Research Paper

Syria, Iraq and the struggle for power: Intertwined futures

Hayder al-Khoei, November 2016


  • The Syrian government facilitated the flow of extremists and foreign fighters through its territory, permitting them to use Syria as a transit point for jihad in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003. It was a process aimed at undermining the US project.
  • Nouri al-Maliki’s authoritarian policies in Iraq, coupled with US, Gulf Arab and Turkish support for militants in Syria, enabled jihadists across both Syria and Iraq to exploit local Sunni grievances and the security and political crises to strengthen their hold and eventually declare the so-called Islamic Caliphate.
  • The confused and contradictory policies of the Obama administration in Syria and Iraq further complicated the crises. Having realized they had miscalculated in Syria and failed to oust Assad, the US attempted to channel blame away from itself and onto its Arab and Turkish allies due to the increased power of jihadists.
  • The rise of ISIS provided Iran, already the most influential external actor in domestic Iraqi affairs, with an opportunity to play a more hands-on role in the war against jihadists and increase their leverage in Syria and Iraq.
  • Iran played a decisive role in turning back the tide against opposition forces in Syria. The push back was later given a strategic revival with Russia’s direct military involvement in Syria in September 2015, but it was initially bolstered by a Lebanese and Iraqi Shia deployment in the summer of 2012.
  • With all eyes now on the military campaign to liberate Mosul, many Iraqis remain deeply concerned over Iraq’s post-ISIS future. In both Sunni and Shia areas of Iraq, there is no clear vision of what political or security settlement will be in place after ISIS is defeated.
  • The establishment of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) has permanently changed the political and security landscape in Iraq. Many groups within the PMF will capitalize on their battlefield successes and translate that to increased political power following the defeat of ISIS. Others will shy away from the formal political process, preferring to remain independent security players that will resist any attempt to demobilize or integrate them into the security services.