June 23, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: A Regional Crisis: What Iraq’s Neighbors See
Six countries share a border with Iraq: Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran, and Turkey. All have their own fears and goals concerning the deteriorating situation in Iraq. None has the ability to address the situation unilaterally. Before addressing the need for a regional summit to meaningfully confront the cancerous conditions that allowed for the Islamic State of Iraq and Great Syrian (ISIS) to spread, it is helpful to look at each of the six countries and its particular concerns.
Syria: The chaos to its south is like looking in a mirror for the war-torn country. ISIS regained and surpassed its former strength through activities in Syria, working to topple the Assad regime and install its toxic version of Islam. If it weren’t for the endless civil war in Syria, Iraq would be merely simmering with tensions instead of convulsing with conflict. It’s unclear how ISIS conquests in Iraq will impact the Syrian side of the Syrian-Iraqi civil war. ISIS holds cities and areas in Syria that are important sources of revenue—as the banks in Mosul were in Iraq—but its ability to maintain momentum and power across such a broad area is questionable. As it stands, the Assad regime has no ability to effect ISIS in Iraq nor is it certain it would want to, given the regime’s insistence that it has been battling terrorists and not rebels all along. It’s impossible to predict how the Iraq theater will impact the deadly stalemate in Syria. More importantly, the additional pressure that Iraq’s descent into chaos is generating might finally be enough to force international action.
Jordan: The country’s bad luck continues with the current crisis on its eastern border. Jordan has the most to lose from a deteriorating Iraqi state. Jordan sees a massive threat when it looks into Iraq, one that could destabilize a nation already facing the pressure of untold numbers of Syrian refugees, economic decline in its northern border with Syria, and resource scarcity. Jordan played a pivotal role in the Sunni Awakening, or Sahwah, that helped diminish the group now known as ISIS and provide a brief if only illusory period of relative stability in Iraq. The important Sunni tribes in Anbar are close with their Jordanian neighbors, with the Jordanians playing a key role in influencing the tribes to eject ISIS from its strongholds even if it helps their arch nemesis Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the short term. As it has in the past, Jordan will work to help the crisis but will need support and a regional unity that has up to now been sorely lacking.
Saudi Arabia: When it looks to the north, it is unclear what the Saudi government sees. In the near-term, it is difficult to overstate the deep animosity that Riyadh has towards Tehran. Saudi Arabia likely doesn't want instability on its borders but it might tolerate it for a while if it weakens Iranian influence over Iraq. This is a dangerous game to play. It is the sectarian nature of Saudi and Iranian maneuverings in Iraq that has the most potential to get out of hand, as each side incites its supporters with talk of religious war. The battle in social media (which is hugely influential in the region and not a trivial field of battle as might be thought in the West) is less about Iraq and its government and struggles and more on a Sunni-Shi’a conflagration that neither side will win. Additionally, looking into Iraq, Saudi Arabia sees another worrisome sign that the old order is crumbling. Not even Iran scares Saudi Arabia more than uncontrolled change.
Kuwait: Looking north to Iraq, Kuwait sees the ISIS propaganda map that depicts ISIS control over Syria through Kuwait. It doesn’t matter if it borders on the utterly fantastical that ISIS would achieve this; borders, physically and metaphorically, aren’t what they used to be in the region and Kuwait is understandably nervous. Fearing a second Iraqi invasion but with no enormous multinational coalition army to save itself, Kuwait is similar to Jordan in that it has the most to lose and the least ability to do anything about it. ISIS won’t sweep down to the south near Kuwait, where the Shi’a militia rule, but the instability is cause for serious concern. Kuwait has had problems with al-Qaeda cells in the past, and this could increase the potential for domestic instability.
Iran: Looking west, Iran sees another sign of Shi’a persecution and the hand of Saudi Arabia. Iran isn’t worried about ISIS as it relates to Iranian domestic security. It is, however, concerned the group will negatively impact Iranian influence in Iraq. Iraq is not Iran’s puppet—Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf has more influence among Iraqi Shi’a than any Iranian cleric in Qum—but Tehran does have deep influence and leverage over Baghdad, religiously and economically. Al-Maliki was, for an extended period, Iran’s guy and the thought of his quick removal is worrisome to a degree. Even if al-Maliki goes, the Iraqi government will be led by a Shi’a but perhaps by one with less ties to Iran. The last decade has seen Iranian influence grow in the region, and a full-blown sectarian war in Iraq is not in Iran’s interest but it will move to protect all Shi’a in the country—both Iraqi and Iranian.
Turkey: Looking south, Turkey sees cause for concern but also potential gain. Turkey isn’t obsessed with sectarian intrigue as are other neighbors. This, and the fates of the 40 Turkish hostages still being held by ISIS in Iraq, has muted Istanbul’s rhetoric and actions. Like Iran, the last decade has seen Turkey’s regional influence grow and chaos to its south in both Syria and Iraq won’t reverse this trend. ISIS’s control over Mosul revives an old source of tension between Iraq and Turkey, since a 1928 treaty took Mosul from Turkey and put it under Iraqi control: ISIS is not Iraq, and it’s a sign of how complicated the neighborhood is that old treaties and borders are being reworked in the worst possible way. Turkey’s recent support for a possible Iraqi Kurdistan, and its economic and energy ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government give it a vested interest in not letting Iraq collapse into full war, and therefore an incentive to work with the other five neighbors to tamper rhetoric and then address the environment that allows for crises like this to develop.
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