Will Syria’s Conflict Spill Over into War-Weary Iraq?

As the violence in Syria spirals into an increasingly bloody maelstrom, Iraq's Foreign Minister voices his country's fears that the chaos is spilling across the border—and that Baghdad won't be able to contain it

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Karim Kadim / AP

Iraqi Foreign Affairs Minister Hoshyar Zebari speaks at a press conference in Baghdad, Iraq on July 5, 2012.

For months, Syrian opposition groups have smuggled weapons and fighters into the country across the borders of Turkey and Lebanon. Now another of Syria’s influential neighbors—Iraq—says its territory is being used as a base for al-Qaeda attacks against the regime of President Bashar Assad. Speaking to a handful of reporters in Paris on Thursday morning, Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said both U.S. and Iraq believe that Al Qaeda operatives are sneaking into Syria across Iraq’s western border, despite the fact that the U.S. military during the Iraq War turned that remote desert area into the country’s best-secured frontier. “It is very, very difficult to control 680 kilometers of borders,” Zebari said, claiming that Al Qaeda’s infiltration into Syria was now “a fact.” For jihadis, he said, “Syria is a good environment, because of the lack of security, the lack of control of the government.”

The possibility that al-Qaeda might be involved in the Syrian revolt is hardly surprising, since al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri last February called on supporters to go join the fight. But Zebari’s statement about Al Qaeda’s infiltration from Iraq was his second such warning in just six days. That is a measure, perhaps, of Iraq’s mounting anxiety that the Syrian turmoil might increasingly be playing out within its own war-weary country, which is still digging out from the eight-year Iraq War; the last U.S. combat soldiers left just seven months ago. If Zebari’s assessment is correct, it could greatly increase the chances of Iraq being dragged into Syria’s 17-month conflict, with the upheaval spreading far further across the region. Zebari said Iraqi officials had told U.N. envoy Kofi Annan in Baghdad earlier this week that they feared “the spillover from the Syrian crisis.”

(PHOTOS: Syria’s slow-motion civil war.)

Until now, Iraq has claimed to be neutral in the crisis—a stark contrast to its eastern neighbor Iran, which is one of Assad’s most crucial allies, and an ever-closer ally of the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Iraq’s southern neighbor Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is backing Syria’s revolution. Zebari said Iraq backed Annan’s plan for a transitional government in Syria, through dialogue between the opposition and the regime. Yet when TIME asked him whether Assad should leave, he said only, “It is up to the Syrian people to determine their future and to choose their leaders.”

But Iraq’s stated neutrality is eroding. Instead, the “spillover” from the Syrian crisis might already have begun, as the devastating violence next door deepens Iraq’s existing sectarian divisions, including those between Shiites and Sunnis. Earlier this week, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate claimed on its website that it was responsible for several bombings last month, which targeted largely Shiite sites, and in which hundreds were killed. “There are those who support the [Syrian] regime and those who don’t,” says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “There is a real scenario here whereby the two conflicts [in Syria and Iraq] will feed off each other,” he says. “The Syrian conflict will expose Iraq’s divisions more and more, the longer this goes on.” That scenario, says Shaikh, is already at work in Lebanon, where ethnic conflicts have revived by the chaos within Syrian.

Far from Iraq’s government being neutral over Syria, Shaikh believes Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under pressure from his Shiite allies in Iran to “assist Assad where he can.” Zebari, a Kurd serving in a heavily Shiite government, denied that Iran was calling the shots. “They have influence, there is no doubt about that,” he says. “But when it comes to matters of Iraqi national interest, we act independently.”

(MORE: How the Syrian uprising is destabilizing Lebanon.)

In a sign that Assad’s regime might finally be cracking, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf Fares, announced on Wednesday that he was defecting—the first high-level diplomat to ditch Assad—telling al-Jazeera that he was “siding with the revolution.” Fares’s move came just a week after one of Assad’s inner circle, Republican Guard general Manaf Tlas, defected, apparently to Paris. Zebari said on Thursday that he had not expected Fares, with whom he had met multiple times, to abandon Assad. “We were surprised by his defection because he was a loyal member of the regime,” he said.

Iraq has good reason to be nervous, too. If Assad’s regime collapses, it is likely to set off a drastic reordering of the region’s power. Those kinds of shifting alliances are hardly new in the region—as was clear even on Thursday in Paris, where Zebari had flown in to inaugurate Iraq’s new embassy. The elegant eight-story house sits on the city’s most expensive street, Avenue Foche, and had originally been purchased by Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, as an offshore base for Iraq’s large military procurements. It was refurbished at a cost of more than 80 million euros, according to a video presentation during the embassy reception.

For Iraqis, the prospect of further political turmoil is especially unsettling, having only just emerged from years of war. Earlier this week, Stratfor, the U.S. private intelligence company, wrote that the Syrian conflict could result in a new generation of “battle-hardened and ideologically driven militants…. It is easy to imagine a revived militant flow into Iraq, and this time under much looser control.” At the Paris reception on Thursday, Khaman Zrar Asaad, the representative in France for Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, said she was “very, very worried” about “post-Assad Syria,” and that the 30,000 Kurdish Syrians who had fled to northern Iraq during the crisis might not feel safe to return once Assad is gone. “There are no guarantees about what comes after Assad, whether it will be secular or Islamic,” she says. As Iraq weights up its prospects under either of those outcomes, it might feel its safest bet is—as Iran believes—the status quo in Damascus.

19 comments
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YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

As a Kurd you should know that Iran’s first job in Iraq is to annex Kurdistan and produce a direct land bridge to Syria and the Mediterranean. Al-Qaeda, ironically, serves the West interest by jeopardizing Shia dominance at this critical crossroad. I pity the Kurdish nation, land locked between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, apparently without a chance of ever gaining independence. But it is the opportunistic politics of leaders like Hoshyar Zebari, not geography, that really dooms their aspirations. If you dislike what al Qaeda is doing in Iraq, fight them, don’t cry. And if you suspect the Iranians, stop bowing to their demands. And don’t expect the Western powers to clean Iraq for you. Your land, your job. We know, it’s tough to stand alone against the tide of radical Islam, the imperialistic drives of the larger Middle East powers, the isolation in the General Assembly of the UN, and the ire of every opinioned clueless Euro pundit. We’re fed this diet since we first demanded an independent state in our historical homeland. At least, your people number 5 times more than us and 80% of them live within historic Kurdistan. So don’t cry for Assad, fat baby, better help you Kurdish brothers and sisters in Syria and in Iran join forces in revival of Kurdish independence. We’ll help you to secure an air-corridor to more friendly countries to the west.  

Robert Todd Wise
Robert Todd Wise

Always Al Queda... reading the news is sometimes like the funny papers.

Danyz
Danyz

never mind...

carlloeber
carlloeber

President Obama is too much a coward to do anything during the re-election .. so he should agree with Romney to come together and make a joint announcement that they both agree that the US should take military action and lead with air power ..  John McCain will give them guidance if the President can't figure out what to do ..

President

Obama should have acted to stop the murder more than 400 days ago .. by

sending in drones for the dictator's palaces in Damascus .. instead

President Obama has descended into ignominious cowardice ..

Did

the Kremlin wait to get UN approval when they went sent tanks into

Georgia in 2008 ?  Why is President Obama handcuffed by the Kremlin ?

  we can only say that it is because he does not want to save the

Syrians .. he does not want to send in drones .. he does not want to

risk re-election chances and thinks he can shirk his responsibility as

leader of the free world ..

Who

does President Obama and the West depend on the save the Syrian

children ? The same man who the US depended to save the Rwandan and

Bosnian children ..  

Syrian

authorities are systematically detaining and torturing children, the

United Nations' human rights chief, Navi Pillay, has told the BBC.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/worl......  

President

Obama has allowed this to happen .. he has given free rein to the

dictators in Damascus and abandoned the Syrian people .. he said the

right things when he lead the charge against Qaddafi .. but has let his

re-election rule his moral sense on Syria ..

It is disgraceful cowardice unbecoming of the leader of the home of the brave ..

He

could have shot back at the Damascus dictators 487 days ago when they

started shooting innocent protesters .. He could have sent cruise

missiles and drones to attack the palace of the dictator and his tanks

and artillery .. He and the other leaders of the West meekly bow to the

Kremlin and Chinese dictators ..   instead they only strain their

intelligence coming up with new words to say how horrible are the Syrian

dictators' atrocities ..

March

28, 2011, President Obama said .. "when people were being brutalized in

Bosnia in the 1990s, it took the international community more than a

year to intervene with air power to protect civilians."

www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-...

“To

brush aside America’s responsibility as a leader and — more profoundly —

our responsibilities to our fellow human beings under such

circumstances would have been a betrayal of who we are,” (Except in an

election year?)

“Some

nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other

countries. The United States of America is different,” (Except in an

election year?)  

2011: “And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”  

2012: Coward.

I have been to Syria and never met a better people .. they deserve the dignity of aid from President Obama and the West ..

akahen
akahen

I have nothing but respect for Syrian fighters.  The conflict is between Assad who is backed by Shia Iran and the regular people who are living under this rule.  Yes, there are groups that are paid very well by the government to conduct Syria's orders to massacre, but ultimately these are the same tactic taken from Iranian Government Handbook as to how to supress an uprising without being directly involved. 

Anybody and I mean anybody who think Syria's situation has to do with secterian warefare is only kidding themselves.  These are the Rumors that Iranian Government is teaching Syrian government to spread in order to divide the masses in Syria and prolong their rule. 

Here is my website, http://benjaminkahen.blogspot.... (feel free to leave your comment)

samuel adams
samuel adams

 Moron.  The massacres are done by U.S. C.I.A.  911 was U.S. manufactured terror, and the resulting geopolitical conflicts are to support the U.S.A. world bank etc.  The World Bank is trying to tell China to get behind it.  If China does not (and I doubt it will) obey, there will be war.  The Islamic states, Russia and China will fight for control of middle eastern hegemony.  The U.S.A. N.A.T.O. and Zionists and world bank etc will do the same.  Iraq fell to the U.S. and then the Euro oil revenues became U.S. Dollar revenues, and Europe's Euro was weakened.  The U.S. controls Afghanistan, is into Pakistan, toppled Libya, controls Egypt now, and is now looking to topple Assad in Syria.  The Syrian "people" fighting for the "opposition" are ignorants whipped up by the C.I.A. and Mossad secret agents.  Syrians are killing themselves for no reason.  Assad is a good leader.  The problem is the big economies, China, Russia and U.S.A.  The Islamic states are always weaker scape goats of this master criminal plan. Again the massacres have NOTHING to do with Assad.  They are masterminded by western interests to make Assad seem under siege and EVIL.  But the are all lies, just like 911 was an inside job.  Is war really so hard to understand?

goodwillambassador
goodwillambassador

My friend you know one aspect of conspiracy theories for many reasons.First, you uderestimated  the extant of oppression under which Syrians live,while the minority Alawits have it all jobs, university grants, mlitary posts and the like; they are the privieiged.They have pinched the folks.Second,they carry out random arrests occasionally,before the revolution started, just to show that they have power and able to crack down any uprising.Third, if the uprising were supported by CIA,Assad would have been toppled long ago,but the fact of the matter is USA and Israel have been covertly supporting Assad and superficially against him and I qoute Areal Sharone in his memiors " Israel and shiaa have always been on good terms",so what stuff an nonsense are you talking about!!!! Iran was supported in terms of arms and logistic in its war with Iraq.The US invasion to Iraq only happened to enable Shiaa take control of government and therefore opperssing Suni while the Suni are the majority they are made to appear as minority.By the way most of the Shiaa are originally Iranian as Mr. Hmffer stated in his memiors.The list of collaboration between the Assad and the US,Israel is long and no longer a secret, you can read  letters between Hafez Al Assad and Mousad agents Katsaf Omeyer and  Aliazer Bin Yahmoon.In fact The US is preventing Syrian Freedom fighters from arming themselves while the Assad is receiving a deluge of arms from evry far and wide even the UK is giving him arms as the Financil Times reported.

MarwanSadiq
MarwanSadiq

Talk about conspiracy theories.......Holy cow.

You must be drinking Assad Kool aid to be saying this non-sense.

akahen
akahen

Hey Samuel Adams,

Have you been snorting those Samuel Adams instead of drinking them?  lol

How dare you minimize the efforts and the sacrifices that these people are making? You know they are fighting w/ their blood and people like you are simply minimizing their fight for your political stupidity.

I love your Anti-Semitisim too since you think Jews are always the source of all probelm in the world.  Yes, I know you said Zionist, but it was not too long ago when people used to say the same exact things and blame everything on the Jews.  You have simply replaced the word "Jew" with "Zionist" and you saying the same exact thing.

Man, people like you make it every easy sometimes.

Sid sridhar
Sid sridhar

There is very little doubt that the cisis in Syria is caused by a larger battle between Shias and Sunnis. Iraq has reason to fear the overthrow of Asad. This will signal the victory of the Sunnis over Shias and therefore, Saudi Arabia over Iran. Clearly, the West helped the majority Shias to win control in Iraq. They feel morally obligated to support the majority Sunnis. All this must be viewed in the context of Saudi Arabia's influence over new Islamic Governments in Egypt etal. The Middle East will face a decade of turmoil and the World is watching helplessly!

Robert Todd Wise
Robert Todd Wise

Believe me they NEED the Sunnis to win.  The majority of them ARE Sunnis. Let's have leaders that represent the majority rather than an oppressive minority one (Alawites???  NO)

Escobarthehero
Escobarthehero

Why is CNN trying to "push" this whole Syrian thing, no one cares about it CNN, we are tired of our America sticking their nose's were they don't belong..from The Hero Pablo Escobar

divorceemeet
divorceemeet

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Robert Todd Wise
Robert Todd Wise

I too am lonely.  PLease talk to me and share your pain.

Escobarthehero
Escobarthehero

Try Applebee's happy hours, your sure to find a middle aged divorce there. Form The Hero Pablo Escobar

dimukh
dimukh

How the hell you posted your out-of-contest comment? By the way, if you don't know how to meet a woman then how were you married previously in the first place? Why are you looking for divorced singles only? If you have moolah and muscle, you should not have any difficulty in marrying a spinster.

divorceemeet
divorceemeet

Dating after

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the dating game for many years. Finding prospective dates seems difficult. I

have children so I want to meet someone who has children too and understand my

feelings. My friend John is the same way. Now we are in our 40s. I find myself

in an awkward state. I feel so lonely but I don’t know how to meet women. John

told me a site ------ DivorceeMeet_ ℃♥m ------. It is a focused dating site for divorced singles.

John met his 30-year-old girlfriend there. If you're officially divorced,

single and ready to get going, I would encourage you to deep your toe in the

water. Just take a second chance at love. You might find what you are looking

for.