Iraq tiptoes away from Assad

Iraq can't control its own simmering political cauldron, so it was not surprising that its efforts to act as a trouble shooter in Syria came to naught.

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DAMASCUS // Slowly and ever so quietly, Iraq seems to be backing away from its uneasy, noncommittal friendship with Syria's Bashar Al Assad.

The crisis gripping Syria has put Baghdad in an unenviable position, placing the still fragile country at the heart of a renewed struggle for the Middle East, torn by forces pulling in opposite directions.

On one side are Iran, Mr Al Assad's staunchest ally, and Syria, leaving power brokers in Baghdad with ample scope to wield benign or malevolent influence over Iraqi affairs.

On the other are the GCC, Turkey and the West, all lined up against the Syrian regime, and all important allies and partners for Iraq as it seeks to pull itself out of decades of sanctions, war and sectarianism.

This bloc too has the ability to either ease Iraq's way, or throw obstacles in its path.

These competing groups have each sought to cajole Baghdad into supporting their cause and, for a fleeting moment last year, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, sensed an opportunity to offer Iraq's services as a well placed mediator. There was talk of an Iraq initiative to solve the Syria crisis, and even a flurry of shuttle diplomacy.

Unsurprisingly, given Baghdad's inability to control its own simmering political cauldron, those efforts to act as a trouble shooter came to naught. Ever since, Iraq has wobbled along a narrow middle path between the opposing sides.

While this strategy has pleased neither bloc, Baghdad has done just enough to avoid creating new enemies or aggravate festering animosities it can ill afford to worsen.

However, with the Syrian crisis escalating, Iraq's noncommittal approach had been looking less like canny pragmatism and more like mute impotence in the face of a looming disaster - one that could tear open the wounds of Baghdad's own ethnic and sectarian divisions.

The emergence of a United Nations-Arab League consensus on Syria, under the auspices of the joint special envoy Kofi Annan, has handed Iraq just the chance it needed to act without having to do anything radical, original or dangerous.

In endorsing the former UN secretary general's six-point plan to end the violence in Syria, Iraq is safely standing in the crowd, not only with the other members of the Arab League but also Russia, China, the United States, Europe and, even - ostensibly at least - Iran and Syria. All have backed Mr Annan's peace efforts.

While the Syrian leadership has said it supports Mr Annan's demand for a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavily armed military units from civilian areas, as well as negotiations with the opposition, there are ample reasons to believe Damascus will either be unwilling or unable to meet those conditions on the ground, just as it failed to during the plan's former incarnation under the Arab League.

Much of Syria now remains under government control by force of arms alone and, removing the military from the equation, as Mr Annan's plan requires, will almost certainly weaken the regime's hold on the country, as would implementing meaningful political reforms.

The Annan initiative therefore represents something of a poisoned chalice for Mr Al Assad's long-term future as president of the land his family has ruled since the 1970s.

That is something Damascus is only too well aware off and, surely, Iraq is too. Hence, the Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari's comments ahead of yesterday's Arab League summit that, while not calling for Mr Al Assad to step down, Iraq could "no longer remain neutral".

Baghdad used to openly accuse Mr Al Assad's Syria of aiding and abetting insurgent groups blowing up government buildings and murdering hundreds of civilians in the Iraqi capital. Following his re-election as prime minister in 2010 - with some helpful nudging from Syria and Iran - Mr Al Maliki sharply toned down that rhetoric and struck up a new friendship with Damascus.

After a year of equivocation, that cordial relationship is once again cooling. By supporting Mr Annan's plan, Baghdad has - perhaps even with a sigh of relief - taken a small, tip-toed step away from Mr Al Assad's regime.