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Iraq: Bashar al-Assad’s Essential Partner

Amidst the predominant focus on Iran and Russia’s roles in supporting Bashar al-Assad‘s regime, the significance of Iraq’s involvement should not be overlooked or underestimated. The recent meeting between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani in Damascus highlighted the continuity of relations between the two countries, even during the uprising against Assad that began in 2011.

Despite historically strained relations between Iraq and Syria, they retained ties while most Arab states severed relations with Syria and suspended it from the Arab League. Iraq played a crucial but discreet role in assisting Assad’s survival.

Surprisingly, Iraq’s importance in supporting Assad’s regime became evident, despite the historical animosity between the neighboring countries and their leaders, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad.

Tensions escalated during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, but relations improved after Bashar al-Assad assumed power in 2000. However, they strained again after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Nonetheless, trade flourished between Syria and Iraq, with the latter becoming Syria’s top export partner before the civil war. The rise of pro-Iranian politicians in Iraq, such as Nouri al-Maliki, paved the way for closer cooperation due to their shared alliance with Tehran.

When the Syrian civil war erupted, Iraq’s support played a vital role for Assad in several ways. Diplomatically, Iraq abstained from voting to suspend Syria in the Arab League, which allowed Assad to maintain the illusion of not being entirely isolated and garnered some domestic support.

Moreover, Iraq did not join the Arab League trade embargo against Syria, providing the regime with additional capital before trade routes were mostly cut off due to the war.

On the military front, while Iraq did not officially send aid to Assad, it did not prevent numerous Iraqi Shia fighters from joining Iranian-led brigades heading to Syria. These fighters, especially the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, were instrumental in defending and recapturing crucial positions for the Assad regime.

Iraq also offered strategic depth to Iran, a mutual ally of both Iraq and Syria, allowing Iran’s Quds Force led by General Qassem Soleimani to traverse the Syrian-Iraqi border freely. This facilitated the supply of weapons and other essentials to support Assad’s forces.

A pivotal moment came when the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, granting Iraq control over its airspace again. This allowed for regular Iranian flights across Iraq to Syria, purportedly carrying humanitarian aid but suspected to include crucial weapons for Assad and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon who joined the conflict.

In conclusion, while Iran and Russia have received more attention for their support to Bashar al-Assad, Iraq’s role as a vital ally should not be dismissed. Its diplomatic, military, and strategic assistance has played a significant part in bolstering Assad’s regime during the Syrian civil war.

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