Analysis

After Syria, Saudi and Iranian Eyes Turn to the Next Arena: Iraq

Riyadh realizes it has to seek new ways for coping with Iran, and Iraq could be the ticket, particularly to prevent the creation of a Shi’ite land link to Syria

Iraqi Shi'ite fighters advancing in northern Iraq, flushing out Islamic State fighters, November 23, 2017.
AFP / Stringer

A new love story is evolving between two countries that were at odds for 14 years. Saudi Arabia, under the leadership of King Salman, and Iraq have established a coordinating committee that has signed economic agreements in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Less than a month after the committee was set up, it was meeting again to expand the cooperation.

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For 27 years, ever since Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein, no Saudi plane had landed in Iraq, and suddenly a high-level Saudi economic delegation was landing at Baghdad Airport, welcomed with great respect by every Iraqi news outlet.

This rediscovery of Iraq by Saudi Arabia of course isn’t divorced from the kingdom’s overall campaign to block Iran’s influence. But as in Lebanon and Syria, it seems the king is coming too late. Saudi Arabia had a wealth of opportunities to connect to Iraq immediately after the Iraq War, but it preferred to continue punishing Baghdad, which had developed extensive ties with Tehran until it became an Iranian protectorate and Iran became its largest trading partner.

A more interesting aspect was Iran’s consent to the renewed relationship between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This probably reflects Iran’s confidence in Iraq’s commitments to it, and more importantly, its desire to give Iraq Arab legitimacy and thus strengthen its own legitimacy.

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And anyway, if Saudi Arabia is willing to invest billions in Iraq, by all means – it’s good for Iraq and good for Iran. This is the same approach Iran took with Lebanon, which benefited from huge Saudi investments without this harming Iran’s ability to influence Lebanese policy.

The connection between Saudi Arabia and Iraq could be evidence of a strategic turning point for Saudi Arabia regarding the Syrian crisis. The Saudis’ working assumption is based on the reality that has made Russia and Iran the bosses in Syria.

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As a result, Saudi Arabia’s ability to influence the solution Russia is drawing up is limited to guiding the rebel militias that enjoy the kingdom’s protection. It seems Saudi Arabia has come to the inevitable conclusion that it has to seek new arenas for coping with Iran, and Iraq could be just such an arena, particularly to prevent the creation of the so-called Shi’ite axis that would link Iran with Syria by land.

Among the Americans

To accomplish this, the Saudis will have to persuade the Iraqi government, headed by Haider al-Abadi, to agree to leave American troops in Iraq even though the war against the Islamic State has ended with the retaking last week of Rawa, the last city under the group’s control. While Abadi is waiting to declare the war over, Iran already declared this week that “the objective has been fully achieved” and the war against the Islamic State in Iraq has ended. That declaration didn’t stop ISIS from committing deadly terror attacks, and it’s still active in a few spots in Iraq’s western desert region.

The Iranian declarations have important strategic ramifications, since they mean that Iran can pull its forces out of Iraq and demand that the Western coalition forces, particularly those of the United States, also leave. Iran has no problem withdrawing its forces since it will continue to fund and train the Shi’ite militias that are assisting the Iraqi military and are considered an integral part of the Iraqi armed forces.

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The question of the U.S. military presence has become a controversial issue in the Iraqi parliament, which is preparing for an election expected in May. Some MPs believe the country should agree to an American military presence as long as it’s limited to education and training, not a fighting force. Others object vehemently to any foreign force remaining. In this argument, Saudi Arabia could serve as a lever to pressure Abadi to agree to an American presence, but there’s no guarantee Abadi will obey.

An example of something that could mitigate Saudi pressure came this week with the announcement by Shi’ite separatist Muqtada al-Sadr that he would support Abadi in the election. It was a surprising announcement given the confrontations between the two men this past year, but this support will have a price. Sadr is a strident opponent of a U.S. presence in Iraq, and he will demand that the Americans be ousted in return for the political support Abadi would need to win the election.

Score settling

But Abadi has more on his plate than just maneuvering between Saudi and American ambitions and Iranian influence. The war against the Islamic State has left a lot of scars. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have yet to return to their homes, and in the cities liberated from ISIS control like Mosul and Nineveh, life has nowhere nearly returned to normal. People in Mosul are afraid to leave their homes lest they get caught in the crossfire between the militias that have divided up the city.

State employees living in the liberated cities aren’t receiving their salaries despite government promises. The police are undermanned because the authorities are reluctant to recruit residents of the liberated cities into the force – even if they were cops before the war – lest they be loyal to the Islamic State. This isn’t an unfounded fear because the many Iraqis who fought with ISIS and have ditched their uniforms aren’t easily distinguishable.

There is also a need to collect the huge stocks of weapons that remain in civilian hands, and to protect innocent people in the liberated cities from efforts to settle scores. These aren’t easy tasks for the Iraqi police and army, which must also keep public order. Meanwhile, the lack of employment has forced many residents to join the only “workforce” available – the local militias, each with different tribal loyalties.

Those who get through to their hometowns often find there is nothing to come home to. Hundreds of thousands of structures have been damaged and the government isn’t yet willing to spend the huge sums needed to rebuild. Even though Iraq has the world’s third-largest oil reserves, it has a budget deficit of $20 billion and national debt estimated at $133 billion. Next year it’s also due to resume paying Kuwait compensation for the damage caused during the Gulf War. It isn’t at all clear where Iraq will be able to find the money to rebuild its cities and compensate war victims.

Given the government’s meager resources, Iraqi Sunnis fear they will be discriminated against – as they were in the past, which pushed many of them into the Islamic State’s corner. This potentially destabilizing factor also has Iran concerned.

Thus, paradoxically, Iran may now become the bulwark of the Iraqi Sunnis, not just to stabilize the Iraqi regime, but also to block a Saudi “plot” to embrace the Sunni community and use it as leverage to influence Iraq. Thus another arena of regional conflict could emerge, which wouldn’t bode well.