Throughout the Middle East, nations and factions are picking sides in the Syrian civil war. But, as the Washington Post reports, Iraq is maintaining its neutrality. Iraq does so even though its president, Nouri al-Maliki, is a Shiite with close past ties to Iran — a major player in Syria.
Moreover, as conflicts between Sunni and Shiite increasingly define the region as a whole, not just Syria, Maliki is making “significant efforts to build alliances with moderate Iraqi Sunni groups.” He has agreed to transfer some powers from Baghdad to the provinces, including the Sunni stronghold of Anbar. And he has agreed to permit many former members of the Baath Party to hold government positions.
Why has Maliki tilted away from Iran and towards reconciliation with his Sunni population? The answer, in a word, is democracy.
Earlier this year, according to the Post, Maliki was following the advice of Iran to play the role of “Shiite defender.” In April, for example, security forces raided a Sunni protest, killing at least 50 people.
But provincial elections didn’t go well for Maliki, who faces a reelection battle next year. His party lost control of local governments in Baghdad and Basra.
Lacking the full support of his Shiite base, Maliki has thus reached out to moderate Sunnis. “There will be a political settlement with a segment of the Sunni community,” one of his top advisers says.
With Syria in flames, with the battle spilling over into neighboring Iraq, with Iran still a significant player in Iraq, and with Shiite militias re-forming, Maliki’s adviser may be too optimistic. But if things don’t fall apart, Iraq will have its democracy to thank.
It’s easy to overstate the virtues of democracy — in the narrow sense of fair elections — as applied to the Middle East. But it’s also easy to understate them.