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Editorial: The cracks from Syria are spreading

A high casualty count made last week the bloodiest Iraq has seen for five years

The civil war in Iraq is reigniting. More than 250 people have been killed in car bombings or shot dead in the past week alone. Such a high casualty count was last seen five years ago, during the final stages of the horrific sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia in which tens of thousands were killed.

Why the backwards step? In part, because Iraq is being destabilised by the failure of the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to find a satisfactory way of sharing power with the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds, each of which represents about a fifth of the Iraqi population. But the most important factor in the current crisis is the Syrian civil war. The Sunni minority in Iraq is being emboldened by the revolt of the Sunni majority next door in Syria. They sense that a Sunni offensive led by states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey is sweeping across the Middle East and they stand to benefit.

Five months ago, the Sunni in Iraq started peaceful protests modelled on the early demonstrations of the Arab Spring. They called for an end to the persecution and discrimination whereby they are denied jobs and may be jailed and tortured on the word of a secret informant. Mr Maliki, who tends to see a plot by former supporters of Saddam Hussein under every stone, made few concessions. He hoped that the protests would fizzle out and that Sunni leaders could be bribed or divided. But, since the security forces attacked a peaceful sit-in at Hawaijah in April, killing at least 44 people, Iraq’s Sunni have  taken to armed revolt, storming police stations and killing policemen.

The Sunni are not the only ones in Iraq who believe that there is too much hatred between the country’s three main communities for the country to hold together. The Kurds – already enjoying a degree of autonomy that is close to independence in the area ruled by the Kurdistan Regional Government – do not trust Mr Maliki and have ever closer relations with Turkey. And the Turks, for their part, see great advantage in conciliating the Kurds both at home and abroad, and thereby getting privileged access to oil and gas fields in Kurdish northern Iraq.

Now, the crises in Iraq and Syria are coming together and are exacerbating each other. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq boasts of how it set up, trained and largely funded the al-Nusra Front, the franchise that is now the most powerful rebel group in eastern Syria. Meanwhile, there is a diminishing number of Sunni moderates in Iraq who believe they can do business with the central government in Baghdad.  

According to William Hague, this disastrous situation would be improved if the EU ban on supplying arms to the Syrian rebels were lifted. Arms will be supplied to moderate rebels “under carefully controlled” conditions, he suggests. But who are these moderates who will give assurances of good behaviour in future? And how will the Foreign Secretary identify them? Already, as the EU prepares to lift oil sanctions on Syria, in the hope of helping the moderate Syrian National Coalition, it emerges that the oil wells are mostly under the control of the al-Nusra Front and other jihadi groups. Moreover, the leader of the National Coalition has just stepped down, alleging that it is being manipulated by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. 

The proposal of a further injection of weapons into a land so brimming with arms already is naive to the point of absurdity. It is also a re-run of the delusion once shared by the US and Britain in both Iraq and Afghanistan that they had a credible and moderate local partner. Mr Hague may claim that such a partner exists in Syria, but he is wrong.