Nothing about Iraq’s response to the US, UK and French airstrikes in Syria suggests that the government of Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi is about to find a clear and effective strategy in the war-torn neighbouring country.
Far from backing away from the embattled Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Iraq’s Shia-dominated government instead continued its rhetoric in support of his regime and slammed the Western bombardment as “foolish” and “very dangerous.”
Yet, Iraq’s sharply divided political factions seem to be failing to realise the dangers of the situation in Syria, which is increasingly raising the stakes for the region to the maximum and presenting Iraq with a daunting challenge.
The controversy over the latest confrontation in Syria underscores a far deeper dilemma about the seven-year catastrophe in Iraq’s western Arab neighbour and the regional and international struggle over its future.
Iraq’s geopolitical quandary over Syria goes back to the two countries’ independence following the First World War and efforts by different external actors to establish hegemony in the Middle East.
Successive Iraqi regimes sought to influence the Syrian state, while its Arab rivals and world powers have fought to frustrate these efforts in order to minimise or deny Iraq’s contemplated regional leverage.
Today’s politically inexperienced and sect-centred Iraqi elites, with their scarce governing and leadership experience, may fail to grasp the tough odds presented by the Syrian crisis even as it keeps haunting Iraqi politics.
The recent escalation will reinforce this basic dynamic in the Iraqi-Syrian relationship because of the geopolitics of post-conflict Syria that will reshape the entire Middle East landscape.
The United States, United Kingdom and France bombed three government sites in Syria on 14 April, targeting alleged chemical weapons facilities. The countries said the move was a response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma two weeks ago.
The Russian military, which controls Syria’s skies, said that altogether more than 100 cruise and air-to-ground missiles were launched by US, British and French aircraft and navy ships.
The Russian Defence Ministry said that Syria’s Soviet-made air-defence systems had shot down 12 cruise missiles aimed at one of the Syrian air bases.
In response, Iraq warned that the Western airstrikes on Syria were a “very dangerous” development that could fuel a jihadist resurgence in the region.
A statement by a Foreign Ministry spokesman said the strikes’ “consequences threaten the security and stability of the region.”
He said the raids were “a very dangerous development... that will provide an opportunity for the expansion of terrorism after it was destroyed in Iraq and largely pushed back in Syria.”
Earlier, Iraq’s foreign minister signalled his alarm about the consequences of the US hits against the Syrian regime, saying any missile attack against Damascus would be “foolish.”
“An airstrike on Syria would be horrendous and regrettable and a catastrophic defeat in the real sense of the word,” Ibrahim Al-Jaafari warned after a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Friday.
“It will put all world countries in jeopardy,” he said, adding that Iraq would not allow such a “foolish move.”
In their reactions to the attack, leaders of Iran-backed Shia militias warned that their forces were ready to fight American troops in Syria and threatened US troops in Iraq.
Meanwhile, Al-Abadi announced that his government would distance itself from the conflict in Syria and focus on policing the joint border to prevent Islamic State (IS) group forces from returning to Iraq.
In leading the neutrality brigade, Al-Abadi was trying to maintain a careful balance by upholding close ties with Washington without crossing Tehran’s red lines against toppling the Al-Assad regime or targeting its proxy forces in Syria.
The two immediate problems that bedevil Al-Abadi are his need for US support in next month’s crucial elections in Iraq in order to secure a second term and pressure from Iran and its proxies in Iraq.
These are the main reasons behind Al-Abadi’s juggling of Iraqi policy towards the stand-off in Syria.
But even with the immediate threat of confrontation out of the way, the war in Syria is not over, and the proximity of the conflict leaves plenty of room for worry for Iraq about its western neighbour’s future.
Iraq will continue to face daunting challenges in Syria, especially if Baghdad fails to formulate its strategic and political objectives in the country and with regard to the emerging Middle East conundrums that are reshaping the troubled region.
Iraq, which shares a 375 mile (600 km) border with Syria, has repeatedly cautioned that the crisis in Syria could spill over into other regional and neighbouring states if is not contained.
Its public arguments have been based on the premise that there is only a political solution to the crisis in Syria in order to end the conflict that could pitch it up against regional rivals.
Recently, Al-Abadi has been proclaiming that Iraq should distance itself from what is happening in Syria as a strategy for survival against all the odds in the troubled neighbouring country.
But with Syria’s seven-year crisis degenerating into a regional and international showdown that strategy of inaction is being questioned as dysfunctional and self-defeating.
Over the years of relentless turmoil and foreign interference, the hands of regional and world powers have been wedged firmly into Syria’s politics and could ultimately reshape the country’s future.
A map of Syria shows that forces from Iran, Russia, Turkey, the US-led international coalition and a galaxy of foreign militias are now in control of most of the country after seven years of fighting.
These foreign powers are cementing their influence in preparation for the outcome of the conflict and isolating Syria’s neighbours, such as Iraq, from finding solutions to Syria’s crisis.
The tension is building in Syria as the latest airstrikes have shown, with growing signs that key players are increasingly taking sides in the crisis and accelerating an already rapid scramble for influence and territory and threatening a new cold war in the region.
As the new confrontation has shown, a direct military collision between the multiple foreign armed forces on the ground could have invited local actors, such as the Lebanese group Hizbullah, the Iraqi Iranian-backed militias and the Turkish PKK Kurdish guerrillas, to join the fighting, risking devastating fallout for Iraq.
A troubled environment in Syria thanks to the presence of foreign troops and their competition over influence and territory could encourage IS militants to make a comeback and challenge the Iraqi security forces.
Iraq’s strategy of inaction in Syria and its rhetoric of calling for a “political solution” cannot play well for long, and therefore should not become an excuse for tolerating diplomatic dysfunction.
Of course, the ability to deal with the situation in Syria has been constrained by the weak Iraqi state, its lack of hard capabilities in the tumultuous region, and the divergent interests of its communities vis-à-vis Syria.
But a large part of the explanation behind Iraq’s inaction in Syria has been diplomatic and political and due to the failure of Iraq’s political class to take steps to influence the course of the conflict in the country.
One of the long-overdue steps that should be taken is the establishment of independent, neutral and pro-active Iraqi diplomacy and policy-making to deal with the Syrian crisis away from the foreign forces in Syria and if necessary to undermine their policies.
Unfortunately, Iraq’s policy towards Syria has long reflected something less than that, being an essential lack of vision and initiative that has been alternately fragmented, dependent on foreign powers, and impelled by top-down sectarianism.
*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly