US Foreign Policy
Commentary

The New Iraq and its Neighbors

in Program

The transition to a sovereign Iraq is a mixed blessing for the immediate neighbors.  While each bordering state may have worried about the potential spillover of violence in Iraq, the end of most aspects of occupation also contains dangers for them.  Is a weak government in Iraq, with inadequate capacity to maintain security, an improvement over the tensions relating to occupation and resistance to American power and presence?

So far, the neighbors are taking the high ground.  At the Istanbul summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in early June, Iraq’s neighbors plus Egypt met on the sidelines and expressed support for the government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.  Iraq had earlier been welcomed back into the Arab League, and the formal normalization of relations in the region is well underway.  Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshayr Zebari is already active in the area, meeting his counterparts and representing Iraq in his no-nonsense, direct manner.

Each of the neighbors has to manage short term concerns and plan for strategic engagement with a new Iraq, whose institutions and political culture are not yet defined.  They all maintain good relations with current interim government officials or former Iraqi Governing Council members. It remains unclear whether these ties will develop into patron-client relationships, but Iraq’s neighbors have clearly understood that cultivating influence inside and outside government structures is so far their best strategy to shape the outcome they deem desirable.

For the moment, the Iraqi government provides some minimum reassurance to each neighbor.  For the Saudis, Syrians and Jordanians, President Yawar is a familiar face, and his Shammar tribe is well represented in those states.  The Prime Minister, a secular Shia, is well known in Jordan where he resided while heading an Iraqi opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord.  Allawi is minimally acceptable to both the Saudis and Iranians; the Saudis would have feared a more militant Shia and Iran can be relieved that there was no last minute power grab by establishment Sunnis and former Ba’athis.

All of the neighbors worry about the new government failing to establish law and order, and about a collapse of central authority that would stimulate the Kurds, the Shia or both to set up their own systems and undermine the viability of the Iraqi state.  But there is little they can do about it.  For now, most Iraqis are clear that any help to build up Iraqi military and police forces should come from non-contiguous states.  Jordan alone is playing an active role training Iraqi police and military, on Jordanian soil.  The Moroccans, Tunisians and Egyptians may come in as part of a UN presence, if the UN requests it.  President Yawar, on June 30, stated that he would not welcome troops of any neighboring countries to help with security.

The neighbors fear Kurdish ambitions and Shia empowerment. Turkey’s government is putting on a brave face, and there is some economic interaction between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds, but Turkey also opposes a form of federalism that would give the Kurds too much autonomy for Turkey’s comfort.  Similarly, Syria and Iran have deep worries about Iraqi Kurds getting too good a deal in Iraq, and the status of Kurds in the northern neighbors could be a new source of regional instability.

For Saudi Arabia Shia domination of Iraq, particularly if religious activists emerge as Shia leaders, could have serious domestic repercussions, emboldening the Kingdom’s Shia minority and preventing real trust from developing between Riyadh and Baghdad.  Given the Kingdom’s current preoccupation with Sunni radicalism, new Sunni-Shia tensions in the country would be a serious stress to the system.

For Syria, Iraq also presents some significant challenges.  Syria is probably hoping that some familiar former Ba’athis emerge as players in the new Iraq, but the comfort of knowing some politicians may not compensate for the strategic costs to Syria that the fall of Saddam represents.  Syria now finds itself facing US troops on its borders, deep mistrust in Washington of Syria’s recent behavior and security agenda, spillover from Iraq in the form of Kurdish restiveness and some signs of Sunni extremism rearing its head in Damascus.  Syria may need to choose between trying to convince the West that its behavior is benign and seeking to exploit the uncertainty to reassert its profile as a regional maverick.

Over the longer term, the neighbors want a stable Iraq that stays within its borders and does not assert itself at their expense, whether in the form of regional hegemonic behavior or causing other political imbalances in the Arab region by its positions on core issues.  It may be that the neighbors want a Goldilocks solution: an Iraq that is not too strong, not too weak.  One that has not failed, but has not succeeded brilliantly either.  While this formula could satisfy Washington to some extent—a unified and not aggressive Iraq is quite an achievement given the current situation—it nevertheless falls short of Washington’s ideal outcome, a democratic Iraq that could serve as a model of political and economic development.  The neighbors’ behavior in the future could conflict with US objectives and hopes. Should Iraq slide down on the path of instability, Iran, Syria, and Turkey could activate their networks of clients and decide that subversion or intervention rather than subtle involvement will best protect their interests. 

A strong and successful Iraq could well decide to punish the Arab system for its long complacency about Saddam Hussein.  One can imagine the process of truth and reconciliation in Iraq leading to strong expressions of bitterness and betrayal towards fellow Arabs.  Iraq has options: it can develop strong ties to India, even to Iran.  It can align itself with emerging middle powers in other continents, such as Indonesia, Nigeria, and Brazil.

An Iraq that fails to develop competent governance, where a thousand voices speak and no decisions can be taken, will be bad for the neighborhood.  It will permit neighbors with agendas to prey on Iraq’s weakness, and will set back prospects for democracy in the Arab world by showing the downside of too much representativeness.

For the United States, the neither success nor failure outcome would leave the region in a kind of limbo.  It may help sustain the inertia that is all too common in the region, leaving incumbents able to justify keeping things the way they are, and preventing reformers from having the Arab world model they so badly need.

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