Iraq's political groups must pursue meaningful domestic reconciliation and formulate a strategic response to the crisis in Syria or risk exacerbating a wider regional conflict, says a new report.

Iraq on the International Stage: Foreign Policy and National Identity in Transition, argues that Iraq's foreign relations are increasingly intertwined with the country's own divisions, and the increasing polarisation of key Middle Eastern countries over Syria threatens to escalate Iraq's internal crisis. Drawing on interviews with key stakeholders across Iraq, the report offers a rare insight into Iraqi perspectives on these challenges.

The report is launched at a time of escalating tensions and growing fears of a new Iraqi civil war. The UN estimates that more than 1,000 Iraqis died in political violence in May, the highest monthly death toll in years. Meanwhile, Syria has become the most divisive foreign policy issue facing Iraq, with little consensus on how to respond to spillover from the conflict next door.

'Many of the Iraqi policy makers we interviewed expressed a desire for their country to be neutral in its foreign policy, and not to be drawn into either side of an increasingly polarised region, where Sunni and Shia identities are being politicised,' says Jane Kinninmont, one of the report's authors. 'But there is a danger that Iraq’s rival political factions will use their foreign alliances for their own domestic political advantage, rather than for advancing the country's national interest.'

Conclusions and recommendations include a call for governments in the US, UK and Europe to refocus on Iraq, a country whose fate remains profoundly relevant to Western strategic interests. The authors also argue that:

  • To protect against the risk of spillover from Syria, Iraq's political groupings must develop at least a basic agreement on their strategic response to the conflict.
  • International governments and multilateral institutions should work to integrate Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey into a more coordinated response to the Syrian refugee crisis, which now involves more than 1.5 million people.
  • Western governments should caution their allies in the Gulf that the exploitation of sectarian discourses will have toxic effects that could last for at least a generation.

Notes to Editors

Read Iraq on the International Stage: Foreign Policy and National Identity in Transition
by Jane Kinninmont, Gareth Stansfield and Omar Sirri.

The report will be launched at Chatham House on 4 July and live streamed online. Details.