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.