After Iraq sent conflicting signals about its support for Assad last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke firmly against regime change in Syria in an interview broadcast on Iraqi television Sept. 30. “We believe that Syria will be able to overcome its crisis through reforms,” Maliki said, rejecting U.S. calls for the Syrian leader to step down. His words echoed those of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who weeks earlier proposed that Syrians should “implement the necessary reforms by themselves.”
On other issues as well, the Maliki government in recent months has hewed closer to Iran’s stance — Iraq, for example, has supported Iran’s right to nuclear technology and advocated U.N. membership for Palestinians — as the U.S. military races to complete its troop withdrawal over the coming months.
Few policy objectives are more important to Iran than preserving the pro-Tehran regime in Syria, longtime Middle East observers say.
“This is Iran’s influence, because preserving the Assad regime is very much in Iran’s national interest,” said David Pollock, a former adviser on Middle East policy for the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “Iran needs Iraq’s help trying to save their ally in Damascus.”
U.S. officials acknowledged disappointment with Iraq over its dealings with Assad, while noting that other Middle East countries also have been reluctant to abandon Assad at a time when the outcome of the uprising remains uncertain.
“The Iraqis should be more helpful, absolutely,” said a senior administration official involved in Middle East diplomacy.
Some of the proposed financial deals with Syria, however, “turn out to be a lot of talk,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss sensitive issues.
U.S. intelligence officials predict that Syria’s uprising will eventually topple Assad, most likely after the mounting cost of sanctions causes the business elite to turn against him. But the timeline for change is far from clear.
The Obama administration hailed a decision in August by three Persian Gulf Arab states — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain — to recall their ambassadors to Damascus to protest Assad’s violent suppression of anti-government demonstrators. And Turkey — like Iraq, a major trading partner with Syria — has repeatedly denounced the crackdown and has established Syrian refugee camps and hosted meetings of opposition groups.