Journal Essay – Syria’s Spillover on Iraq: State Resilience / Denise Natali – Spring 2017, Volume XXIV, Number 1

Dr. Natali is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), where she specializes in the Middle East, Iraq, the transborder Kurdish issue and post-conflict stabilization. She provides Middle East security analyses and strategic support to senior leaders at the Department of Defense, unified combatant commands, the Department of State, intelligence communities, and the broader national-security community. She is the author of The Kurds and the State: Evolving National Identity in Iraq, Turkey and Iran, recipient of the Choice Award for Outstanding Academic Title and The Kurdish Quasi-State. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Syria’s civil war has reinforced Iraqi state weakness and fears of partition along ethno-sectarian lines. The conflict has encouraged the proliferation of militias, refugee flows and Kurdish transnationalism, all of which challenge Baghdad’s sovereignty and enhance the de facto authority of sub-state actors. These centrifugal forces have been compounded by Iraq’s political and financial crises, the onslaught of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and second- and third-order consequences of the anti-ISIS campaign. Militias, ISIS militants, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and other radicalized groups move regularly across the porous Iraqi and Syrian borders, aggravating ethnosectarian fissures. Underlying these challenges to state cohesion are assumptions that Iraqi nationalism is no longer salient, that current borders are “artificial” and therefore unsustainable, and that ethnically and religiously homogenous political units are more authentic and viable means of governing and stabilizing states.1

Yet, despite Syria’s spillover and its sovereignty-undermining effects, the Iraqi state has not collapsed or been rendered obsolete.2 Regional actors and most local populations remain committed to Iraq’s territorial integrity even if they benefit from state weakness. Iraqi nationalism also persists among Arab groups — Sunni and Shia alike — alongside intra-communal divisions and alliances that cross ethnosectarian lines. Kurdish communities are fragmented as well, despite their distinct nationalist sentiment. Consequently, instead of a “Syriaq” under a Sunni Arab caliphate, a cohesive “Shia crescent,” or an independent Kurdistan, the Iraqi state has remained intact, while breaking down into an amalgam of hyper-fragmented entities seeking some form of self-protection and self-rule. What are the implications of these dynamics for Iraqi cohesion and regional stability?


Challenges to Iraq’s authority and territorial cohesion commenced decades before the Syrian civil war, despite the country’s juridical sovereignty.3 Even after the Treaty of Sevres (1923) delineated the boundaries of former Ottoman territories and the Iraqi state gained official independence from Britain in 1932, the country was neither fully sovereign nor unified. Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Kurdish communities were divided by sect and ethnicity, as well as by territories, tribes and politics. Some continued to support their Sunni Muslim cohorts in Turkey against British rule, while others accommodated the new mandatory power.4 Certain Kurdish groups opposed the new territorial divisions that denied them a state of their own, while most others did not. These contestations and internal divisions continued after Iraq’s violent revolution of 1958 that overthrew the British-backed Hashemite monarchy and played out through competing notions of Iraqi nationalism, unstable governments and Kurdish uprisings.

 The consolidation of Baathist rule in 1968 checked (but did not remove) sub-state challenges and strengthened Iraqi sovereignty; the state had gained a monopoly of force within its territorial borders. Then-Iraqi-vice-president Saddam Hussein may have negotiated the 1970 Autonomy Agreement with Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani, but he ensured that Baghdad and not the Kurds would control the northern autonomous region. State sovereignty and territorial cohesion were reinforced by a unified Iraqi army, a centralized intelligence apparatus, a state-led economy, and state-building policies that Arabized citizenship, territories and oil resources. Most important was the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, as well other northern territories populated by Kurds, Turcomans, Arabs and other minorities in northern Iraq.5

Still, Iraqi sovereignty and authority, which was largely rooted in violence and oil rents, remained vulnerable to external influences. The Islamic Revolution in Iran (1979), the Iran-Iraq War (1980-89), and the rupture of official ties between Damascus and Baghdad from 1979 to the 1990s and the Gulf War (1990) altered the regional balance of power and left Iraq economically and politically weakened.6 Neighboring countries also engaged in “sovereignty-undermining behavior” even if they supported Iraq’s territorial integrity.7 Iran, Turkey and Syria regularly backed Iraqi Kurdish political parties — Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jelal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — as local proxies to undermine Baghdad, rival Kurdish groups and each other.

Iraqi sovereignty was further weakened by shifting international norms and external interventions. UN-imposed sanctions and the creation of no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq and a safe haven for the Kurds after the Gulf War increased the gap between Iraq’s juridical and de facto authority. These trends persisted after the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam in 2003. Rapid de-Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi army, and the 2005 constitution codified state weakness and created incentive structures based on three dominant groups: Sunni Arab, Shia Arab and Kurd. Ethnosectarianism was exacerbated by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s policies, the retrenchment of Sunni Arabs from the political process (2005-10), and the al-Qaeda insurgency.8

On the eve of the Syrian civil war, Iraqi sovereignty had been significantly weakened. Sub-state actors had gained de facto control over ungoverned spaces and their resources, posing a significant challenge to state authority. The Kurds in particular had benefitted from a weak Iraqi state and external patronage by shifting the notional “Green Line” — a UN boundary created in 1991 to separate Baghdad-controlled territory from the Kurdish Autonomous Region — and assuming de facto control over parts of disputed territories in northern Iraq. Some Sunni Arab communities, as well as Iranian-backed Shia militias, continued to contest state authority and fuel sectarianism. These dynamics were reinforced by regional states, namely Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which were seeking to exert dominance in the Middle East and create spheres of Sunni and Shia influence.