Maliki's Dangerous Tightrope Act
As the Arab League comes to Baghdad, Maliki attempts to strike a difficult balance between regional power players.
This week, the Arab League will hold its annual summit in Baghdad. It is a day a great many Iraqis have long awaited. For years, Iraqis hoped to host the Arab League in their liberated capital as a sign to the world that Iraq was back—that it had reemerged from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny and a brutal civil war as a new Iraq, stronger, freer and better than it had been. And for years, the other Arab states denied it. They cited the violence, ethno-sectarian divisions, unsettled politics and the American occupation. Now, finally, Baghdad will get its due.
For Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki it is a great triumph, a tremendous opportunity and a grave threat all rolled into one.
Although many Iraqis long for this sign of reacceptance into the Arab world, it is especially important for Maliki that he be able to say that he fulfilled the dream. Maliki, of course, is a Shia—and not just a Shia but also a member of a Shiite Islamist party who has been personally disdained and excoriated by the Sunni Arab world for most of his time in office. Indeed, for many years, most of the other Arab states refused to resume normal relations with Iraq explicitly because he was its prime minister. Thus, for Maliki, the Arab League’s willingness to come to Iraq under his premiership is an immense personal victory, a signal to the Iraqi people that he, personally, has been accepted by the other (Sunni) Arab heads of state as the rightful and respected leader of Iraq.
As a result, it is all the more imperative for him that the summit go well, both for Iraq and for him personally. If it goes well, not only will he buttress his sagging popularity with the Iraqi street, he also will likely be able to parlay it into improved trade relations with the rest of the region, more direct foreign investment from the wealthy Gulf states and greater Arab diplomatic support for Iraq’s international causes—particularly the lifting of the last UN sanctions under which Iraq has labored since the days of Saddam. If Maliki is truly accepted by the other members of the Arab League, it could mean significant material benefits for Iraq that would further reinforce his popularity and power.
The Syrian Problem
Unfortunately for Maliki, that coin has two sides, and on the ugly underside is the head of Bashar al-Assad. The crisis over Syria is coming at the worst possible time for Maliki. As a Shia Arab, he seems to have considerable affinity for the Shiite Arab regime of the Assads in Damascus. Moreover, although Maliki distrusts and dislikes the Iranians, he is in no position to cross them, and the Iranians have been backing the Assads to the hilt. Iran wields very significant influence in Iraq and ultimately was responsible (with some American assistance) for forging the coalition that kept Maliki in power after the 2010 elections. Whenever the Sunni Arab states ostracized his government, it was Tehran that succored it, and Maliki likely believes that when all else fails, he can count on the Iranians to help him in a way that the Sunni Arab states probably never will. Not surprisingly, Iraq has been extremely forgiving of Damascus’s sins and consistently opposed harsh measures intended to bring about the Syrian regime’s downfall.
The problem for Maliki is that the Sunni Arab states appear to be coming to Baghdad with squeezing Syria at the top of their agenda. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and other key Arab states are determined to forge agreement on tough new measures to loosen Assad’s grip on power and bolster the Syrian resistance. They mean to do this both because it is an increasingly critical issue for all of them, playing equally to their external strategic goals and their internal political fears, and because they want to suss out Maliki himself.
In recent weeks, Maliki has been tacking hard on Syria. He has lowered his rhetorical support for Damascus. He even supported a new Arab League proposal to deploy Arab peacekeeping forces there. In addition, Maliki has been busily striking bilateral deals, making important concessions to various Sunni Arab states in the run-up to the summit to ensure that it is not cancelled at the last minute, that Arab heads of state attend, and that Iraq is accepted warmly back into the fold. All of this, but particularly Maliki’s change of course on Syria, has made the Sunni Arab states willing to go ahead with the summit and toss him some other important bones. For instance, the Saudis finally named an ambassador to Baghdad.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that the Sunni Arab states are far from believing Maliki has actually changed his spots. Most believe he remains more committed to Iran and Syria than to the rest of the (Sunni) Arab world, and so they are likely to press the Syria issue and try to force Maliki to pick a side. They rightly see his dismissal of the charge that Iran is flying arms to Syria through Iraqi airspace as an effort to placate Iran and make up for his mildly more critical public stance on Syria. Thus, Maliki will have to walk a very narrow tightrope all through the summit to avoid being pushed by the Sunni Arab states or pulled by the Iranians to declare for one side or the other on this critical issue. In recent years, Maliki has shown himself to be a skillful political tactician, but appeasing both camps without alienating either will be quite a feat.
Many Potential Dangers
In Iraq, internal and external politics are deeply intertwined. Any problems created for Maliki at the Arab Summit will not remain confined to Iraq’s international relations. They will quickly infect its fissiparous domestic politics and that will have very real consequences for Maliki.
If he resists Arab League action on Syria too much, Maliki will convince the Sunni Arab states that he was an Iranian agent all along, and they will almost certainly begin to ramp up their support for the Iraqi Sunni communities of Anbar, Salahaddin, Ninevah and Diyala seeking autonomous regional status—de facto independence—and willing to employ force against Maliki’s central government to do it.
On the other hand, if Maliki is overly solicitous of the Sunni Arabs and goes along with new punitive measures against Syria, he could infuriate the Iranians, who can then press the Sadrists and a variety of Shiite terrorist groups to do the same in southern Iraq. The Iranians can also exert pressure on certain Kurdish factions to be less cooperative with Baghdad and can encourage Shiite separatists in Basra and other southern provinces to make more trouble for the prime minister.
In Iraq, there is never a dull moment. And watching Prime Minister Maliki walk the line at the Arab Summit might be, for a few days this week, the greatest show on earth.
Kenneth M. Pollack is a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.