Monday, September 10, 2012

The Syrian uprising and its implications for Iraq

F-16 fighter jet
 al-Hayat August 26th headlines scream: "The Iranian Revolutionary Guard confirms 'its responsibility' to protect the al-Asad Regime."  How is this statement linked to US policy in Iraq and what dangers does it suggest for the future?

Many Western policy-makers continue to argue that democracy promotion in the Middle East is a luxury that neither the West nor the region can afford.  The US is now seeing the folly of its decision following Iraq's March 2010 parliament elections in not supporting a democratic outcome.

The victor in the election was Iyad Allawi and his al-'Iraqiya Coalition which won 91 seats, the most of any Iraqi political party.  In supporting Nuri al-Maliki,who came in second with 89 seats, the US is now seeing the chickens come home to roost, especially in terms of the ongoing conflict in Syria.
The Maliki government continues to maintain close ties with the Islamic Republic.  This is totally reasonable given that Iraq and Iran are neighbors.  However, the crisis in Syria has cast a new light on this relationship, one that could create serious domestic problems for Iraq and increase sectarian tensions in the Arab Mashriq.  It also threatens to further weaken US influence in Iraq.

The Iranian regime is loathe to lose its main Arab supporter in Syria and its ability to supply its surrogate forces in Lebanon, particularly Hizballah.  Iraq is now central to the ability of the Iranian regime's ability to continue its military and material support of Bashar al-Asad's increasingly tenuous hold on power.  The introduction of Revolutionary Guard forces to prevent the toppling of the Ba'thist regime would dramatically raise the stakes  in the crisis.  In this equation, Iraq assumes a particularly strategic position.

No one argues that, had it taken office, the al-Iraqiya Coalition would have provided Iraq with excellence  governance.  Nevertheless, by supporting al-Iraqiya, the US would not only have underscored the message of the Iraqi electorate that democracy had prevailed in the elections but would have brought to power a less sectarian coalition, certainly one less prone to accommodate Iranian regional interests.

Had the US supported Iyad Allawi's legitimate claim to be considered the first political leader to be called upon to form a new Iraqi government in the spring of 2010, Maliki  probably would not be in control of the Iraqi state today.  Apart from his neo-authoritarian tendencies which I documented in several postings on The New Middle East, Maliki is pursuing a dangerous balancing act pitting Iran against the United States.  Maliki has refused to follow the Arab League's lead in condemning the Asad regime's brutal policies of bombing its own citizenry (a striking parallel with Saddam Husayn's regime in Halabja in March, 1988, and during the March 1991 Intifada).

Already the US had accused the Maliki government of helping Iran circumvent the international sanctions which have been imposed on it due to its refusal to allow international monitoring of its atomic energy program which most analysts actually believe is desgined to develop nuclear weapons.  Iraq has denied the charges (see al-Hayat, Aug. 21).

Complicating matters still further is the imbroglio which has recently developed over arms sales to Iraq, a problem compounded by the Maliki government's close ties with Iran.  The US is now requiring assurnaces from Iraq that F-16 fighter planes provided to Iraq only be allowed to fly a limited number of hours each month.  It also wants assurances that none of these weapons will be used against Iraqi citizens (read the Kurds) or used in any regional conflict (read Syria).

The Security and Defense Committee in the Iraqi Council of Deputies is angry over the constraints which the US has imposed on the use of new weapons systems. Of particular concern is the condition that F-16 fighters not be flown more than 15 hours per month (see al-Hayat, Aug 26), and that they not be used in any combat with Israel.  The limits on flying time will make it difficult to properly train Iraqi pilots. The Committee is also angry that the delivery of the first aircraft which was scheduled for March 2013 has now been postponed by a year and a half until September 2014.

In this process, the US seems to have alienated the entire spectrum of Iraq's Arab political elite.  Salah al-Mutlak, the hard core Sunni Arab Vice-President, has accused the US of not being sensitive to Iraq's security needs (al-Hayat, Sept. 3).  The deputy head of the Security and Defense Committee Iskander Watout, accused the US of breaking the terms of the original agreement regarding Iraq's use of American weapons systems (al-Hayat, Aug 26)  Likewise, committee member, Qasim al-'Araji, said the US' main concern in placing these constraints was is to protect Israel rather than meet Iraq's security needs.

The US is now in the awkward position of having to alter the original security arrangements which were made before the withdrawal of American troops.  The current situation appears to many Iraqis as a form of American "bullying," rather than trying to assist Iraq meet its legitimate security concerns, especially during a time of increased instability in neighboring Syria.  Rather than coming across as the friend it says it wants to be, the US has contributed towards increasing its negative image in Iraq.

Although democracy is, as Winston Churchill famously pointed out, "the worst form of government except all others that have been tried," it is the only course which the countries of the region can pursue and hope to promote tolerance and political pluralism, as well address the problems of corruption, nepotism and lack of economic development.  The US should have learned the lessons of the Arab Spring by now.  The peoples of the region, especially youth, are demanding change.  Continuing the same old American policy of supporting the authoritarian leader of the month - even if that brings temporary stability - is no longer an option in the Middle East.