Iraq and Syria: You Can’t Address One Without the Other

As much as I cringe whenever I hear someone spout that “all politics is local,” this clichéd idiom often rings true. Microanalyses of regional and societal happenings are indispensable. Yet this advice sometimes wrongly plays the role of replacement to macroanalyses rather than complement. While in-depth reports on specific countries or regions are important, ignoring regional context can often be disastrous, especially in areas, like the Middle East, where ethnic, religious, ideological, and economic identities readily cross state borders.

The absence of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, pictured above with U.S. President Barack Obama, after a recent stroke may complicate the mitigation of conflicts not only in Iraq but also in neighboring Syria as well. (Photo Credit: Spc. Kimberly Millett, USA)

So while most eyes (rightfully) have been turned towards the ongoing civil war in Syria and its growing sectarian nature, the importance of events in the nation’s close neighbor, Iraq, must not be overlooked. Both states share similar ethnic and religious groups—Sunni and Shia Arabs as well as Kurds—and the sectarian conflicts in each state, while not identical, play off of one another.

The United States, as well as the international community, must stay engaged in Syria, as stated earlier. And it also must stay engaged with the various conflicts now evolving in Iraq—conflicts that have been especially complicated by the recent stroke of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

With animosity and violence spiking between the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government and the central government of Iraq in Baghdad, Talabani’s current absence could play, and perhaps already is playing, a pernicious role. While a well-documented warrior who generally abides by his personal principles—for example, despite his history as an enemy towards Baathists like Saddam Hussein and Tariq Azi, Talabani, a committed progressive, socialist, refused to sign death sentences against either man—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political leader also operates as a moderating force in Iraqi politics, having mediated numerous conflicts between Kurd and Arab, Sunni and Shia.

Hopefully Talabani will make a full-recovery. However, as his doctors work towards this end in Germany, conflicts between Kurds and Arabs over establishing borders, security, and political representations in such disputed areas as Kirkuk and Diyala province continue to escalate.

Sunni and Shia Arab tensions in Iraq are far from cooling as well. The recent arrest of nine guards of the Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi, a Sunni Arab member of the Iraqiya political party, sparked massive protests in the heavily Sunni Arab areas of Ramadi and Falluja. Although a Kurd, Talabani has often served as key mediator of disputes between Shia and Sunni political actors in Iraq.

If tensions were to escalate between Sunni and Shia, and Kurd and Arab in Iraq at the same time as violence grows between Alawi (often identified as a sect of Shia Islam) and Sunni, and Kurd and Arab in Iraq, the consequences could be dire.

Here’s hoping the U.S. State Department of 2013 realizes this and acts accordingly.