Iraq neighbourhood watch update

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A neighbourhood like the Middle East doesn’t encourage friendly neighbourly-like behaviour, but being nice is certainly not in fashion at the moment. With the Arab spring crawling along the ground bloodied and bruised, some faces have changed, but not enough for most people.

In the midst of this, Iraq is now ‘liberated’ for the second time in the last 9 years and finds itself in a rough neighbourhood with not much for protection or allies. While the US has repeatedly said it is committed to the security of Iraq and the protection of its borders and people, most believe the US has left Iraq to the dogs. While allowing Iraq to fall into total lawlessness like Sudan in the 90s or Somalia more recently is definitely not the favoured scenario for the US, supporting a strong state that may become anti-US in its foreign policy is definitely not acceptable or will be allowed to happen.

As it stands Iraq is not strong enough politically or economically to influence the Middle East and certainly nowhere near powerful enough militarily to support its foreign policy there. It has worked out a basic long term strategy to develop the economic power (increase oil export capacity but not production to allow Iraq to control the only spare capacity in the world) but seems unsure of how to develop policy with regards to its immediate neighbours. Currently Iraq seems to receive its ME policy from Iran, with some internal rewording to soften the tones for the US, but has not managed to figure out its own long term foreign policy that includes Iran as an equal but not superior. Instead dealings with its neighbours seem to be reactionary and short sighted, with no strategy that is designed to accommodate for events on the ground. Some believe that Iraq spends all its time and energy in reacting to events on its own soil that other countries engineer: in effect Iraq is being tapped on the shoulder by so many at once that it is in a daze.

With the Arab League summit due in Baghdad soon, it will be interesting to see who turns up and what the mood will be. So I have drawn up what I understand is the current situation with the 6 immediate neighbouring states, and from this we can see that Iraq is rather isolated at the moment and that the US departure, while helpful in many ways, has served to highlight Iraq’s preoccupation with internal control to the detriment of its foreign policy.

    Turkey

Has followed up strong economic role in Iraq with increasing political influence. Despite Erdogan’s visit last year that saw all parties welcome him, his criticism of Baghdad which lead to a diplomatic spat shows Turkey is stepping up its attempt to counter Iranian influence in Iraq. Opposition figures still flock to Turkey and even the Kurds now see Turkey as a lesser threat than before and are willing to make drastic concessions to maintain good ties. PM Maliki has not obtained any significant support from Turkey for his current maneouvers and the government is still complaining about Turkey’s stifling supply of water. Goods, contracts and oil still flowing well between the two, second highest trade partnership for Iraq.

    Iran

Remains the most powerful actor in Iraq. While it still funds almost all parties, movements, insurgents and militias, it has seen growing resistance to its control over domestic politics. Resentment is high because nearly everyone has defied Iran at some point and paid a price, but now other states are supporting and protecting those who push back against Iran. While a chaotic Iraq is now not favourable following the US withdrawal, a weak Iraq would be ideal as it would remain beholden to Iran politically and economically, but would work against a strong Iraq. Using Iraq as a forward base to defend against an Israeli and/or US attack, and to threaten a regional war with Syria and Lebanon acting in the same capacity as Iraq. Most important trade partnership for Iraq, only ‘ally’ for Iraq in the region.

    Kuwait

Wary of Iraq’s increasing assertiveness and economic power. Though Iraq still seems to be the weak bumbling giant in this relationship, Kuwait is taking steps to check Iraq’s economic progress without damaging political relations (Mubarak port excellent example). Kuwait is still aggressively pursuing repatriations and debt, and has UN and US support in this. Almost all of Iraq’s cash is in the US and it won’t dare defy Kuwait while the US has guaranteed to protect and support it against Iraq. Royal Family has good links with all sides in Iraq, but Kuwaiti parliament is wary of a united Iraq with a nationalist sentiment. Potential for both good and bad outcomes in this relationship, but bad in the mid to long term more likely.

    Saudi Arabia

Most hostile neighbour with no incentive to better relations. Bitter relationship between Maliki and Abdullah has not improved, and both governments can see a huge clash on oil coming. In many ways Iraq is the equal and opposite of Saudi and the potential for political conflict is high. Trade, travel and diplomacy is very limited between the two, and religious enmity and fear is seen on all levels. Saudi has supported groups to fight a proxy war with Iran, but lost out eventually and seems willing to cede political influence to Turkey and Iran, but strengthening economic influence through control of OPEC and support of Kuwait. Negative outlook for the future.

    Jordan

Only favourable relationship for Iraq, Jordan growing weaker and more dependent. Despite poor relations earlier, 2011 showed weakness of Jordan’s economy and poor political influence. Iraq has successfully neutered political opposition and money in Amman, while improving diplomatic ties. Unrest in region and high energy prices have made Jordan more reliant on Iraqi gas and oil, which the Iraqi government still provides at a favourable discount. Both sides seem to be willing to strengthen accord and have been careful to avoid damaging statements. Outlook is highly positive for Iraq.

    Syria

Hedging bets, attempting to develop influence. This is the only state in which Iraq has an extensive intel network and can operate a policy of its own that may not be in line with Iran’s. The Iraqi government has not supported Asad publicly, but privately would like him to stay in power as the alternatives are less favourable, despite accusations of Damascus supporting or allowing terrorists to fund and operate in Iraq. If Assad falls, Iraq will support the new government and will gain influence, and also be in a stronger position when dealing with Iran. If Assad survives, Iraq will find itself in a murkier position between Tehran and Damascus, but not necessarily a hostile one. Positive outcome for Iraq likely in mid to long term.

Perhaps the Arab League will shed more light on these and other relations but at the moment it seems none of Iraq’s neighbours like Iraq and vice versa.

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