Syria is finding itself on the defensive. After eight months of brutally suppressing its people, the Arab League imposed sanctions on Syria over the weekend that freeze Syrian government assets, ban transactions with Syria’s central bank, and end all commercial exchanges with the Syrian government. The sanctions are an unprecedented move against the country that has long claimed to be “the heart of Arabism”.
Of note, Iraq and Lebanon abstained from the Arab League vote. Both are trading partners with Syria and are heavily influenced by Syria’s ally, Iran. And while it should have been expected that Lebanon would choose to go that route — Syria has long been involved in Lebanese affairs and Beirut today is dominated by the pro-Syrian Hezbollah movement — Iraq’s decision is more of a surprise and possibly a foreshadowing of events to come.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki
As the U.S. troops in Iraq prepare for their final departure by the end of next month, Baghdad is assessing its situation after nearly nine years of war. Will it increase ties with Iran, or build a partnership with America? Iran helped Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki retain power last year, and since then Baghdad has turned a blind eye to Iranian influences inside his country. Al-Maliki has ignored Iranian military incursions on Kurdish lands in northern Iraq, and his government has delayed fulfilling arrest warrants for Iranian-backed militants. Iran also reportedly influenced Baghdad’s decision to not allow U.S. troops to stay after the end of the year.
Moreover, al-Maliki is known to dislike the Syrian regime for serving as a safe haven for extremists and allowing militants to enter into the country for the sole purpose of wreaking havoc after the United States’ 2003 invasion. And yet, he has refrained from harshly criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Asad’s crack-down and now abstained from joining the Arab League in sanctioning Damascus.
With the American withdrawal looming, the Iraqi government will soon have many choices to make. The writing is on the wall.