The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
What a Car Bomb in Iraq Means for the Civil War in Syria

A car bomb ripped through a procession of Shia pilgrims today in Musayyib, Iraq, almost 40 miles south of Baghdad, killing 27 people. The bombers were most likely Sunnis trying to reignite Iraq’s civil war.

As the Shia regime of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki grows increasingly authoritarian and sectarian violence gets worse and worse, the fear grows that Iraq is heading back into civil war. Parts of the country have been virtually under siege over the past few weeks, with 60,000 protesters turning out in Fallujah last Friday, blocking highways and chanting the familiar slogan of the Arab Spring—”the people want to bring down the regime!”—and the more direct “Maliki you coward, don’t take your advice from Iran!”

Iraq’s volatile mixture of Sunnis and Shia is once again boiling over, and the civil war next door in Syria is not making matters any easier. Iraqi fighters are operating in Syria on both sides of the war. The U.S. recently determined that the Nusra Front, which claims credit for several spectacular attacks on Syrian regime targets and is one of the strongest rebel groups, is virtually identical in personnel and ideology to al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Iraq’s and Syria’s troubles are closely related—a fact the mainstream media often forgets, choosing instead to stubbornly define the Syrian war as a fight for democracy against a dictatorship and the violence in Iraq as a contained sectarian conflict. This shortsightedness fails to recognize that across the Middle East Sunnis and Shia are engaged in a struggle for political power and religious legitimacy. Sunni rebel groups backed by Sunnis in the Gulf are fighting a Shia regime in Damascus backed by a Shia theocracy in Iran. The same is happening in Iraq, where a Shia authoritarian regime backed by Iran is fighting Sunni groups backed by the Gulf Arabs. Other actors, like the U.S., Turkey, and the Kurds, make this a truly volatile international conflict. And it is Iraq where all of this is going to erupt next, writes Henri Barkey here at the AI:

Today Iraq is held together by a shoestring. . . . The Saudis have not given him [Maliki] 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?

This is the broad outline of what we see as a Sunni-Shia war for the Arab world, and its two most volatile fronts, Iraq and Syria. If Assad falls, this conflict won’t be over. Expect Iraqi Sunnis to receive even more backing from their co-religionists.

Published on January 4, 2013 5:30 pm