For over two and a half years, the Syrian conflict has served as the bloody fulcrum to events in the Middle East.  This conflict began as as a struggle between an autocratic government and democratically-minded protesters, but has since devolved into a gruesome civil war in which President Bashar al-Assad and his ruling Alawite sect battle Sunni militias to the death. This conflict has not only been fueled by internecine Islamic fervor – Iraq, Syria’s neighbor, has quietly but consistently supported Assad’s efforts to crush the opposition and regain political and military primacy.  Though Iraq is formally neutral in the conflict, President Nouri al-Maliki sees the survival of Assad’s regime as a fundamental strategic interest.

Image courtesy of Alliance/dpa ©2013, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Alliance/dpa ©2013, some rights reserved.

The Syrian conflict had humble beginnings: on March 15, 2011, a gaggle of Syrians frustrated with their country’s government marched the streets of Damascus in protest of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime. The sociopolitical turmoil in surrounding Middle Eastern countries – the Arab Spring – had bolstered hopes that Syrians, too, could effect peaceful political reform.

Like in most autocratic regimes, these dissenters were met with an overwhelming military response by the government, removing the possibility for peaceful change. That heavy-handed response sparked outrage across the country, catalyzing a revolutionary movement a la Egypt. Unlike other episodes in the Arab Spring, the Syrian military remained staunchly loyal to Assad and unleashed – in the words of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – a campaign of “brutal repression.”

One year after the initial protests, the death toll had reached 8,000, the majority being rebel casualties. By March 2013, the figure had increased more than tenfold, with current estimates placing the number of casualties at 100-115 thousand – rebels, government soldiers, and civilians alike.

The extent of the carnage is due to the fact that what began as a protest over unrepresentative and intolerance government has evolved into an implacable civil war, the main stage for a centuries-old Sunni-Shiite Islamic conflict. Syria is a Sunni-majority country – about 70% of its Muslims subscribe to Sunni Islam, while Assad and most of the Syrian government apparatus are Alawites, a small offshoot of Shiite Islam which consist of only 12 percent of the Syrian population. The Syrian conflict has proceeded as such largely because of anger over the underrepresentation of and discrimination against Sunnis by the Alawite minority; essentially, the Syrian conflict has become a fierce Shiite-Sunni proxy war.

Assad and his government are supported by pro-Shiite groups from Shiite majority Iran and Hezbollah, a Shiite terrorist organization based in Lebanon. The rebels are supported by pro-Sunni regimes, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Prominent global leaders have called for the Assad’s removal and voiced their support for the Syrian National Coalition (and it’s military wing, the Free Syrian Army), a seemingly-moderate Sunni rebel group. In December 2012, President Barack Obama recognized the National Coalition as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime. Ostensibly, the FSA’s only objective is to unseat Assad – its ranks are composed of Shiites, Alawites, and Sunnis, many of which are Syrian military defectors.  Sunnis, however, form a definitive majority, and though the FSA claims to be nonpartisan it has viciously targeted Shiite and Alawite government soldiers.  In July 2012, the FSA captured government troops on the way to Latakia, an Alawite-majority town, and summarily executed the five Alawites among them. A member of the FSA who had taken part in the kidnapping tersely stated that “Sunni captives were kept. Alawites were executed.” In fact, some of these more radical divisions of the FSA have moved on to the al-Nusra front, a branch of al-Qaeda which seeks to establish a Syrian state under strict sharia law and whose influence is now extending into Iraq.

Shiite-majority Iraq occupies a special place in the context of the Syrian conflict.  It suffered under Saddam Hussein’s oppressive minority Sunni Ba’ath party government, and many Iraqis sought refuge in Syria. The 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Saddam’s regime, and after seven years of occupation, Iraq held a democratic parliamentary election in March of 2010. Though the results were only belatedly ratified, they were nonetheless viewed as legitimate, and ushered in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki wasted no time in cracking down on revanchist Sunni extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and routinely arresting and executing suspected terrorists – almost exclusively Sunni Iraqis. In response, Sunni groups that had previously attacked U.S. troops turned their violent attentions to Shiite groups, setting off car bombs in crowded civilian centers or Shiite-majority towns in the north. The frequency and degree of the violence is increasing exponentially as the social and political fabric of the country unravels, bringing Iraq ever closer to full-fledged sectarian civil war.

The Syrian conflict is, increasingly, a cautionary tale for Al-Maliki, confirming his worst fears of Sunni intentions. Al-Maliki sees Assad’s Shiite government imperiled by an unrelenting Sunni insurgency, one that is providing material and spiritual sustenance to those Iraqi Sunnis keen to restore their former privileged status. For Al-Maliki, Assad remains a pro-Shiite bulwark preventing an all-out Sunni assault on his government.  In Iraqi Shiite eyes, therefore, the survival of the Assad regime is inextricably linked to the survival of Shiite rule in Iraq. Any Sunni success in deposing Assad would undermine Al Maliki’s legitimacy and control.

Therefore, Al-Maliki has taken certain steps to ensure the maintenance of Assad’s rule. Iranian airplanes carrying weaponry to Syria are allowed over Iraqi airspace – Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari claims that Iraq simply does not have the means to stop the transfers, and he insisted that most of the planes were merely carrying food or other forms of non-military aid.  As a sop to demands by the international community that Iraq do more to restrict these flights, the Iraqi regime has occasionally requested these flights to land and be inspected, though it is likely that the Iraqi government tips off Teheran in advance to ensure that those planes contain only non-lethal cargo.  It is well known that Iraqi Shiite militias have crossed the border to fight alongside Assad’s forces, and while al-Maliki’s professed stance is that sending militias is not part of ‘government policy’ it is clear that the Iraqi government tacitly supports this flow of fighters to “defend the Shiite holy sites” in Syria.

The Iraqi government is therefore not happy with the status quo, as the seemingly interminable Syrian conflict has greatly destabilized the country, both by energizing the ISI and other radical Sunni affiliates and bringing an influx of thousands of Syrian refugees into Iraq. However, the Iraqi government sees the status quo as less unfavorable to Iraq than a Sunni-led regime in Damascus.

Iraq therefore prefers the current stalemate to any clear outcome antagonistic to Shiite religious, and Iraqi geopolitical, interests.  Unfortunately for Al Maliki, the most likely outcomes from the Syrian conflict do not favor Iraqi interests.  For Iraq, the optimal outcome from the Syrian conflict would be a weak, Shiite-controlled Syria, free from Assad’s radical tendencies and regional meddling.  This seems increasingly unlikely. The rise of the ISIL, the inveterate al-Nusra front, and other al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria presages the possible resurgence of a Sunni caliphate there. This would not only herald the massacre or exile of non-Sunni minorities, but would also exacerbate Iraq’s refugee problem and establish an implacable fundamentalist foe on Iraq’s western border. Sunni resistance in Iraq would have Syria as an ally and, newly strengthened, could tip Iraq into full-scale civil war.

Another possibility would be a splintering of radical groups such as ISIL and al-Nusra in Syria that would allow the Western-backed National Coalition to gain legitimacy and establish themselves. This would nonetheless be a boon to opposition Sunni groups in Iraq, and continue to feed the vicious sectarian conflict there.  

A third possible resolution of the Syrian civil war could be the continuation of the Assad regime.  This would keep the Syrian government in Alawite hands and allow it to continue its campaign against the ISI and other Iraqi Sunni opposition groups.  While this is far from an optimal outcome in Iraqi eyes, it beats having Syria fall into the Sunni orbit and consolidating the feared “Sunni crescent” opposed to Shiite rule in Iraq.

The Syrian civil war has replaced the ongoing Iraqi sectarian conflict in the headlines and in the briefing papers of policymakers.  However, we must not forget that the fates of Syria and Iraq are inextricably linked and are part of the larger Sunni-Shiite conflict engulfing the Arab world. While the Syrian crisis has seen over a hundred thousand deaths and millions displaced, in October 2013 alone, almost 1000 Iraqis were killed, largely casualties of terrorist attacks. An unresolved Syrian conflict feeds the killings and bombings in Iraq, but for Iraq better an unresolved conflict than one ending with Syria in the hands of yet more Sunni foes.

 Though Assad may have the resources to overpower the rebel opposition, it is unlikely that the international community will allow him to stay in power for long – multiple countries are providing the FSA with military aid, and a UN conference in Geneva is set to convene in late November to work out an answer to the Syrian question. Any possible course of action will assuredly exclude the continuation of the Assad regime. Hence Iraq has no choice but to aid in the perpetuation of the Syrian conflict, helping the Syrian government keep its tenuous hold on the nation. To that end, Iraq can be counted on ensuring that the Syrian conflict continues to be the preeminent battleground in the Arab world’s ongoing bloodletting.