Thursday, January 3, 2013

Endgame in Syria increases pressure on Al Maliki in Iraq

The recent protests against Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, by Iraqi Sunnis in Anbar province, is worrisome in light of the conflict in Syria. The impending overthrow of Bashar Al Assad by Syria's Sunnis risks reinvigorating their brethren in Iraq, who have been displeased with what they view as Mr Maliki's sectarian Shiite agenda.

Sunnis began demonstrating in Anbar last week, following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to a Sunni politician from the province, the finance minister, Rafeh Al Issawi. In remarks to the protesters, Mr Al Issawi said "injustice, marginalisation, discrimination and double standards, as well as the politicisation of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, the law and the constitution ... have all turned our [Sunni] neighbourhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks".

The protesters have used the language of the Arab uprisings. That is why the revolt in Syria represents a challenge to sectarian relations in Iraq. Once President Al Assad goes, so too does Iran's headlock on the Levant. Iraq's Sunnis, especially the tribes straddling the border between Iraq and Syria, will have an incentive to follow the path of their Syrian co-religionists and demand greater equality from the Shia-dominated central government in Baghdad.

This, combined with greater Kurdish demands for autonomy, could pose a serious challenge to the Iraqi Shia, who would be wary of seeing Gulf states, above all Saudi Arabia, assisting Iraq's Sunnis, as they have Sunnis in Syria. In the worst-case scenario, we would witness a return to the sectarian clashes of a few years ago, even though most Iraqis have no desire to go back to those dark days.

Events in Syria could lead to a profound realignment of power in Iraq, unless Mr Al Maliki plays his cards right and absorbs Sunni discontent through a more inclusive Iraqi political structure. Until now, however, the prime minister has done little to ameliorate sectarian or ethnic relations, while Iranian influence has sparked much uneasiness among the country's Sunnis, as well as among Iraq's Arab neighbours.

A breakdown of communal relations in Iraq would also test the United States. President Barack Obama has stayed clear of the political situation in the country, and has no desire to expend any more American power there. And yet Iraq, like Syria, could become another front against Iran. Washington ignores events there at its own peril. Sectarian animosity could invite outside intervention, making continued US regional disengagement impossible.

At the same time, the Obama administration appears to have little latitude to persuade Mr Al Maliki to be more accommodating of his political foes. Even the recent stroke suffered by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani provoked little public reaction in Washington, though Mr Talibani often acted as a valuable mediator between Mr Al Maliki and those opposed to him, especially the Kurds.

In the absence of such mediation, the Sunni-Shia relationship may further deteriorate, affecting all of the countries with a stake in Iraq. Iran has long seen the close linkage between what goes on in Syria and events in Iraq. That is why it has been so active, with its Lebanese Hizbollah allies, in bolstering Mr Al Assad. For officials in Tehran, Mr Al Assad's defeat could undermine Iranian dominance of Iraq.

Like Syria, Iraq will face before long the need to reach a new compact to govern sectarian ties. Civil peace depends on it. It is the nature of the Iraqi political condition, as it is of the Syrian and Lebanese conditions, to incarnate what goes on in the region, making Sunni and Shia coexistence a necessity.

The problem is that such an accommodation is a priority for no one.

Iran is badly placed to mediate between the communities. In fact, the fear is that Tehran, once it loses a valuable partner in Damascus, may opt to reinforce Shia power in Iraq, which can only exacerbate communal relations. Similarly, the Sunni Arab states are more preoccupied with neutralising Iran than they are with working out compromises between Sunnis and Shia.

As for the United States, it has adopted a hands-off approach to developments in Iraq and Syria. We should expect little different from Mr Obama down the road. He has spent 21 months not taking a decisive position on Syria, despite the carnage there. This behaviour is unlikely to change in the one place the president has always made it a point of honour to disregard, namely Iraq.

And yet the situation in Syria now more than ever requires a regional approach to conflict resolution. The problem is that because no one seems capable of imposing an integrated regional approach, sectarian relations are bound to get worse before they get better.

In that case, each Arab country will have to find a solution of its own to prevent the sectarian rift from widening. This may not be as absurd as it sounds. Iraqis, like the people of Syria and Lebanon, realise what a Sunni-Shia war implies, and no one wants to go down that path if it can be averted.

But without a regional contribution, the chances of success are limited. Unless Iran and Saudi Arabia talk, perhaps with some kind of US sanction, local actors will not be able to take far-reaching measures for communal reconciliation. And yet no one benefits from sectarian animosity. A Sunni victory in Syria will mean little if Alawites fight a new power structure in Damascus, just as the Shia cannot run Iraq in the face of Sunni rejection of Baghdad's authority.

Stability in the Middle East will come only when the two Muslim communities find a way to live with one another. Until then, the embers of sectarian tension will remain with us, ready to ignite the region at the first fear of an existential threat.

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