Henri J. Barkey writes at The American Interest that there is an overlooked aspect to the violence in Syria: what will happen in neighboring Iraq?
The mainstream Western press seems to have forgotten that Syria also shares a border with Iraq. Iraq’s strategic location and its cross-sectarian and cross-ethnic fault lines make its implosion a great threat to the long-term stability and well-being of the region. The shock waves—unbridled sectarian and ethnic violence, possible interstate interventions and warfare, and much higher oil prices—could also jolt the international economy, sparing no one.
Syria pales in comparison to Iraq when it comes to regional political significance. Iraq, a nation of nearly 33 million, is first and foremost a major oil producer. Its relevance as a producer will only grow with time because so many new fields and hydrocarbon sources are in the process of being discovered and brought online. Global oil demand, especially because of the growth in emerging economies such as China, India, Turkey and Brazil, will continue to increase while new oil becomes more expensive and more difficult to find. Iraqi ambitions, even if exaggerated at times, are likely to make that country a pivotal state in the global and regional oil equation. Already Iraqi oil production has overtaken that of neighboring Iran.
Both Syria and Iraq are situated on the Sunni-Shi’a fault line. As contentious the current sectarian-driven conflict may be in Syria, the Shi’a offshoot there, the ruling Alawis, constitute a small minority, maybe 12 percent of the total population. The Alawis owe their privileged position to Hafez al-Assad, who as an Alawi general went about systematically embedding fellow Alawis in senior positions throughout the security bureaucracy. The security agencies also became a source of jobs and upward mobility for poor Alawis, as well as allied minorities like Druze and some Christians. The state assumed a sectarian character. The Syrian uprising, if successful, will result in the Sunnis toppling the Alawi-dominated state.
Today Iraq is held together by a shoestring. Violence is on the upsurge, and Maliki is increasingly demonstrating his authoritarian tendencies as he pushes forward with an agenda that has not won him any friends in the region. The Saudis have not given him much quarter and would like to see him go. He has made an enemy of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as each accuses the other of putting sectarian interests ahead of regional interests and stability. Turks provided refuge to the Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who escaped following his indictment on charges of helping Sunni death squads to operate in Baghdad. This increasing regional rift may be music to the ears of many Iraqi Sunnis, who have been heard saying, in effect, “the Ottomans are back in Istanbul, the Umayyad are about to re-conquer Damascus, and next Sunni Abbasid power will return to Baghdad.”
Iranian behavior even well short of a military intervention can mightily complicate matters in Baghdad as Maliki tries to navigate treacherous waters: He will not want to appear to be in Tehran’s pocket while trying to extend a branch to Sunnis, something that will be extremely difficult in any case. Iraq will therefore become the new front line in the Sunni-Shi’a war, and one naturally expects the Saudis and other Gulf countries to pour resources into this conflict even beyond those they are already putting forth.
Read much more here: http://www.the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1365