WASHINGTON, April 2, 2015 — Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein, has finally been liberated. Iraq’s leader, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, confidently made the announcement Tuesday on Iraqi state television.
While Iraq celebrates its victory, it still faces an enormous task in continuing the fight against ISIS to liberate other ISIS-controlled cities to the north, especially Mosul.
Iraq will face even greater challenges in securing its political and economic security after the conflict has ended. Beyond the developments that take place on the battlegrounds, we should pay attention to the developments that take place in diplomacy.
Read Also: Iraqi leadership and the new ‘Iranian Empire
In recent weeks, Iraq’s leaders have been working to build bridges with other Arab nations in the region. Diplomatic missions have been under way in efforts to expand political and economic partnerships, but challenges continue with new developments in the region.
Ammar Al-Hakim and King Abdullah II
Last week, Ammar Al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, visited Jordan’s King Abdullah II. ISCI is a major political party in Iraq that controls three ministries in the Iraqi government: the ministries of oil, transportation and youth. In what was described as a positive meeting between the two nations, Abdullah emphasized Jordan’s support for its Iraqi “brethren” in their fight against terrorism.
Jordan’s king expressed his country’s desire to help Iraq encompass all segments of Iraqi society. Such sentiments could translate to Jordan’s helping protect its neighbor from further insurgency. This could entail tightening the grip on Jordanian nationals who cross the border into Iraq in order to join ISIS. If that policy interest alone can be achieved, it would be a grand stride in strengthening the security of Iraq and all of its neighbors.
Al-Hakim expressed his appreciation for Jordan’s support. He also shared his appreciation to the Jordanian king for his efforts to strengthen security and stability in the Middle East. In recent weeks, Jordan has participated in the U.S.-led coalition for airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq. Al-Hakim emphasized that ISIS threatens more than Iraq’s sovereignty; it threatens the entire region.
Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Nusoor also met with Al-Hakim. In their discussion of regional security and economic challenges, Al-Nusoor said that his country looks forward to reactivating some joint projects that were previously blocked due to security concerns. Among these projects are railway systems for trade and oil transport and aviation development.
Beyond being a positive step in the diplomatic relations between Jordan and Iraq, these projects could be effective CVE (countering violent extremism) initiatives. These projects generate jobs, putting more Iraqis and Jordanians to work and effectively decreasing unemployment rates. Adopting economic policies that combat unemployment is an effective non-violent means of combatting terrorism and violent extremism.
Diplomacy with other Arab nations gets more complex
Last week, additional strides were made in Iraq’s relations with yet another Arab neighbor: Saudi Arabia. Saudi King Salman invited Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to visit the kingdom. The prime minister’s office reacted positively to the invitation, which is seen as an effort to thaw decades-long tension between the two nations. Achieving political normalcy with Saudi Arabia and furthering a meaningful diplomatic relationship will help bring stability to Iraq.
The recent developments in Saudi Arabia’s military role in Yemen, however, have complicated the situation. A Saudi-led coalition has carried out scores of airstrikes on Yemen’s Shiite rebels, the Houthis. Though accused of being an Iranian proxy, the group is a homegrown organization that has existed for years in Yemen.
Iraq’s leadership has voiced its opposition to Arab military intervention in Yemen, which some have criticized as contradictory, given that Iraq has welcomed the help of coalition forces to fight the invasion of ISIS. Iraq’s foreign minister Ibrahim Al-Jafari explains the distinction in policy as a difference of what is actually taking place on the ground. “The situation is different. In Yemen, the Houthis are an integral part of the society, but members of the Islamic State group in Iraq are not Iraqis. They are of different nationalities and have come from different parts of the world.”
Read Also: Iraq: Merely an age-old sectarian narrative?
In the recent Arab League Summit in Egypt on March 29, Iraq was one of the few Arab nations that voiced concerns over the summit’s decision for military intervention in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia. When asked if the Arab-Iranian conflict had become a priority for the Arab League, Al-Jafari responded, “I would say that it is an Arab-Arab conflict. The Arab countries have opened a new page of war, while we need to spread peace now more than ever. I hope the Arab League will be up to the responsibility.”
The position that Iraq takes due to its own national experience sets it apart from others, but simultaneously creates difficulty in its diplomatic overtures to other Arab nations who see Iraqis as proxies of Iranian foreign policy. Though Iraq may provide a unique perspective, given its Arab affiliation and its close relationship to Iran, it can easily be sidelined by the dominant majority of Sunni-led monarchies in the Arab league.
Al-Jafari also made a visit to neighboring Arab nation Syria. There he met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad where the two leaders reaffirmed their nations’ dedication to combatting terrorism. Though Syria does not enjoy the favor of most of the region’s Arab nations, it is nonetheless a strategic partner for Iraq in fighting the threat of terrorism. This is in addition to the recent change in policy, or at least rhetoric, of the United States towards Syria. Given the alternatives Washington has in Syria, the U.S. has become at least neutral towards the Syrian government.
The significance of a more actively diplomatic Iraq
Iraq’s policy of reaching out to its Arab neighbors is significant in furthering its own stability as a nation. Iraq’s neighbors continue to be skeptical of Iran and, in lamest terms, look at Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated government as an extension of their Iranian adversary. The better Iraq works, and other Arab nations reciprocate, at building meaningful relationships with its Arab neighbors, the more promising the future will look for stability in the Middle East.
Iraq is key in regional stability. What takes place in Iraq directly or indirectly affects the entire region. It continues to be a battlefield for regional powers in shows of power play. However, if the leadership in Iraq begins to dictate its own policy and pursue the initiative of developing its political and economic relationships with other regional players, it can gradually change that dynamic in the Middle East.
Iraq is unique in the political arena of the Middle East. Though its people are diverse ethnically and religiously, it is an Arab-majority country. Its Arab majority is also a Shiite majority, which places it in proximity to the Islamic Republic of Iran. With this mere dynamic, Iraq could be the long-term link that bridges stability in the region and thaws the cold-war between the Middle East’s major powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.