IF YOU ASK an Iraqi what went wrong with the US-led military intervention, chances are they will blame their “bad neighbors.” Some will point to Iran for its infiltration of Shia political parties, others to Syria for allowing in a steady stream of foreign fighters, and still others will blame Turkey for meddling in Kurdish affairs. The same story can be told of the ongoing crisis in Syria, which has been exacerbated by the neighborhood tug-of-war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Regional powers throughout the world have interfered in the civil conflicts of neighboring states, often frustrating the intervention and subsequent state-building efforts of great powers. Despite the havoc that meddlesome neighbors have proven capable of wreaking, we often fail to anticipate the ways in which they may contribute to the failure of great power interventions.
In this article, I discuss the factors that are likely to drive neighboring states to interfere. Taking these factors into account, I then examine how regional interference in the US-led intervention in Iraq created problems that continue to haunt Iraq’s state-building process. I conclude by cautioning against any great power military intervention in Syria that does not seriously consider the potential consequences of neighborhood interference.
Fear of Ideological Spillover from Iraq and Syria: Democracy and Radicalism
Understanding the neighborhood beforehand is critical to the success of great power interventions. In order to identify which neighbors are most likely to act as spoilers, great power interveners must have an understanding of what motivates neighboring states to interfere. As the cases of Iraq and Syria demonstrate, neighboring states interfere due to fears of ideological spillover and concerns about regional security. Moreover, neighbors are uniquely equipped to intervene given their geographic and cultural proximity to the target state, which enables them to be present in the long run.
From the beginning, the Assad regime feared that a democratizing Iraq would inspire calls for reform within Syria. The Syrian regime was nearly identical to Iraq under Saddam Hussein: a Baathist regime in a multi-ethnic state with a minority-group dictator at the helm. In the early years of Iraq’s democratization, it would not have been hard for Syrian observers to envision a similar process occurring in their own country. In 2004, Syrian opposition leader Aktham Naisse&mash; along with 100 other Syrian intellectuals—presented a petition signed by 7,000 citizens calling for government reforms.1 This came as a shock to the Assad regime, which could not imagine such capacity for collective action, given the decades-long state of emergency.
From the point of view of Bashar Al-Assad, to preserve his rule over Syria, the newly democratic Iraqi state had to fail. From 2003 up until Syria became immersed in its own inner turmoil, the Assad regime allowed thousands of foreign fighters to enter Iraq. Assad also turned a blind eye to safe houses for terrorists in Damascus and Latakia, including for the notorious Abu Ghadiyah terrorist network, whose work through Al Qaeda in Iraq is responsible for numerous suicide attacks in Iraq.2 At one point, a US official and adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice estimated that 85-90% of suicide bombers in Iraq had crossed over from Syria.3
Although the Arab Spring protests demonstrate that Syria’s fears about democratic spillover were not unwarranted, it was the spillover of terrorism that has proven far more problematic for the Assad regime. The very groups that had fought in Iraq and that were encouraged by Syria are now fighting the Syrian government in other guises. The Iraqi government, despite its supposed alliance with the United States, has taken a position much closer to Iran. Further, in an ironic reversal of roles, the Iraqi government—much like the Assad regime did in the early 2000s towards Iraq—is currently turning a blind eye to the Iraqi Shia militias fighting alongside the Iranians and Hezbollah in Syria. By bolstering the Assad regime, Iraq and Iran are prolonging the Syrian war and impeding a resolution.
Regional Power Struggles
Iran’s intervention in Iraq and Syria stems from concerns about regional security. Iran is an outnumbered non-Arab state in the Middle East competing with Saudi Arabia for regional dominance. Although Western media tends to characterize this competition as a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shia, Iran seems to utilize sectarian language for the purpose of advancing its bid for power. This was a useful strategy in Iraq, where the majority Shia population was sympathetic to rhetoric of religious solidarity and brotherhood. Iran successfully capitalized on this strategy to control key political figures in the central Iraqi government. Because Iran’s intervention in Iraq went unchecked, it is today able to use Iraqi territory to transfer arms and funds to the Assad regime.
Worse yet, Iran’s infiltration of the Iraqi government and population has allowed it to participate in the training and recruitment of Shia militias. Iran has leveraged its power over these militias and over the Lebanese Hezbollah to aid Assad, thus preventing Damascus from falling into the control of Syrian rebels.4 Tragically, Iran’s interference in Iraq has facilitated Iranian interference in Syria, and could even bolster Iran’s interference in a potential civil conflict in Lebanon. Lebanon faces pressures on multiple fronts that are further exacerbated by the competing interests of various social groups, which rely on support from regional allies in their bids for power, thus challenging Lebanese sovereignty. For example, Hezbollah has strong ties to Iran and has an organized army that participates in internal and external conflicts. Worries about an Iran-controlled Lebanon will likely motivate other regional actors to interfere and draw out a Lebanese conflict, much like what is happening in Syria.
Saudi and Gulf interference in Iraq and Syria is similarly motivated by regional security concerns. Whereas Iraq had once preserved the regional balance of power, it is now the very battleground for regional power. Due to Iraq’s predominantly Shia population and its proximity to Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies fear the long-term consequences of an Iraq-Iran alliance. They seek to undermine the alliance in order to achieve a return to the pre-2003 balance, before Iraq came under Iranian influence.
The loss of Iraq and Syria—to either side of the Iran-Saudi power struggle—is not simply a shift in the balance of power but, further, it is a curse of instability for the next state in line. When one state shifts over to Iran or Saudi Arabia, the only way the losing state can compensate is to acquire a different ally. Iran’s influence over both Iraq and Syria has therefore heightened Saudi Arabia’s stake in Lebanon. If a conflict were to break out in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia would almost certainly intensify its interference and seek to prolong the conflict.
How to Deal with Middle Eastern Neighbors in a Future Intervention
If the US decides to become further involved in the Syrian conflict, the US ought to develop a well-defined policy to curtail the interference of Syria’s neighbors in the Syrian conflict. The fears of spillover and the competition for power in the region have created an atmosphere where, from the perspective of many neighboring states, prolonging civil conflict is a more suitable alternative to peace and the creation of a new state. Diplomatic sanctions should be used to deter and punish neighborhood intervention. One reason why Iraq’s neighbors could so easily meddle in its affairs is because their interference was not officially condemned by the US until after the damage was done.
States undergoing interventions need secure borders, but are usually unequipped to provide for their own border security. Therefore, the responsibility of protecting the borders should not be left solely to them. The porous borders that Iraq shares with Iran, Syria and Turkey allowed those countries to exert undue influence over Iraq’s state-building process, and continues to have repercussions to this day. Turkish troops, for example, are positioned to the east of Mosul, violating Iraqi sovereignty with no real castigation from the US or other great powers, despite the pleas of the Iraqi prime minister.5 Great powers ought to recognize that this laxness toward territorial infringements is a slippery slope. Iraq’s mistakes, unfortunately, are being repeated in Syria. Before becoming further involved in the Syrian conflict, the US and other great powers ought to develop a well-defined policy to curtail the interference of Syria’s neighbors in the Syrian conflict.
1 Gershowitz, Suzanne, “Dissident Watch: Aktham Naisse” Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2005, p. 96.
2 Naylor, Sean D. “Killing Abu Ghadiya: the Untold story of a risky Delta Force mission to take a senior Al Qaeda militant inside Syria” Foreign Policy, 2015.
3 Pleming, Sue, “US Tells Syria to Stop Bombers Crossing into Iraq,” Reuters, March 27, 2007.
4 Oweis, Khaled Yacoub, “Hezbollah, Iraqi militia capture Damascus suburb: opposition,” Reuters, Oct 9, 2013.
5 Al-Saleh, Omar, “The Delicate Question of Iraq’s Sovereignty” Al-Jazeera, December 10, 2015.
6 Fache, Wilson, “What is Turkish army really doing in Iraq?” Al-Monitor, September 6, 2016.