POMED Notes: “After the Summit: Assessing Iraq’s Relations with its Arab Neighbors”
On Thursday, July 12, 2012, the Middle East Institute hosted an event entitled “After the Summit: Iraq’s Relations with its Arab Neighbors.” The panel featured John Desrocher, Director of the Office of Iraq Affairs at the U.S. Department of State; Gregory Gause, Professor of political science at the University of Vermont; Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings; and Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie, former Iraqi ambassador to the United States. The event was moderated by Phebe Marr.
For full event notes, continue reading below or click here.
Phebe Marr opened the discussion noting that Iraq’s disputes with Turkey have complicated regional policy, but two additional factors are doing the same. First, Iraq feels like a land-locked state whose oil must go through either the Gulf or its neighbors. Secondly, Iraq is itself experiencing a transition, and is still a weak state. As the strategic balance in the region changes in unpredictable ways, what impact will it have in Iraq and what role will emerge for Iraq?
Ambassador Sumaida’ie believes that when speaking of Iraq it is important to set the context for discussion. Directly after U.S. intervention in Iraq, some decisions were poorly made, leaving their mark on the post-intervention period. Structural issues left Iraq much more difficult to manage. Sectarian issues, Sumaida’ie argued, are fluid and malleable, and always have been. While these communities have not been traditionally hostile, Saddam made these issues more destructive. However, Iraq was capable of recovering if the U.S. had taken appropriate measures. But, decisions to satisfy Islamist forces predetermined the foundations of the existing political system, and there is no way of resolving the issue at this time. Meanwhile, Iraq’s Arab neighbors during this period initially kept their distance both because of the rise of Shi’i influence and suspicion of the democratic transition process. Yet, Iraq had its hands full with its own problems. Today Iraq is in crisis due to the preponderance of structural issues, and its future seems to indicate more of the same. The best way to move forward is: to improve internal cohesion, resolve the internal political crisis, mend fences with Kuwait and Turkey, work on positive relations with Iran, be a neutral as possible on the Syrian crisis, and continue to build a strategic alliance with the U.S.
Gregory Gause argued that there are many different views within the GCC on relations with Iraq, but that during crises the GCC has a tendency to close ranks. That’s where we are now, and in such circumstances the approach tends to be led by Saudi Arabia. The Saudi’s, whose view of the Maliki government is extremely negative, sees Iraq as essential an agent of Iran. However, “I see Saudi policy on Iraq as passive,” Gause argued. There is no outreach to the Kurds, no effort to play with the internal politics of the Shi’i community in Iraq – even though there are ample opportunities, – no outreach to al-Sadr, and no appeal to a broader Arabism in opposition to Iran.
Additionally, the suspicion that Saudi policy is driven by sectarianism is wrong, he believes. The Saudi elite’s view is geopolitical, and essentially a struggle for influence with Iran, in which they feel they have largely failed. The perceived failure has played itself out in the contest for influence with weak Arab states. Thus Saudi Arabia’s sectarian mapping in other states is the way it confronts Iran for influence. However, Gause notes, “this is a dangerous game,” adding, “sectarianization of Saudi foreign policy drives Arab Shi’i toward Iran because it gives them no option.” It also creates an atmosphere in which al-Qaeda-like ideas, if not the group themselves, can flourish.
Kenneth Pollack believes that the topic of Iraq’s foreign policy in Syria is the best way to understand where Iraqi policy is in the region right now. There are many different policies toward Syria right now, because “in Iraq where you sit is where you stand.” Iraq’s foreign policy reflects its high degree of internal fractionalization. For Iraqi Kurds, the Syrian crisis seems more like an opportunity than a threat – one that creates opportunities. “It is not an accident that Kurds are working closely with Turkey on Syria.” The crisis could potentially create chaos in Iraq and conditions right for them to declare independence. Iraqi Kurds lean toward Turkey because they see them as their real partner for the future, believing they share their interests and are willing to push back on Baghdad.
Sunni Iraqis likewise see Syria as an opportunity. They believe they have the same problems in Baghdad. They see Syria and Iraq as two communities backed by oppressive Iranian-backed regimes. It is no coincidence that we have seen an increase in Sunni-led violence. Shi’i opposition to the Iraqi government is in a more difficult position. They harbor both sympathy and opposition to the regime, which is often determined by how they feel about Baghdad. For the Maliki government, it worries that the Syrian crisis will trigger instability in Iraq. However, while it has no particular love for Iran, it feels estranged from the Sunni community and with nowhere else to turn. Thus the multiple Iraqi foreign policies are driven by divisions within Iraqi domestic politics.
John Desrocher noted that the work of the U.S. Department of State is now to attempt to promote U.S. interests in Iraq while building a partnership based on mutual interest. Part of that work is helping Iraq build relationships with its neighbors and the greater Arab world. In that effort, Iraq and Kuwait have made considerable progress on longstanding disputes, relations with Jordan have grown, and Saudi Arabia named an Ambassador to Iraq for the first time since 1990. In terms of Syria, U.S. policy is clear: Assad must go and the longer he is there, the greater the danger to the region. Moreover, argued Desrocher, from the U.S. perspective, the key to Iraq’s relations with its neighbors is solving its internal political divisions. Tension is understandable, but gridlock is unnecessary and is preempting its ability to deal with other issues.