The Iraq crisis, a "Syrian-style" scenario

Mehdi Rais translated by Aurélie Avice
10 Juin 2013

The Intifada, the uprising of the Sunni Muslim populations in Iraq, represents a new challenge for the Shiite-majority Iraqi government led by Nouri El Maliki.

photo credits AFP
photo credits AFP
The uprisings of the Arab spring eventually hit and weakened the new Iraqi regime which seems unable to properly address the scale of this crisis. Even more challenging is the Iraqi government's reluctance to give in to the Sunni demonstrators who have felt marginalized since the fall of the former Iraqi Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime.
This crisis has increased hostilities and has also fuelled the rise of violence. Indeed, numerous clashes have erupted between the army -supported by Shiite militias- and organized armed Sunni militants within a few days. The clashes resulted in dozens of deaths and injuries, mostly members of the Shiite group Sahwa, close to the Iraqi regime and financed by Iran.
The head of the Iraqi government has focused on the condemnation of this confessional conflict and has not hesitated to establish a link between the Syrian crisis and the situation in Iraq. He also pointed out the strategic manipulation of demonstrations by underlining the fact that those demonstrations "begun in Syria", "were no coincidence ", and were caused by external forces looking out for their own interests.

A new arena for confrontation between Iran and the Gulf States

It is not surprising to find that the Syrian conflict remains amply fuelled by the indirect confrontation between Iran and the Gulf States, namely Saudi Arabia. Such a conflict appears to be steadily establishing itself in neighboring Iraq. The Sunni Gulf States perceive this situation as an opportunity to break the Iranian hold on Iraq as well as the Shiite influence, and to increase at the same time the influence of the Sunnite regimes in the region.
To that end, Saudi Arabia has never hidden its intention to support Sunnite troops in their fight against Shiite expansionism in the country. This has been confirmed by the Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs, who clearly stated that “Riyadh would not hesitate to provide financial support to its Sunnite neighbors in order to deal with the Shiite majority supported by Iran”. Other Gulf States, namely Qatar, also endorse this approach. Qatar stepped up its activities in Iraq, mainly after the clash between the Qatari and the Iraqi authorities regarding the attitude that should be adopted towards the Assad regime in Syria. The Qatari authorities even accused the Iraqi authorities of letting hundreds of terrorists enter Al Anbar and Niniveh through Kurdistan  .
Iraq was well aware of the situation and could not remain indifferent. The Iranian authorities stated on numerous occasions that the Gulf States were not ceasing to plot against the Iraqi regime; therefore, it had to act to protect itself.  To that end, the Iranian authorities have adopted a strategy similar to the one currently ongoing in Syria which consists in providing financial and military support to the Iraqi troops. Moreover, Iran does not hesitate to involve Iraq in the Syrian crisis  in order to fight the Sunni groups armed by the Gulf States.

Iraq’s future at risk

Confrontation between the Gulf States and Iran is profoundly affecting Iraq, which is currently under threat from destabilization caused by antagonism between Sunni and Shiite ethnic groups. This conflict takes Iraq back to the 2006 and 2008 ethnic and religious divisions. The risk that the situation could worsen because of the involvement of Iraq in Syria is even greater. Nonetheless, Iraq has increasingly become the target of Syrian rebels who tend to think that Iraqi interests are a potential threat for their fight. The most radical anti-Assad groups would be more likely to attack Iraq  ”. The return of Kurdish fighters to the North of Iraq could contribute to the outbreak of the conflict. Therefore, the threat of a dismemberment of the country should not be ignored.
Iraq is obviously facing a significant dilemma, the consequences of which are of most importance for the future of the country. Iraq cannot choose an ally without making an enemy on the other side. In other words, Iraq is nothing else but another victim of the conflict between the Sunni and the Shiite communities, in a region with an uncertain future.