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Six reasons why Baghdad is backing al-Assad – Iraqi official | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat – The Syrian authorities are counting on their neighbouring countries to alleviate the burden of the economic and financial sanctions imposed upon it by the Arab League, Turkey, the European Union [EU], and the US. Iraq stands out as one of a handful of states that has objected to the imposition of sanctions on Damascus, abstaining from Arab League voting in this regard. Meanwhile, Amman has retracted its earlier reservations on sanctioning Syria after an Arab League committee was formed to study ways of ensuring that these sanctions do not have a knock-on effect on the Jordanian economy.

So why is Iraq adopting a position of not only seeking to alleviate the burden of the sanctions being imposed on Syria, but also offering support to the al-Assad regime, at the same time that the Arab world and the international community is working to isolate Damascus?

An Official Iraqi source informed Asharq al-Awsat that the theories that are currently abounding regarding why Baghdad has taken this position are “far removed from reality.” The Iraqi source claimed that such theories fail to paint an “honest” picture of Iraqi – Iranian relations, nor provide an objective explanation of Baghdad’s “motives” in this regard, since the Syrian crisis first begun approximately 9 months ago.

According to an Iraqi official, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, those who believe that the Iraqi government is acting out of a form of “sectarian solidarity” with the Syrian leadership are “far removed from reality” and fail to understand the Iraqi perspective on the Syrian crisis.

The Iraqi source suggested that Baghdad may be “returning the favour” to Damascus, particularly as late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad – father of current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – hosted numerous Iraqi leadership figures in Damascus during the Saddam Hussein era in Iraq, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and a number of other senior governmental figures. Al-Maliki, for example, lived in Damascus for approximately 15 years. The Iraqi sources claimed that Baghdad believes it is better to “monitor” the situation at this point in time, rather than take overt action against the al-Assad regime. This is despite the accusations that have been levelled at the Syrian regime in the post-Saddam era [by Baghdad], that Damascus is “exporting terrorism” into Iraq, or at the very least “turning a blind eye” to militants and terrorists entering Iraq via the Syrian border.

As for the second reason why Baghdad has taken this controversial position on Syria, the Iraqi official told Asharq Al-Awsat that this may have something to do with the approximately 300,000 Iraqis currently living in Syria. The source said that Baghdad fears that an anti-Syrian stance could reflect negatively on the Iraqis currently living in Syria, and on their status in the country. This might lead to a humanitarian, social, and political problem for Baghdad, which it facing the imminent complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq and the security challenges that this will no doubt ensue from this. The Iraqi official told Asharq Al-Awsat that Baghdad therefore wants to “safeguard itself against the evils of Damascus”, and ensure that the al-Assad regime has no motivation to attempt to exploit the probable security “vacuum” created by the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

The Iraqi official source also told Asharq Al-Awsat that Baghdad is also benefiting from strong commercial and economic trade with Syria. Thus, any sanctions adopted by Iraq against the Syrian regime would also impact upon the Iraqi economy and the daily life of Iraqi citizens, due to the strong bilateral relations between the two countries, not to mention Iraq’s need for commodities that pass through Syrian territories.

Available statistics indicate that commercial exchanges between Iraq and Syria last year totalled $2 billion, and that this figure could reach as high as $3 billion this year; most of this trade takes place from Syria into Iraq. The source stressed that Iraq committing to sanctioning Syria would therefore not only serve to provoke the al-Assad regime, but also economically affect the people of Iraq. The Syrian Statistics Bureau estimates that around 52 percent of Syria’s total exports are to the Arab world, with 31 percent of this to Iraq.

As for the fourth reason for Baghdad’s stance on Syria, the Iraqi official source, who spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, claimed that this is motivated by Baghdad’s perception regarding what it considers to be the “driving force” behind the current Arab initiative against Syria. The Iraqi sources said that due to Egypt’s absence from the Arab League decision-making process – on account of Egypt being preoccupied with its own internal affairs at this current time – Baghdad believes that the “mandate” has fallen into the hands of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which is directing affairs as it sees fit. According to the Iraqi source, despite the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime, which invaded Kuwait and violated the Saudi territories, Baghdad still senses a “hostile mood” against it on the part of the GCC member states. Baghdad believes this hostility is due to the “mistaken belief” that Iran is in pulling Iraq’s political strings.

Finally, the Iraqi source stressed that Baghdad has no desire to see a war break out along its extensive borders with Syria, whilst it also does not want to see Sunni militants come to power in Damascus. For the current Iraqi leadership, a development such as this would pose a threat to its security, serve as a source of future problems, and perhaps even threaten the Shiites’ new status in post-Saddam Iraq. The sources believe that a combination of all the aforementioned factors represents an “honest” reading of Iraq’s motives with regards to the Syrian crisis, instead of Baghdad’s position being viewed as the result of Iranian pressure to support Tehran’s staunch ally, the al-Assad regime.