Middle East consultants Mohammed and Omar al-Nidawi: A role for Iraq in the Syrian crisis

The outlook in Syria is becoming increasingly grim. Turkish, Saudi and Qatari intervention has transformed the conflict into a protracted civil war. The limited intervention by Western powers isn’t changing much on the ground, but neither would a quick collapse of Bashar Assad’s regime necessarily bring stability. For all we know, Assad’s fall could mark the beginning of a longer war, as we experienced in Iraq. There seem to be no good option for ending the conflict: the U.N. efforts are stymied by Russian and Chinese opposition, and Gulf states and Turkey are seen as biased and opportunistic. Perhaps the time has come to start thinking outside of the box.

What about Iraq? The challenge in Syria is a chance for Iraq and the United States to work together for a common goal and test Iraq’s viability as a partner in promoting stability and freedom in a region vital to U.S. interests.

Iraq is extremely interested in Syria’s future because the outcome there, be it good or bad, will have deep repercussions across Iraq. Many in Iraq fear that protracted fighting and/or a regime change in Syria would either lead to a destructive sectarian war between the two states or a renewed sectarian war within Iraq. 

It’s not difficult to imagine — Syria and Iraq are near mirror images of each other in terms of sectarian balance. This similarity, while it involves risks we must avoid, could also carry advantages that stakeholders can capitalize on to avoid a catastrophic outcome. Syria, struggling to overthrow a Ba’ath Party regime, could learn much from Iraq, which went through a similar process not long ago.

The international community should approach Baghdad — whose official position with regard to Syria has been neutrality — to give it a leading role in planning and executing outreach to the Syrians, both the opposition and the regime. The Syria peace initiative Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki unveiled at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran was a humble start in the right direction. For an Iraqi initiative to have a chance, it must gain support, first within Iraq and then from the international community. Iraq’s leaders, in the form of a joint delegation of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, should be tasked with engaging their Syrian counterparts to promote a peaceful end to the conflict and agree on a roadmap for transition. 

An Iraqi mission for Syria must overcome domestic challenges first. Al-Maliki must first demonstrate good will toward his Sunni and Kurdish partners and reconsider his autocratic policies. If he can prove that reconciliation in Iraq is making progress, Iraq will become a credible candidate for arbitrating Syria’s transition. 

Although the Syrian conflict is perceived in different ways by Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, all three are bound to recognize that there will be no clear winner in that war, which will instead become chronic and expand with time. This is an outcome that spells disaster for Syria’s neighbors, particularly Iraq. The potential for positive results from Iraq’s engagement arises from this risk. The reassurance and evenhandedness that an Iraqi tri-factional mission could bring to the table could be useful in negotiating a conclusion to hostilities.

In essence, the intervention by Iraq’s Shiite-majority government can serve as a reassurance to Syria’s Shiite-offshoot Alawite minority to reduce their sense of vulnerability and give them options other than to kill or be killed. Without some sort of reassurance, the Alawites will not view dropping their weapons or abandoning the Assad regime as an option.

Having Iraq fill the vacuum in Syria could even appease Russia, China and Iran and dilute their opposition to regime change. An outcome in Syria that is mediated by Iraq, with whom they have good relations, would be more likely to address their concerns than one mediated solely by Western powers. 

Change in Syria through the Turkish, Saudi or Qatari gates might not be the best option for the international community, Syria or even those regional players themselves. Saudi Arabia and Qatar care only about weakening Iran by taking down its ally — they do not have a real stake in what happens post-Assad. In Turkey’s case, they key objective is to avoid a situation that strengthens the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and Kurdish separatism as a whole. Iraq is different. The country has a genuine interest in a stable and positive outcome in Syria, because if Syria fails, Iraq’s worst days will surely follow. Al-Maliki has a chance to lead a mission with his Iraqi partners to spare Iraq and Syria further destruction, and also change the growing impression that he is becoming an autocrat. The guidance and encouragement of the United States and international community are necessary catalysts that should come without delay. 

Mohammed al-Nidawi is a senior Middle East consultant at Sanitas International, a strategic communications, public affairs, digital media and political advisory firm based in Washington, D.C. Omar al-Nidawi is a Washington, D.C.-based Middle East security and policy consultant. Both are natives of Baghdad, Iraq.