, and the consequences of the Assad regime’s downfall are unlikely to be to be as tame as those that have emanated so far from Egypt. Three reasons help explain the differences.

First we must consider blood and time. The Egyptian transformation, unlike the uprising in Syria, has been relatively bloodless. Fewer than 1,000 people died in Egypt; the count in Syria is at least 40,000 and mounting. Mubarak’s fall was also swift: Protests began on January 15, 2011, and he was gone by February 11. Assad’s regime has weathered more than 20 months of first civil unrest and then very violent civil war. All indications are that the Ba’athi regime in Damascus will continue fighting for as long as it can. One ought not be too surprised if a year from now it is still clinging to power, albeit it perhaps in a rump state distant from Damascus. However, the length and extent of the bloodletting will permanently stain Syria’s body politic. The longer the insurrection takes to resolve one way or another, the worse will be society’s future divisions.

Second, the Egyptian state did not collapse with Mubarak’s demise. As cranky, inefficient and inept as the Egyptian state and bureaucracy may have been in the past, they remain a principal source of stability and employment. These institutions were for the most part untouched by the events of 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood, as a result, has inherited the structures of a state that has remained largely intact—though it is not yet clear how loyal those structures may be to a new leadership that differs in kind from that under which those structures took shape. By contrast, the highly sectarian Syrian state is unlikely to survive the civil war. This is partly because the Alawi core and its co-opted Sunni partners will no longer be physically secure in what has been, compared to Egypt, a personalized and under-institutionalized arrangement. But it is also because of the sheer physical destruction the country is experiencing. Assad’s policy of leveling towns that have fallen into rebel hands destroys not only physical infrastructure but also the tools and institutions of state power, from police stations to municipal offices and all kinds of bureaucratic records. Worse is that there still is a great deal more violence and destruction yet to come. If the fighting culminates in an onslaught on Damascus, then the remnants of the Syrian state are bound to suffer from terrible physical and psychological violence. There will be no state left to inherit.

Third, Egypt, in contrast to Syria, is fairly homogenous. It has a substantial Coptic minority that has been rendered powerless after years of discrimination, but the Copts have no political ambitions, kindred regional connections or territorial claims. They constitute a strictly Egyptian phenomenon that exhibits none of the cross-boundary characteristics of many minority groups in the region. Syria, however, lies on two important sectarian and ethnic fault lines. The ruling Alawis, whose religion is a heterodox offshoot of an already heterodox Shi’a Islam, enjoy support from Shi’a-dominated Iran and the Lebanese Shi’a paramilitary group, Hizballah. In the region’s burgeoning Sunni-Shi’a conflict, which pits Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries against Iran, Syria is a significant prize. Its importance has been even more enhanced since the ascent of Shi’a power in Baghdad. We should remember that in the 1980s Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Gulf countries financed and supported Saddam Hussein’s war on the Iranian revolution. Those sectarian animosities continue to haunt the region.

Syria is also on the cusp of Arab-Kurdish, Persian-Kurdish and Turkish-Kurdish divisions. Emboldened by the current civil war, Syrian Kurds have been swept by a nationalist euphoria. They had been brutalized by Damascus; many were also denied citizenship and with it access to schools, hospitals and other government services.  Untrusting, too, of the rebel Free Syrian Army and the political groupings that constitute the political opposition, they have remained on the sidelines looking to consolidate their power. The Syrian Kurdish strategy for the time being seems to count on the civil war weakening both the opposition and the central government, leaving them in a better bargaining position when the carnage comes to an end.

The developments in Syria’s Kurdish region are alarming for both Turkey and Iran. Were Syrian Kurds to win significant autonomy in a post-Assad Syria, akin to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (the KRG), then two of the region’s Kurdish territories will have achieved a modicum of self-governance and no doubt will coordinate to some extent. The demonstration effect on Turkey and Iran would be hard to contain. Turkish Kurds are already demanding the devolution of central government powers to all of Turkey’s regions. Long-dormant Iranian Kurdish formations are also showing signs of waking from their slumber. The emergence of a Syrian Kurdish enclave is also putting pressure on Massoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, who has developed a careful and harmonious relationship with Ankara.

The waves created by sectarian and ethnic discord in Syria, however, will be most harmful to Iraq. Syria’s intrinsic power, role and influence in the region are vastly overestimated. The belief that Syria is the “heart of the Arab world” reflects the dramatic magical thinking that permeates the region. Hafez al-Assad, the current President’s father, played on this to successfully marshal Syria’s meager resources into what appeared to be a winning diplomatic strategy. He understood that Syria’s importance was directly tied to Israel, so he crafted a spoiler’s foreign policy in part by nurturing both Hizballah and Hamas (although Israeli missteps had much to do with the emergence of both) and employed them to fashion a “rejectionist bloc” that included Iran. This more than anything else made Father Assad and Syria actors of consequence on the international stage. In turn, this bought him time and peace at home not just to consolidate his and his family’s rule but to also bat away criticisms of mismanagement and the lack of economic progress. In one sense at least, little has changed: The current President’s defensive narrative on the Syrian civil war emphasizes only one issue: Syria’s critical role in the rejectionist front against Israel, whose supporters are claimed to be the real source of opposition to the government.

Damascus was once the seat of Islam’s first great empire, the Umayyad Dynasty. Under the Ottoman Empire and since, independent Syria has stagnated. With its poorly managed economy perpetually in shambles, Syria has been barely getting by. Its agriculture remained underdeveloped despite the country’s relatively abundant hydrological riches. Syria’s centuries-old sophisticated Sunni trading class plies its wares mostly outside of its homeland. The authoritarian Syrian state has stifled its agricultural and industrial/trading sectors alike with an omnivorous and burgeoning class of crony businessmen.

For these reasons as well as those of geography, Syria pales in comparison to Iraq when it comes to regional political significance. Iraq, a nation of nearly 33 million, is first and foremost a major oil producer. Its relevance as a producer will only grow with time because so many new fields and hydrocarbon sources are in the process of being discovered and brought online. Global oil demand, especially because of the growth in emerging economies such as China, India, Turkey and Brazil, will continue to increase while new oil becomes more expensive and more difficult to find. Iraqi ambitions, even if exaggerated at times, are likely to make that country a pivotal state in the global and regional oil equation. Already Iraqi oil production has overtaken that of neighboring Iran.

Both Syria and Iraq are situated on the Sunni-Shi’a fault line. As contentious the current sectarian-driven conflict may be in Syria, the Shi’a offshoot there, the ruling Alawis, constitute a small minority, maybe 12 percent of the total population. The Alawis owe their privileged position to Hafez al-Assad, who as an Alawi general went about systematically embedding fellow Alawis in senior positions throughout the security bureaucracy. The security agencies also became a source of jobs and upward mobility for poor Alawis, as well as allied minorities like Druze and some Christians. The state assumed a sectarian character. The Syrian uprising, if successful, will result in the Sunnis toppling the Alawi-dominated state.

In Iraq the situation is different. The Shi’a majority (some 55 percent) has finally assumed power thanks in large measure to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. It has been difficult for Iraqi Sunnis to accept the rise to power of the Shi’a majority after having enjoyed unrivaled power throughout Ottoman rule and since Iraqi independence. Many Sunnis in the region, not just in Iraq, perceive themselves in a Manichaean struggle with the Shi’a and their powerful patron in Tehran. For these Sunnis, the probable collapse of Shi’a offshoot Alawi rule in Damascus is a potential sign that the pendulum is swinging back in their favor. Change in Syria, given the porous borders between the two countries, especially in the Sunni-controlled provinces of Anbar and Nineveh, is likely to give further impetus for Sunnis to resist the Nuri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. It is for this reason that the Iraqi Prime Minister has supported Assad’s beleaguered regime. His policy is likely to earn even more enmity from Sunnis who see him acting on sectarian impulses. After all, Iraqi Shi’a had been the victims of Assad’s policy of facilitating the flow of foreign jihadis into Iraq during the American occupation, for the sole purpose of killing Shi’a.

Today Iraq is held together by a shoestring. Violence is on the upsurge, and Maliki is increasingly demonstrating his authoritarian tendencies as he pushes forward with an agenda that has not won him any friends in the region. The Saudis have not given him much quarter and would like to see him go. He has made an enemy of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as each accuses the other of putting sectarian interests ahead of regional interests and stability. Turks provided refuge to the Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who escaped following his indictment on charges of helping Sunni death squads to operate in Baghdad. This increasing regional rift may be music to the ears of many Iraqi Sunnis, who have been heard saying, in effect, “the Ottomans are back in Istanbul, the Umayyad are about to re-conquer Damascus, and next Sunni Abbasid power will return to Baghdad.”

A Sunni victory in Damascus will necessarily mean a shift in the regional sectarian balance of power. Sunnis in Iraq have also revived the idea of seeking autonomous arrangements like the KRG, something they had violently supressed earlier. What is at stake is the 1916 Sykes-Picot Anglo-French-drawn regional boundaries. Having “lost” Syria, Iran’s natural reaction will be to double down in Iraq, where it already has a great deal of influence. It will want Iraq to provide strategic depth. It is even conceivable that Tehran will create a Shi‘a analogue of the Brezhnev Doctrine—once a government is Shi‘a, it stays Shi‘a, even if we have to send expeditionary forces to keep it that way. Will the neighbors stand idly by if this were to occur?

Iranian behavior even well short of a military intervention can mightily complicate matters in Baghdad as Maliki tries to navigate treacherous waters: He will not want to appear to be in Tehran’s pocket while trying to extend a branch to Sunnis, something that will be extremely difficult in any case. Iraq will therefore become the new front line in the Sunni-Shi’a war, and one naturally expects the Saudis and other Gulf countries to pour resources into this conflict even beyond those they are already putting forth.

The intensification of the Sunni-Shi‘a conflict in Iraq also has repercussions for the KRG. Buoyed by increased oil earnings, the KRG has done well but has found itself increasingly at odds with the central government in Iraq. The exploration and sale of oil and gas, as well as the federal competencies and disputed territories, mainly those claimed by the KRG, are among the issues that divide the governments in Erbil and Baghdad. The Iraqi government has threatened international companies doing business in the petroleum sector in KRG territory without its permission. Still, several big international oil companies, including ExxonMobil, Chevron and Total, have decided to risk Baghdad’s wrath as they elected to expand their investments in the KRG, sometimes by abandoning or selling their assets in southern Iraq.

The KRG has also pursued a policy of rapprochement with Ankara despite the latter’s deepening problems with its own Kurdish minority. Ankara, long opposed to Kurdish ambitions in northern Iraq, has made its peace with the KRG, hoping that under the careful leadership of Barzani Iraqi Kurds will cooperate with Turkish efforts to contain both the Turkish Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK, headquartered in the mountains of northern Iraq, and Turkish Kurds’ increasingly bolder demands. Turkish companies have found a welcome haven in the KRG; from banks to consumer durable makers to construction firms, hundreds if not thousands of Turkish companies are now doing business with Iraqi Kurds. Turkey, with its expanding need for energy, is also eyeing the KRG’s carbon resources for both its own needs and for shipment into Europe. In the struggle between Erbil and Baghdad, Ankara is increasingly siding with the Kurds. Strengthening the KRG is a way for Ankara to weaken Maliki.

Although the KRG has no intention at the present time of initiating a process that would lead to de jure independence and hence the formal territorial breakup of Iraq, it will not shy away from declaring independence were Iraq to fall victim to centrifugal forces emanating from the Sunni-Shi‘a conflict. Reluctant to antagonize its Turkish ally, KRG leader Barzani has been careful not push the independence issue. Tensions with Baghdad are mounting beyond the oil and gas issue. KRG claims to Kirkuk and other parts of northern Iraq not formally under its federal sovereignty lurk behind all questions; these were supposed to have been resolved through a referendum that kept being postponed. In November 2012, a skirmish between KRG military forces and the Iraqi police risked flaring into a major confrontation until cooler heads on both sides prevailed. Complicating matters further for Iraq is the precarious health of its President, former Kurdish leader, Jalal Talabani, who has not only managed to get Maliki and the Kurdish leadership to compromise but has also worked hard to contain sectarian tensions.

The Kurds of the region are not united, and therein lays the greatest challenge for Barzani. The Syrian uprising has brought that country’s Kurds to the forefront. Biding their time, they have so far remained largely on the sidelines of the Syrian civil war, mistrustful of both sides. Syrian Kurds are themselves divided by geography and political allegiances. The largest and most powerful organization is the PYD, the Democratic Union Party, which is affiliated with the PKK. Barzani has tried to bring the PYD and its much weaker opponents, the KNC, Kurdish National Council, together on a number of occasions, but with limited if any success. The PYD’s brand of Kurdish nationalism is at odds with that of Barzani’s: The Syrian group, while not participating in any violence against Turkey, nevertheless has declared its allegiance to the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In effect, there is a clash between two forms of nationalisms. One is pan-Kurdish, leftist and militant, the other is prudent, centrist and privileges the interests of the KRG above all else. The PYD’s resistance to Barzani is curious considering the Iraqi Kurdish leader’s political and economic assets: He is, after all, in control of a territory that is welcomed in many capitals, including Washington, and possesses significant oil-derived resources. The pragmatic thing for Syrian Kurds in the aftermath of the Syrian uprising would be to gravitate toward the KRG in search of resources and protection. But the slow but forceful gathering momentum of the Turkish Kurdish nationalist movement and its transformation into a autonomy-seeking one is casting a long shadow. The Turks had hoped that both Barzani and Talabani, would exert a calming influence on Turkish Kurds; both leaders have indeed counseled Turkish Kurds to settle with Erdogan on account that he is the most likely and capable Turkish Prime Minister. So far, feeling the winds of change at their backs, the PKK and its supporters in Turkey have appeared most reluctant to take this advice. This reluctance and Erdogan’s mismanagement of the situation have led to increased tensions and hostilities. All this puts Barzani and the KRG in an impossible situation, and were the Syrian uprising to end with an all-out Arab-Kurdish clash in that country, the region could be faced with a new ethnic conflagration, and its first casualty would be the tenuous stability of Iraq.

Perhaps few countries today are as susceptible as Iraq to the meddling of outside powers. The Iraqi government has to fend off the encroachment of states that fear the implications for their own domestic politics of developments in Iraq. Outside meddling is not always motivated by expansionary or grandiose goals but sometimes by defensive ones. Saudi Arabia, most of the Gulf countries and Jordan fear the consequences of Shi’a power; Iranians, Turks and Syrian have eyed Iraqi Kurds with a great deal of consternation because of the demonstration effects of their successes. That said, the complexity of Iraqi domestic politics also means that different internal groups seek the patronage and meddling of the outside powers. Turcoman groups have closely aligned themselves with Turkey and have occasionally entangled Turkish authorities in their dangerous plans.

Even the United States, by virtue of its long occupation of Iraq, has a stake in that country that exceeds its traditional regional interests, whether in balance of power or stability. The descent of Iraq into civil war and chaos would be particularly damaging to Washington’s self-image, domestic politics and, of course, its international standing, precisely because it has invested so much blood and treasure there.

Following the most recent Iraqi parliamentary elections, the United States, Turkey and the Iranians were heavily involved in influencing the composition of the governing coalition. The unavoidable proliferation of outside actors in Iraq does not bode well for the future of Iraqi cohesion.  It may be that Iraq is destined to break up, but, if this is the case, the significance of the Syrian crisis is that it can certainly hasten the process.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.