The Agenda

The Syrian Crisis and Post-Iraq U.S. Middle East Policy

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher and Ali Nabhan had a fascinating article on the coordinated attacks that left almost a hundred dead in cities across Iraq earlier this week:

Iraq’s Shiite-led government is under assault from the same Sunni extremists who have taken up the fight in Syria, many of them linked to al Qaeda, according to Izzat al-Shahbandar, a senior member of Iraq’s Parliament and close aide to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In recent weeks, Mr. Shahbandar said in an interview, Iraq has stepped up its intelligence-sharing with the Syrian regime. The findings, he said, is that many of the same al Qaeda-linked militants are active in both countries and frequently travel back and forth. “We have names on our wanted list that disappear for a while and then resurface in Syria, and vice versa,” he said.

The United States has devoted enormous resources to strengthening Iraq’s Shiite-led government, which is now threatened by elements linked to the Syrian opposition. Yet the U.S. has also been sharply critical of the Assad regime and thus implicitly supportive of the (diverse) Syrian opposition.

Moreover, as Dagher and Nabhan explain, Iraqi Shiites have long been suspicious of the Assad regime, in part because it allowed foreign fighters to enter Iraq. But now the Iraqi government, which prides itself on the notion that it is a broadly representative and democratic government, finds itself cooperating with Syria’s minority-dominated dictatorship, which is doing everything it can to forestall the creation of a regime that is representative and democratic. 

None of this should come as too much of a surprise. It is worth remembering, however, that one of the central arguments for regime change in Iraq was that creating a model of democratic governance in the region might set off a cascade of political change. The Arab Spring is not generally attributed to the power of the Iraqi example, not least because civil strife in Iraq made it an unattractive model. But we are indeed seeing a cascade of political change, and it may well lead to an era of intensified conflict. A more democratic Syria and a more democratic Iraq might find themselves at odds — or rather a democratizing Syria and a democratizing Iraq, as mature democracies are generally more resistant to aggressive policies. 


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