Thursday, March 29, 2012

Iraq torn over Syria as it assumes Arab League leadership

It's ironic that a main concern at the Arab League summit this week in Baghdad will be to ensure that the conflict in Syria does not turn that country into a new Iraq.

"Iraqisation", like "Lebanonisation" three decades ago, has become a byword for the breakdown of the state through sectarian and ethnic antagonism. And yet after the American invasion in 2003, the Iraqis repeatedly confounded those who had predicted the worst. While Iraq entered into a prolonged and bloody period of civil conflict, it avoided descending into a full-blown civil war, where violence becomes systemic and mobilises large swathes of society.

How disquieting, then, that sectarian relations have soured in recent months. Things began seriously deteriorating when Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki sought the arrest last December of the most senior Iraqi Sunni politician, Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi, accusing him of running death squads. Mr Al Hashemi, who sought refuge in Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, denied the charge, and recently accused Iraqi security forces of having killed one of his bodyguards under torture.

In fact, the divisions go deeper. Mr Al Maliki first angered the main rival bloc, Al Iraqiyya, of which Mr Al Hashemi is a member, when he refused to implement a power-sharing deal after the 2010 elections. While Al Iraqiyya is led by a Shiite, Ayad Allawi, it is perceived by Mr Al Maliki and other Shia leaders as a repository for Sunni political aspirations and sympathy for the era of Saddam Hussein.

Nor has the prime minister successfully handled other pressing issues. Relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region remain poor, and have not been helped by Mr Al Hashemi seeking refuge in Irbil. And while there has been some improvement in Iraq's rapport with its Sunni-dominated neighbourhood, above all with Saudi Arabia, there is persistent mistrust in the Arab world for a regime that is regarded as favouring the Shia community against Sunnis, and that is seen as under the control of Iran.

The Baghdad summit will be tricky for Mr Al Maliki. All of Iraq's contradictions risk being aggravated by how Arabs address the Syrian crisis. Initially, Baghdad was reluctant to support the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad, but recently it has moved with the Arab consensus. Mr Al Maliki, whose government will hold the Arab League's rotating presidency after the summit, will soon be in the front row. He will have to reconcile the discordant views of Arab regimes over practical ways to dislodge Mr Al Assad, while avoiding alienating Iran, which backs the Syrian repression.

To be fair to Mr Al Maliki, he is someone who knows Syria from both ends, so to speak. He sought refuge in Damascus as an Iraqi exile during late 1970s and again during the 1990s. But he was also prime minister in August 2009, when he blamed Syria for a series of attacks against Iraqi ministries. Nor can Mr Al Maliki be readily labelled an Iranian stooge. He has little margin to oppose Tehran, but has also frequently manoeuvred at the expense of Iran's allies.

Many Iraqi Shiites worry that if Mr Al Assad falls, Iraqi Sunnis will feel empowered by what they will interpret as a victory for their brethren next door. This could destabilise Iraq, and surround the country with Sunni states - Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and potentially a Syria that could opt to overhaul its ties with an Iranian ally. That explains why the Iraqi prime minister, and also Iraq's Kurds, were reluctant to endorse the Syrian revolt for much of the past year. For separate reasons, both preferred the status quo.

That attitude is no longer possible. Arab states may differ over what to do next in Syria, but there was broad approval to suspend Syria's membership in the Arab League, and there is an acceptance that Mr Al Assad must go. The question is how. From an Iraqi perspective, the proposal of Kofi Annan, the Arab League-United Nations envoy to Syria, buys wiggle room. Mr Annan has proposed, among other things, negotiations between Mr Al Assad and the Syrian opposition. This has undermined an Arab League plan demanding that the Syrian president step down and cede power to his first vice president.

For countries such as Russia, China, Iran and even the United States, the Annan plan represents an alternative to civil war. Mr Al Maliki probably agrees, and will support anything that calms the conflict in Syria. The problem is that a majority in the Syrian opposition reject dialogue with a man they consider a mass murderer. Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have emerged as Mr Al Assad's most ardent foes, also appear to feel that a dialogue will strengthen Syria's president. There have been reports that they are arming and financing the opposition.

Not all Arab states are happy with such an initiative. Mr Al Maliki may try to exploit Arab ambiguities. If Syria descends into civil war, he doesn't want Iraq drawn in, or used as a conduit for weapons. The prime minister will have to juggle a hot diplomatic potato, satisfying the Saudis and Qataris, who don't trust him, while simultaneously building up a common Arab position on Syria that shields Iraq from a prospective Syrian implosion.

When Baghdad asked to host the Arab summit, it imagined the gathering would affirm Iraq's return to normality. The coming months promise something very different for Mr Al Maliki. The prime minister will have to deploy all his diplomatic skills to ensure that Iraq doesn't get sucked under by Syria's sectarian animosities. Not easy for a man who has hardened sectarian animosities at home.

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