It appears that calm has returned to Iraq after the reported intervention of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country’s chief and widely respected Shia cleric. In recent weeks, violence had occurred in and near parliament, which has been unable to implement last October’s election results. The clashes involved demonstrators and armed forces loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, the leading candidate in the elections, and militias loyal to a loose array of rival Shia political parties calling themselves the Coordination Framework.

Al-Sadr withdrew his members from parliament in June and has announced his own retirement from politics (not for the first time). He wants new elections, which he thinks he will win. The Coordination Framework, whose leadership includes al-Sadr’s archrival, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has occupied more than half of Sadr’s seats based on the election results and has proposed a new prime minister. Maliki doesn’t want new elections.

Violence is a staple of Iraqi politics, but it is often intra-sectarian rather than inter-sectarian violence. Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis have all suffered bouts of intra-sectarian political rivalry settled in part through force of arms. The main stakes are power and money. There is often little religious or ideological difference, though al-Sadr claims a more Iraqi nationalist stance while al-Maliki and a number of his Coordination Framework allies are viewed as more pro-Iranian. The Americans are a distant factor, important for the training of the most professional Iraqi security forces but no longer as strongly engaged in Iraqi politics as once they were. Anxious to avoid state collapse in Iraq, they are now reduced to calling for dialogue. Neither al-Sadr, whose forces resisted the Americans for years, nor al-Maliki, who had crucial American support for his second term as prime minister, has much good to say about the Americans.

How this latest deadly violence will play out is not yet clear. New elections are unlikely in the near term, if only because last October’s elections were held early in response to widespread demonstrations and solved nothing. In the past, the winning formula has been a broad coalition, leaving few if any politicians to oppose it. But that is precisely what al-Sadr does not want. He tried but failed to form a “majoritarian” government with Sunni and Kurdish parties, which would have left the Coordination Framework in opposition. The situation could still worsen, with new violence erupting among the competing political factions.

Meanwhile, Iraq muddles on. In June, oil production reached more than 4.5 million barrels per day[i]—near 2016’s record high of 4.83 million barrels per day. At about $90 per barrel, this level of production more than meets the government’s financial obligations and provides ample opportunity not only for investment but also for patronage and corruption. The Federal Supreme Court has decided that Baghdad, not Erbil, should control oil and gas production in Iraqi Kurdistan, causing the exit of international companies that had been active there.[ii] The country’s credit ratings are low but stable. ISIS is mainly defeated and holds no territory, but thousands of its fighters are still at large and hundreds of their families are still returning from Syria. More than one million people displaced by the war against ISIS and earlier conflicts still need support as well as resettlement or reintegration. Government services, which include water, electricity, and healthcare, are notoriously inadequate and inefficient.

Internationally, Iraq has been playing an important role in mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which broke diplomatic ties in 2016. Baghdad has hosted five rounds of talks between Saudi and Iranian intelligence and security officials in the past year and a half.[iii] A meeting of the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers has been announced, but the meeting itself has been delayed, apparently due to Iraq’s political turmoil. Since it won’t do to have rioting during a key diplomatic event, both the Saudis and the Iranians may want to wait for the formation of a new Iraqi government or meet elsewhere.

Iraq faces other problems with its neighbors. Turkey has thousands of troops inside Iraq and bombards Kurdish forces that it considers terrorists in Iraqi Kurdistan. Fighting inside Syria continues to incentivize the smuggling of arms, drugs, fighters, and civilians to and from Iraq. While Iraq controls the vast majority of its own territory, its borders are still porous and its capacity to control them is limited. That is true also for Iraq’s long borders with Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Taking the long view, Iraq is still far better off than it has been for much of the past twenty years. People can go about their daily lives with far fewer impediments than in the days of blast walls around neighborhoods and checkpoints every few hundred meters. Many Iraqis have been sweltering this summer, but electricity supplies have held up better than usual. Multiple political parties compete for votes, even if the media environment is not really free because of political party domination and intimidation. Iraq is back as a player in the region, albeit still a relatively weak one.

While they are unusual in Middle Eastern autocracies, political fights over government formation are the rule in parliamentary systems, not the exception. Iraqis are contending with the difficulty of finding sustainable compromises and the propensity to use organized political violence to achieve desired ends. The divisibility of the financial spoils should make compromise possible, but profound fractiousness and intense rivalry render it difficult.

[i] “Iraq’s oil production will hit 4.580 million bpd as of July, ministry spokesperson says,” Reuters, June 3, 2022.
[ii] Edwards, Rowena, and Moataz Mohamed, “U.S. oilfield services trio to exit Kurdistan region, Iraqi ministry says,” Reuters, July 4, 2022.
[iii] Motamedi, Maziar, “Iran, Saudi Arabia hold fifth round of talks in Baghdad,” Al Jazeera, April 23, 2022.

The Syrian Conflict: Reflections and Prospects

Held on 10 November, 2022


Ola Rifai | Senior research fellow and the Deputy Director for Outreach at the Centre for Syrian Studies.

Mohamad al-Ashmar | Humanitarian professional and consultant in international development and humanitarian crises. International Relations doctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews (UK).

Dr Francesco Belcastro | Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Derby (UK) and a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St Andrew.

Professor Raymond Hinnebusch | Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Founder and director of the Centre for Syrian Studies.


“Agency has largely passed from Syrians to external powers.”

The nature and impact of external influence in the Syrian conflict was the most prominent issue discussed by the panel. The speakers concurred that the persistence of international interference by powers such as Russia and the US play a harmful and restrictive role in the region, which ultimately prevents the resolution of the conflict.

Tracking Russia and Iran’s support of the Syrian regime since the 2012 uprisings, Dr Belcastro argued that the Syrian regime is reliant upon these powers to the extent of surrendering its autonomy. In light of recent distractions which threaten Russia and Iran’s support of the regime, namely civil unrest in Iran or Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the question of the regime’s ability to hold its ground can be brought into question. Belcastro argued that regardless of the extent of engagement, these external powers will continue to play the role of ultimate guarantor for the Syrian regime, as the regime remains too weak to stand on its own.

Professor Hinnebusch discussed the role of US interference and influence on the conflict, highlighting the superpower’s recent shift in approach from primary to secondary sanctions. Painting a bleak picture, Professor Hinnebusch outlined the key consequences of these sanctions as economic collapse and escalation into further humanitarian crisis. At the societal level, he argued that the sanctions are failing to spawn revolt and have instead instilled a sense of hopelessness, with the struggle for daily economic survival debilitating the Syrian people’s political agency.

“Demographic engineering is reconstructing identity and provoking identity clashes.”

A key theme evoked by the speakers was the relevance and centrality of identity within the Syrian conflict. The speakers explored the topic of identity through the perspective of different players within the conflict, from the Syrian diaspora to Syrian people who remain in the region.

Emphasising the delicate historical process of identity construction and reconstruction for the Syrian people, a panellist criticised Turkey’s recent inorganic transplantation of 1 million Syrian refugees into North Syria, a land which was historically ethnically mixed and is surrounded by Salafi militias, as disruptive to the natural process of identity construction. Taking a more positive stance, a panellist explored the role of Syrian identity as a mobilising force. Focusing on the power of the Syrian diaspora in the Syrian relief effort, they emphasised the force of the
Syrian diaspora in constructing hundreds of charitable organisations worldwide in support of those in Syria, and the way in which the common Syrian identity felt by those involved has helped fuel collective mobilisation. However, the panellist resigned to the limitations of this form of resistance, acknowledging that the diaspora is ultimately incapable of significantly impacting the political situation in Syria.

“The importance of sect was over romanticised.”

The panel was critical of the tendency of Western political figures and media to overemphasise the role of sectarianism in the Syrian conflict. Dr Belcastro cited this as an oversimplification of multifaceted political tensions by Western powers. Similarly, a panellist identified this tendency as a manifestation of the wider historical trend of the West imposing orientalist lenses upon Middle Eastern subjects. This depiction of the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms ultimately places identity groups as oppositional forces, ultimately fuelling inter-group conflict.

Dr. Belcastro expanded this thought beyond the immediate context of Syria, suggesting that this sectarian lens is imposed by the West onto the wider Middle Eastern geopolitical landscape, such as the ongoing tensions between Iran and the Gulf nations. The speakers posed the question of how, acting from within this imposed sectarian lens, the Syrian regime will attempt to negotiate reintegration into regional politics in the near future.

“External Interference is unlikely to ever withdraw entirely.”

Ultimately, the panel agreed that moving forward, the prospect of a Syria without any form of external interference is a fantasy. External actors have invested too much into the conflict to completely absolve themselves of all influence. Ultimately, as we have seen with the US’s shift toward secondary sanctions, it is expected that external powers such as the US and Russia will simply recalibrate the way in which they choose to interfere. Neither Russia nor the US are predicted to completely abandon their role within the conflict.

“The Success or failure of the US’s secondary sanctions on Syria have implications on the global order.”

Russia and China are expected to push back against the US’s secondary sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime, which punishes any company or state who chooses to do business with those that do business with Syria. Moves such as attempting to reduce the use of the dollar in international trade and producing an alternative world banking payment system have been triggered, in part, by these sanctions imposed upon the Syrian regime. This has implications far beyond the Syrian context. This act of defiance suggests a gradual shift toward a multipolar global financial order, which would see the US removed as the global financial hegemon.

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