Iraq’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki warned on Wednesday that a rebel victory in Syria could create a new haven for Islamic extremists and destabilize the region.
The Shia leader, who has been alone in the Arab world not to call upon Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to resign while his government battled a popular uprising, said in an interview with the Associated Press, “The most dangerous thing in this process is that if the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan and a sectarian war in Iraq.”
Syria’s civil war pits majority Sunni Muslims against Assad’s minority Alawite regime which has managed to hold on to power in the northwest of the country as well as the capital Damascus. Insurgent groups control several towns in the north as well as the oil rich eastern part of the country around the city of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates River.
Earlier this month, Maliki told the Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat that he did not expect Assad to fall, saying he was “smarter” than Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who was toppled by the United States and Western allies in 2003. “The Alawites will fight with other minorities against militants like Sunni extremists,” he predicted.
Two years into Syria’s civil war, the two sides are still at a stalemate. Moderate elements in the rebel movement and governments in Europe and the United States who sympathize with their cause worry that the uprising is being taken over by religious fanatics who seek to establish a Sunni Muslim regime in Assad’s place. Other Arab powers, notably Qatar and Saudi Arabia, have nevertheless supplied weapons to these groups as Assad’s fall would rob their strategic rival Iran of its own only allied state in the Middle East.
Sectarian tension that stemmed from Syria’s uprising spilled over into Lebanon last year and could, as Maliki warned on Wednesday, stir similar unrest in Iraq and Jordan. Both states were created by European colonial powers and lack a coherent national population. Especially Iraq’s Sunnis might be emboldened if their counterparts manage to dislodge the Shia regime in neighboring Syria which thus poses a direct threat to Maliki’s political survival.