Nuri al-Maliki did not expect Bashar al-Assad to fall. From the outset of the Syrian uprising against Assad through its transformation into a full-blown civil war that now has reached the streets of Damascus, the Iraqi prime minister and his senior supporters have continued to lobby against the arming of either side. By encouraging the status quo, Maliki sought to ensure that the more heavily armed, Alawi-dominated government forces retained the upper hand against the predominantly Sunni rebels. In so doing, Maliki aligned his policies with those of Assad and his Iranian sponsors and also sought to prevent the outcome he fears most: a Sunni Islamist government in Damascus.
Maliki's regime has become increasingly repressive throughout the Arab Spring, which thus far has not upended the delicate balance of Shia, Kurds and Sunni Arabs that constitute Iraq's power centers. An Islamist Syria, however, or even a moderate Sunni government in Damascus, could reignite both the restive Iraqi Sunnis and the Kurds. Both groups resent Maliki's increasingly centralized, one-man rule.
Since the American military's departure from Iraq at the end of 2011, Maliki has consolidated his own power. He has eliminated his leading Sunni rivals and tightened his control of Iraq's security services, primarily through his son Ahmed, whom he has named deputy chief of staff. In addition, according to leading Sunnis and Kurds, Maliki has violated the terms of the so-called Erbil agreement that they assert preserved the prerogatives of their communities. But all of this may not be enough to save him if Assad falls.
The Kurds constitute a particularly knotty problem for Maliki. Concerned about their autonomous status, they have resisted Maliki's efforts to centralize his control much as they resisted Saddam's encroachments after 1991. The Kurds' relationship with Baghdad has become especially tense in recent weeks as Maliki has sought to accelerate the delivery of American F-16s, which the Kurds fear will be employed against them, and accused the Kurds of oil smuggling.
At the same time, the once-quiescent Syrian Kurds, who number between one and two million, increasingly have crossed the border into the friendly confines of the Kurdish Regional Government, which has welcomed them with open arms. So far, at least seven thousand Syrian Kurds have found their way into Iraqi Kurdistan. That their leaders have failed to obtain formal recognition of their minority status from the Free Syrian Army and the political opposition has only intensified the unease of many of Syria's Kurds—and further motivated escapes into neighboring Iraq, rather than Turkey, where their ethnic cousins remain a beleaguered minority. Their unease has been reinforced by the actions of Assad's Kurdish supporters, the PYD, who have sought to intimidate the Syrian Kurdish community through kidnappings, beatings and harassment at checkpoints.
On July 19, Iraq closed its main border post at Qaim and sent troops to the Syrian frontier. It did so ostensibly in response to the Free Syrian Army's seizure of Abu Kamal across the border. It is not unreasonable to assume, however, that concern about the Kurdish refugee flow into Iraq also figured in Maliki's calculations. The last thing he needs is a massive influx of Syrian Kurds, who might migrate to Kirkuk and Mosul and strengthen the Kurdish claim to the most important cities in Iraq's northern oil-producing region.
Iraq is poised on the brink of another explosion. Maliki seems determined to press ahead with his personal agenda, which Iran supports and which the Obama administration inexplicably appears to tolerate. But the events in Syria are not moving in the right direction from Maliki's perspective. If Assad indeed falls, the Iraqi strongman may find that his position is far more precarious than it was when he could hide behind the presence of the thousands of American troops whose withdrawal he so ardently sought.
How ironic. Should he actually be forced to leave the Iraqi political scene, "Be careful what you wish for" would be a most suitable and well-deserved epitaph for Iraq's new would-be dictator.
Dov Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-1987. He also served as DoD's civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.