By Akeel Abbas
How the uprising in Syria will effect Iraq depends largely on how events unfold in Syria — and on whom you ask in Iraq. So far, one sure effect of the Syrian uprising on Iraq has been its “clarifying” quality on the nature of politics in the new Iraq. Prior to the uprising, Syria was one lonely area where Iraqi politics did not follow its usual and frustrating sectarian lines of interpretation and alliance. Made up of a Sunni-majority people and ruled by an Alawite, Shia-leaning minority, Syria was no ally to the ruling Shias in Baghdad who resented Syrian harboring of conspiring Iraqi Baathists and its hesitancy to decisively curb the flow of jihadists and illegal arms into Iraq. Official Syria was also friendly to Iraqi Sunnis who were struggling against the paralyzing juggernaut of debaathification. Once the uprising in Syria started, these ideological facades were blown away, however, and Iraqi positions on Syria reoriented themselves along the lines of sect: Iraqi Shiites made known their sympathies to the Alawite regime in the name of stability, while Iraqi Sunnis sided with the Sunni majority in the name of democracy.
This sectarian realignment of positions does not augur well for Iraq and will likely deepen as the conflict in Syria intensifies. Should the regime led by Bashar Assad fall (which seems the more probable course of events), Iraqi politico-sectarian arrangements will be severely tested, if not disturbed, both for good and bad.
First, the emergence of a democratic post-Assad Syria would do a world of good for Iraq’s stumbling experiment with democracy. The Arab country most similar to Iraq politically and socio-economically, Syria would serve as a good model for its eastern neighbor in how to overcome a totalitarian Baathist legacy in building a democratic structure of governance that genuinely respects pluralism, upholds equal citizenship, and avoids the appealing traps of sectarianism and religious dogma. Iraq’s ethno-sectarian arrangements have so far stripped democracy of its true meaning, and a Syrian success at what Iraq has failed at so far would embarrass the latter’s powerful ethno-sectarian patrons and inspire its weak democrats. These are two things that Iraq badly needs: a correct embarrassment and a good inspiration. Democratically-successful Syria can provide both.
Yet, post-Assad Syria might well go the other direction, following a roadmap not very dissimilar from Iraq’s: a democratically-elected, religiously-informed, half-tolerant, Arab Sunni-majority rule heavily presiding over a multitude of restive minorities and non-confirming Sunnis. If one is to judge by the dominant trends of the “Arab spring”, whereby movements of political Islam stand poised to hold the reins of power, this version of a semi-democratic Syria is the more likely one to emerge. In this case, Iraq’s worst tendencies would accelerate and Syria would become another sect-based driver of conflict in Iraq.
Triumphant jihadists, buoyed by their role in overthrowing the Assad regime, would have fresh hope of repeating their success in Iraq. This could mean a renewed insurgency with an emboldened Saudi Arabia and a sympathetic Syria at its back, operating in the midst of an unopposing or nonchalant Sunni population that has increasingly grown disillusioned with the prospects of having a real voice in the new Iraq. The vicious circle would not stop here. Feeling threatened, the ruling Shiite elite, customarily unwilling to confront its own siege mentality and exaggerated Sunni-Baathist fears, would embrace a more assertive alliance with Iran as a regional counterbalance to the Sunni “onslaught”. This set of circumstances basically means that Iraq would return to the 2005 run-up to its full-scale civil war.
Still, history does not need to repeat itself. A third more reasonable and less costly scenario is for the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad to “inoculate” Iraqi Sunnis against “unsavory” future Syrian influences. This means actively reaching out to the Sunnis to close “patriotic” ranks with them at long last. Unlike previous unfulfilled promises of Sunni inclusion, the government led by Nuri Al-Maliki needs this time to quickly and clearly implement specific steps to this effect. Among other things, these include dismantling the debaathification mechanism that has unfairly targeted Sunnis, involving Sunnis meaningfully (not cosmetically) in national decision-making, improving the government’s human-rights record where abuses have disproportionately affected Sunnis, and removing discriminatory practices that limit Sunni opportunities for employment in the security and armed forces in particular, and in other state institutions in general.
The cost of these steps is much lighter on the Maliki government than a new round of open-ended violence and instability, of which Iraq has already had far too much. These steps are also more conducive to the egalitarian and democratic Iraq that this government does not tire of speaking about.
Akeel Abbas is an Arab-American political analyst based in Washington, DC.
This Commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.