|Massoud Barzani (top) and Hoshyar Zebari|
Has Iraq decided to turn its back on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
The $64,000 Question came hot on the heels of Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s address at the opening of the Syrian opposition groups’ conference in Cairo earlier this week.
Zebari, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League Summit, told the Cairo meeting the Syrian opposition “is trying to get rid of a totalitarian regime disregarding the (Syrian) people’s well-being.”
He also said, “We know from our experience in Iraq what it means to stand up to oppressive regimes.”
Zebari then called for a peaceful transition of power in Syria, pledging to help in that endeavor "so that representatives of the Syrian people take over their political process and build their modern Syrian state."
Zebari’s utterances suggest Iraq is perhaps pondering what lies ahead across its border, says senior diplomatic correspondent and political analyst Raghida Dergham today in her weekly think piece for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.
Writing about an alleged “international understanding on the exit of Assad and his kinsfolk in exchange for a regime reprieve,” she quotes an unnamed Iraqi official as saying off the record: “We concluded in light of our international contacts and first hand observations that developments on the ground are not going in the regime’s favor. Whole (Syrian) governorates are no more under central control. The government is one of shabiha and the military. Russia is having a dialogue with the opposition. Even Iran is opening channels for dialogue with the opposition. All this prompted us to take clearer and more assertive stands.”
A more comprehensive analysis of Iraq’s Syria reset comes from Syrian Kurdish analyst Farouk Hajji Mustafa.
“In truth,” he also writes for al-Hayat, “the reasons for the shift in Iraq’s diplomatic discourse can only be explained by two factors”:
1. Multiple analyses have hinted at an understanding between Russia and the United States on the way to manage change in Syria. According to these analyses, “change would be conditional on a balance being struck between the influences of Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region.” The implication is that “Iran would lose its supremacy in Lebanon and Iraq in return for keeping the Syrian regime in place – manifestly at least – until year’s end 2014. This drove the Iraqis to change their tack and speak accordingly.”
2. The Iraqi leaders’ internecine power struggle is the other explanation for Baghdad’s new discourse supportive of the Syrian opposition. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could be telling Iran he would cross the aisle if it let him down. Alternatively, “the shift could be traced back to Massoud Barzani,” head of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. In other words, “the new discourse could be expressing the view of the government in Erbil, not Baghdad.” Barzani has repeatedly warned Maliki he can change the power balance in Baghdad if it didn’t stop canoodling with Damascus. The KRG leader, in other words, has put Maliki on notice that he was putting his alliance with the Kurds at risk.
Hajji Mustafa says in either case the question remains: “Will Iraq keep up its new Syria pitch?”