The recent merger between Al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate and the Syrian rebel group, the Jabhat al-Nusra Front, reveals why Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has been reluctant to support U.S. efforts to end Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Al-Maliki wrote in the Washington Post on April 9 that he has "been mystified by what appears to be the widespread belief in the United States that any outcome in Syria that removes President Bashar Al-Assad from power will be better than the status quo." Al-Maliki specifically identifies Al-Qaeda as the source of his concern, saying that "a Syria controlled in whole or part by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates — an outcome that grows more likely by the day — would be more dangerous to both our countries than anything we've seen up to now."
The U.S. has criticized al-Maliki for allowing Iranian overflights to Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry claimed in March that Iraq had permitted Iran to send arms and fighters to bolster Assad’s regime.
From al-Maliki’s perspective, however, Al-Qaeda is of far larger concern than Secretary of State John Kerry's disapproval.
Al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), has ramped up attacks across Iraq in recent months. An attack on the anniversary of the Iraq War claimed over 50 lives.
The Iraqi government has long been concerned about ISI's relationship with the Jabhat al-Nusra Front. As several analysts have pointed out, while ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra Front only made their relationship official this week, their unofficial links had been known for some time.
The Iraqi government has been extremely concerned that Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Syria would cross the border into Iraq. For this reason, it has had extremely tight security at the Al-Qaim border crossing between the two countries. Iraq has intermittently closed the border or made crossing difficult because of concerns about militants. More than 128,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Iraq so far.
Al-Maliki has also expressed concern that the fall of Assad's government would destabilize the region, leading to upheaval in Lebanon and Jordan as well as his own country.
Al-Maliki's concern is certainly understandable. The fall of Qaddafi in Libya destabilized the Maghreb, leading to regional upheaval and the proliferation of arms and militants across porous borders. It is not a far-fetched assumption that the fall of Assad in Syria could have a similar outcome.
However, al-Maliki may be better served to pressure the Assad regime for a negotiated transition that would preserve the Syrian state and regional stability. Even Assad's allies Hezbollah and Iran have allegedly begun to make preparations for a post-Assad Syria.
The United States must also be prepared to address al-Maliki's concerns about the growth of Al-Qaeda in Syria and Iraq when pressuring al-Maliki to end its support for Iranian overflights to Syria. Al-Maliki’s support for Assad is likely not grounded in any love of the Syrian dictator but rather a recognition of the potential consequences of the collapse of the Syrian state.