Iraqi Sunni Muslims take part in an anti-government rally in Falluja, 50 km west of Baghdad (Reuters file).

It is hard to determine why Iraq receives so little U.S. attention as it drifts towards sectarian conflict, civil war, and alignment with Iran. Tensions in Iraq have been rising for well over a year, and the U.N. warned on June 1, 2013, that “1,045 Iraqis were killed and another 2,397 were wounded in acts of terrorism and acts of violence in May. The number of civilians killed was 963 (including 181 civilian police), and the number of civilians injured was 2,191 (including 359 civilian police). A further 82 members of the Iraqi Security Forces were killed and 206 were injured.”

This neglect may be a matter of war fatigue; the result of a conflict the United States “won” at a tactical level but seems to have lost at a strategic level. It may be the result of the fact the civil war in Syria is more intensive, produces more human suffering, and is more open to the media. The end result, however, is that that the United States is just beginning to see how much of a strategic pivot Iraq has become.

insight csis INSIGHT: Iraq   New Strategic Pivot in Middle EastThe strategic map of the region is changing and Iraq’s role in that change is critical. It used to be possible to largely separate the Gulf and the Levant. One set of tensions focused on the Arab-Israel conflict versus tensions focused on the Gulf. Iraq stood between them. It sometimes became a crisis on its own but always acted as a strategic buffer between two major sub-regions in the Middle East.

However, it has become clear over the last year that the upheavals in the Islamic and Arab world have become a clash within a civilization rather than a clash between civilizations. The Sunni vs. Alawite civil war in Syria is increasingly interacting with the Sunni versus Shi’ite tensions in the Gulf that are edging Iraq back towards civil war. They also interact with the Sunni-Shi’ite, Maronite, and other confessional struggles in Lebanon.

The “Kurdish problem” now spreads from Syria to Iraq to Turkey to Iran. The question of Arab identity versus Sunni or Shi’ite sectarian identity divides Iraq from the Arab Gulf states and pushes it towards Iran. Instead of terrorism we have counterinsurgency, instability, and religious and ethnic conflict.

“If Assad falls, and U.S. and Gulf Arab tensions with Iran continue to rise, Iran seems likely to do everything it can to replace its ties to Syria with influence in Iraq.” – Anthony H. Cordesman, CSIS

For all the current attention to Syria, Iraq is the larger and more important state. Iraq is a nation of 31.9 million and Syria is a nation of 22.5 million. Iraq has the larger economy: Iraq has a GDP of $155.4 billion, and Syria had a GDP of $107.6 billion in 2011, the last year for which there are useful data. Most important, Iraq is a critical petroleum state and Syria is a cypher. Iraq has some 143 billion barrels worth of oil reserves (9 percent of world reserves) and Syria has 2.5 billion (0.2 percent). Iraq has 126.7 has trillion cubic meters of gas, and Syria has 10.1. Iraq has a major impact on the overall security of the Gulf, and some 20 percent of the world oil and LNG exports go through the Gulf.

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An Iraqi policeman and residents are seen gathered at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad's Sadr City May 16, 2013. (Reuters)

This does not mean the conflict in Syria is not tragic or that it is not important. But from a practical strategic viewpoint, Iraq divided Iran from the Arab Gulf states. Iraqi-Iranian tensions acted as a strategic buffer between Iran and the rest of the Middle East for half a century between the 1950s and 2003. Today, Iraq has a Shi’ite government with close links to Iran and is a military vacuum. Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders treat its Sunnis and Kurds more as a threat than as countrymen. Its Arab neighbors treat Iraq’s regime more as a threat than an ally, and the growing Sunni-Shi’ite tension in the rest of the region make things steadily worse in Iraq and drive it towards Iran.

If Iraq moves towards active civil war, its Shi’ites will be driven further towards Iran and Syria. If Assad survives and the Arab Gulf states continue to isolate Iraq, the largely token U.S. presence in Iraq is likely to become irrelevant and Iraq is likely to become part of a “Shi’ite” axis going from Lebanon to Iran. If Assad falls, and U.S. and Gulf Arab tensions with Iran continue to rise, Iran seems likely to do everything it can to replace its ties to Syria with influence in Iraq.

Arab and Turkish pressure on Iraq seems more likely to push Iraq towards Iran than away from it. If Iraq becomes caught up in sectarian and ethnic civil war, this will push its Shi’ite majority towards Iran, push its Kurds toward separatism, and push the Arab states around Iraq to do even more to support Sunni factions in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while suppressing their own Shi’ites.

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A government supporter holds a poster of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during a rally in Basra, 420 km southeast of Baghdad. (Reuters file)

The United States has limited cards to play. The U.S.-Iraqi Strategic Framework Agreement exists on paper, but it did not survive the Iraqi political power struggles that came as the United States left. The U.S. military presence has been reduced to a small U.S. office of military cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and it is steadily shrinking. The cumbersome U.S. arms transfer process has already pushed Iraq to buy arms from Russia and other suppliers. The U.S. State Department’s efforts to replace the military police training program collapsed before they really began. The United States is a marginal player in the Iraqi economy and economic development, and its only aid efforts are funded through money from past years. The State Department did not make an aid request for Iraq for FY2014.

However, it is far from clear that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or most of the Shi’ite ruling elite really want alignment with Iran or that anyone in Iraq wants civil war. A revitalized U.S. office of military cooperation and timely U.S. arms transfer might give the United States more leverage, and U.S. efforts to persuade Arab Gulf states that it is far better to try to work with Iraq than isolate it might have a major impact. Limited and well-focused U.S. economic and governance aid might improve leverage in a country that may have major oil export earnings but whose economy needs aid in reform more than money and today has the per capita income of a poverty state, ranking only 162 in the world.

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Men brandish weapons during an anti-government protest in Ramadi, 100 km west of Baghdad, April 29, 2013. (Reuters)

Making Iraq a major strategic focus in dealing with Turkey and our Arab friends and allies might avoid creating a strategic bridge between Iran and the Gulf states. It might limit the growing linkages between the tensions and conflicts in the Gulf and those in the Levant, and help secure Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt. It would not be a major expense to give the State Department’s country team in Baghdad all of the aid resources it needs to move Iraq towards economic reform and a stable military.

Even limited success in damping down internal conflict in Iraq and helping Iraq keep a distance from Iran might save the United States far more, even in the short run, than substituting strategic neglect for strategic patience. It also might help prevent Iraq from becoming a far worse civil conflict than now exists in Syria, fueling the religious war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which can turn a clash within a civilization into a serious war and spill over into terrorism in the West.

This post was originally published on CSIS.org. On Twitter, the Center for Strategic and International Studies can be followed at @CSIS.

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 INSIGHT: Iraq   New Strategic Pivot in Middle East

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.