Ten years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein, the United States has little leverage with Iraqi leaders who are allowing Iran to resupply embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Tehran’s support for Damascus topped the agenda of Secretary of State John Kerry’s surprise visit to Baghdad over the weekend. He was hoping to stop what U.S. officials say are near-daily flights of weapons and fighters to Syria.
“We had a very spirited discussion on the subject of the over-flights,” Kerry told reporters squeezed into the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Baghdad following talks with Prime Minister Maliki.
“I made it very clear that for those of us who are engaged in an effort to see President Assad step down and to see a democratic process take hold with a transitional government, according to the Geneva Communique, for those of us engaged in that effort, anything that supports President Assad is problematic,” Kerry said. “And I made it very clear to the prime minister that the over-flights from Iran are in fact helping to sustain President Assad and his regime.”
Iraq’s role no surprise
Prime Minister Maliki’s role in that Iran assistance flights is no surprise to Johns Hopkins University professor Ruth Wedgwood.
“Maliki, I think, has always been under the sway of the Mullahs in Iran,” she says. “He has made no secret of that. And he has more or less gotten away with it.”
Especially with the departure of U.S. troops from Iraq.
“I think when we withdrew so completely, albeit leaving behind this carapace of an empty embassy behind, it really was taken by Maliki as a kind of “do as you wish signal,” Wedgwood says.
And it’s not only assistance flights to Syria that Iraq is allowing.
“They (the Iraqis) have been providing other kinds of support to the Assad regime and have turned something of a blind eye as Iraqi Shia — who are moving into Syria to support the regime — are crossing the Iraqi-Syrian border,” says U.S. Institute of Peace analyst Steve Heydemann. “On the other hand, Iraqi Sunni — many of whom are linked by tribal connections to counterparts across the Syrian border in the eastern part of Syria — are also becoming increasingly engaged in the conflict.”
Syria crisis threatens region
That makes Syria’s crisis especially dangerous for the region.
“It is beginning to spill over into neighboring countries,” Heydemann says, “and it is sharpening sectarian divisions within those neighboring countries in ways that could have very, very troubling consequences for stability in those countries. And I think Iraq is one of the countries most at risk of instability as a result of the Syrian conflict.”
U.S. officials traveling with Secretary Kerry say there are connections between some of the extremist groups in Syria and militants inside Iraq. And that security threat is part of their strategy for persuading Prime Minister Maliki to give up on President Assad.
“We want to be able to demonstrate that he has other friends in the region, and he doesn’t have to rely only on Iran for support,” a senior State Department official says of Maliki.
The spillover of Syrian fighting into Iraq puts the prime minister “on a dangerous track to think in terms of only working with Iran,” the U.S. official says. “His future requires integration — or reintegration — into the Gulf, into the rest of the Arab world.”
So the Obama administration is hoping to capitalize on Prime Minister Maliki’s interest in joining talks on Syria’s future as a way of getting him to stop, or at least inspect, Iranian flights.
“It wouldn’t be appropriate, make any sense, for Iraqi to participate [in talks on Syria] so long as it is facilitating Iran over-flights of fighters and weapons that support Assad,” says a senior U.S. official. “The key here is to discuss the political future of Syria, that Iraq should be part of that, but it should be on the basis that Assad has to go, not on the basis of permitting continued Iranian support for Assad.”
Iraq says flights are humanitarian
Iraqi officials insist Iranian flights to Syria are humanitarian, as proven by the two planes they have stopped in the last six months.
U.S. officials say Kerry’s goal in Iraq “is not to get into a tit-for-tat about how we know this or how we know that, but to explain that the number of the flights is, in itself, an indication that these can’t possibly be only humanitarian flights and that he, himself, as secretary of state, is convinced that they include weapons and fighters and that this is absolutely contrary to the international goals with Syria and is dangerous for Iraq.”
Kerry’s failure to persuade Prime Minister Maliki to do anything about Iranian flights was evident in both the secretary “taking some homework back to Washington with me” and in his remarks about growing unease in Washington over Baghdad’s role in Syria.
“We agreed to try to provide more information with respect to this, but I also made clear to him that there are members of Congress and people in America who are increasingly watching what Iraq is doing and wondering how it is that a partner in the efforts for democracy and a partner for whom Americans feel they have tried so hard to be helpful — how that country can be in fact doing something that makes it more difficult to achieve our common goals, the goal expressed by the prime minister with respect to Syria and President Assad.”