Baghdad’s ability to influence regional events, particularly in neighbouring Syria, is hampered by its fractious political process

Iraq has no national foreign policy. For the past decade, a lack of unity among its ruling elite has failed to allow for a unified approach towards its international relations — one that could have protected the country from becoming a playground for outside powers, with disastrous consequences for its political and security stability.

The consequences are particularly telling today. The conflict in neighbouring Syria has placed Iraq in a pivotal position: sitting between Iran and Syria, but also bordering Turkey, it can either help bring the end of the Assad regime or complicate those efforts.

Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops last year, Iraq has certainly become more assertive internationally under the leadership of its Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who has just purchased Russian arms worth $4.2bn, in defiance of the United States and to the concern of the country’s Kurds, who fear these weapons could one day be used against them.

Yet, despite this assertiveness, Iraq’s ability to influence regional events, as well as preserve its own national interests, is hampered by its fractious political process, presided over by comparably powerful factions and figures.

On the one hand, Iraq has become a conduit through which Bashar al-Assad’s regime is propped up and supplied with weapons, funds and in some cases fighters, most notably from Iran. Like Iran, Maliki and his Iranian-backed Shia allies fear the threat a Sunni Islamist-controlled Syria across the border would pose.

Iraq is thus a crucial vanguard in the effort to maintain Assad’s rule over Syria and central to the proxy war unfolding in Syria between the Sunni axis of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states ranged against the Shia axis of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah.

Yet, because divisions in the region are reflected within Iraq itself, the country’s pro-Assad camp, despite doing its utmost to sustain the regime, find their efforts undermined by Sunni Arab rivals in Iraq (backed by Turkey and the Arab world) and the Kurds, whose region to the north has the benefit of a mix of cordial relations with the U.S., Turkey and Iran, largely because of the extensive autonomy it has and the stability it has enjoyed in contrast to the rest of Iraq.

Role of regional government

For example, much to the dismay of Maliki, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) continues to train anti-Assad Syrian Kurdish fighters, who are being trained by elite Peshmerga forces to prepare Syrian Kurds for the power vacuum in Syria as well as the stabilisation of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region.

The KRG controls an important border crossing point alongside the Syrian border, through which it has been able to penetrate Syrian territory.

So important was the crossing point that Maliki, possibly under Tehran’s orders, recently sent units from the Iraqi army to take control of the crossing, threatening to spark a Kurd-Arab civil war. In the end, they were stopped by KRG forces and forced to retreat after a standoff. Similarly, Iraq’s Sunni-dominated northern provinces along the Syrian border have sent fighters to Syria to join the uprising, essentially returning the favour to brethren who supported and formed a key part of the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency.

The problem is not entirely of Iraq’s making. Lack of security, exacerbated by neighbours who allowed a flood of terrorists to enter Iraq in the aftermath of the war and in some cases orchestrated the attacks themselves, has stunted the state’s progress toward maturity. This has allowed regional neighbours to exploit the country for its important strategic location, rich resources and ethno-sectarian diversity, to the detriment of Iraq’s broader national interests and efforts to develop a coherent foreign policy. Yet, today’s broader instability in the region means that these “tougher” neighbours find their own politics and stability tested as the war of attrition in Syria continues and the region deals with the aftershocks of the Arab Spring upheavals.

Turkey has for long conducted cross-border attacks on suspected PKK targets in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. However, in addition to the irony of defending its own territory from Syrian shelling aimed at Syrian rebel targets, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdistan in Syria means that Turkey must reconsider its policies toward its restive Kurdish population as well as the PKK, the rebel group it has fought over the past 40 years and whose sister organisation, the PYD, has uncontested control over Syria’s Kurdish region.

Iraq’s elites have had one particularly unified foreign policy approach. Apart from a minority of the country’s political contenders, Iraq’s major parties mostly recognise the importance of a strategic relationship with Iran, which has its tentacles rooted in almost every political faction. Efforts have been made to move away from this, but placating Iranian interests remains at the forefront of foreign policymaking.

The Iraqi state, a decade on since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, continues to linger between the moribund and the non-existent. Iraq could be leveraging its strategic location and rich resources by maximising on the vulnerability of its regional neighbours in what has emerged as a critical geopolitical proxy war.

But the decentralised and conflicting foreign policy ambitions of Iraq’s autonomous political actors has allowed for the country’s broader national interests to be sacrificed, as they look toward the Syria conflict as an opportunity to weaken opponents within Iraq, rather than beyond.

(Ranj Alaaldin is a Middle East political and security risk analyst.)© Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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