The Iraqi Army has been trying to regain control of Anbar province and in particular the city of Fallujah after clashes between tribal militias and Al-Qaeda in Iraqi (AQI) forced security forces to withdraw from the region towards the end of December.

This article will examine the recent deterioration of Iraqi security and the likely response from Saudi Arabia, a state that is fast emerging as a key security player in the region amid growing US reluctance to commit military forces to the Middle East.

The Context of Iraq’s Deteriorating Security

Despite a lack of media attention in recent years, the security situation in Iraq has continuously hurdled towards a critical state.  The country was ranked with the highest terrorism incidence rate on the Institute of Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index. And although this index counts the impact of terrorism over the past decade, it is telling that, even years after the peak of the violence, Iraq is still considered the country with the most terrorist incidents in the world, and in terms of casualties it accounts for a third of all terrorist victims.

Ongoing violence can be traced to both the post-invasion situation, with insufficient planning by US and allied forces, and the post-war political settlement, which resulted in sectarian political parties, utilising ethnic-tribal divisions and political machine-style patronage networks to obtain power in the Iraqi Parliament.  Divides between Sunni, Shiite and Kurd populations are exacerbated by this kind of political system, which, in the greater context of regional and global politics, has produced an unstable and conflict-torn state.

Despite notable differences in party affiliation, Shiites make up a majority of Iraq’s population, and in particular, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Islamic Dawa Party lead two of the major coalitions within the Iraqi Parliament.  Both have a long history of collusion with Iran, and the Supreme Council also controlled the Badr Corps, a paramilitary group who infiltrated Iraqi security forces and carried out a number of sectarian killings during Iraq’s civil war.

AQI uses this kind of communal tension in Iraq to promote its own agenda, positioning the organization as a defender of Sunni Islam against the “heretical” Shiites.

AQI benefited from its participation in the Syrian civil war during the summer of 2013, and it used the resulting influx of foreign fighters and funds to unleash a bombing campaign in northern and central Iraq.  In response to the deteriorating security situation, the Iraqi government planned the creation of the Special Baghdad Division – ostensibly a state security force, though made up of elements of former Shiite private militias, possibly including the Badr Corps.

The creation fuels fears that Prime Minister al-Maliki is arming Shiite paramilitaries, who themselves were primary actors in sectarian killings during the civil war, and is taking a step towards ensuring Shiite dominance over the Iraqi state.  Autumn also saw an increase in the deaths of Sunni community leaders in southern Iraq – most likely by Shiite militias, though it is not entirely clear who was behind the wave of assassinations and kidnappings.

Sectarian Tensions Boil Over Again

In Anbar, AQI ambushes on Iraqi Army patrols have triggered a declaration of military operations to curtail AQI activities in the region – which has long been a hotbed of Sunni radicalism and a former operating area for AQI militants.  However, al-Maliki also decided to use the army to counter the political threat posed by the Ramadi protest movement. Claiming it was the centre of AQI operations, he ordered the camp to be disbanded by force, inflaming Sunni public opinion. Maliki further exacerbated tensions by arresting MP Ahmed al-Alwani, who is believed to have influence over the Ramadi protestors.

These aggressive moves made various tribal militias and Sunni groups, including the Grand Mufti of Iraq, view the Iraqi Army and al-Maliki as a looming threat, and since it appeared that their grievances against Baghdad had no political recourse – they took up arms instead.  Violence undertaken by tribal militias allowed AQI to stage attacks on Iraqi Police stations and free prisoners.  Since then, some tribal militias have allied with local police units, but notably not with the Iraqi Army, in order to drive out AQI gunmen.

Saudi Arabia and a Region in Flux

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia has taken a leading role in the conflicts and disputes that have risen in its wake. In particular, Saudi Arabia coordinated the military response to unrest in Bahrain, and it has supplied rebels in the Syrian civil war, in addition to supporting the Egyptian military against the Muslim Brotherhood and providing support for the Lebanese army as a counterweight against Hezbollah.

As such, it would be reasonable to expect Saudi Arabia is closely monitoring events in Iraq.  Especially as it would seem Saudi interests are closely tied to ongoing Shiite-Sunni tensions, which are in and of themselves a reflection of Saudi insecurity over the role of Iran in the Middle East.  Given the close relationship between Iran and Iraq and the sectarian nature of the current Iraqi crisis, we should expect Saudi Arabia is, at least on some level, considering becoming involved in the conflict.

The Saudi strategy towards Syria requires some examination, as Syria, another regional ally of Iran, is suffering from sectarian conflict as well.

Initially Qatar took the lead on Syria, in keeping with its leading role during the Libya conflict of 2011. Qatar hoped to utilise the Muslim Brotherhood, under the auspices of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, to force Assad to step down and get a brokered deal to assume power.

Conversely, Saudi Arabia began with a maximalist approach, with Prince Saud al-Faisal calling a negotiated settlement “inconceivable.” Instead, Saudi Arabia has backed, financed and armed several Salafist Sunni groups, who together now form the Islamic Front coalition.  While the AQI group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (hereafter ISIL), was officially excluded from the coalition, both organizations cooperate militarily and the military leader of the Islamic Front’s own forces have flown the Black Banner, a symbol strongly associated with Al-Qaeda affiliates.

The Islamic Front has also explicitly rejected the Geneva II peace talks, in line with Saudi Arabia’s wishes for the Syrian conflict.

It is also believed that a large number of the ISIL fighters in Syria are in fact from Iraq.  Thus the possibility is that increasing levels of violence in Syria will inevitably involve Iraq, with the decisive difference between ISIL-aligned factions and those of the Islamic Front being their attitude towards Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia maintains a steadfast and vocal policy of opposition to Al-Qaeda as an international actor, while for its part Al-Qaeda continues to denounce the House of Saud as corrupt and irreligious.  However, some analysts believe the relationship between them may be more complex than simple adversarial animosity.  In particular, despite the vocal condemnations of many Saudi officials, some have wondered if ISIL forces in Syria were receiving support from the Saudi state, given the relative ineffectiveness of the Free Syrian Army and the fragmented nature of the Islamist opposition not affiliated with Al-Qaeda.

Given the formation of the Islamic Front, it seems likely that Saudi Arabia is attempting to create a bulwark against a possible ISIL-led dissolution of the Syrian state, backing more “moderate” Sunni radicals who do not share Al-Qaeda’s ideological hostility towards Saudi Arabia, while still allowing it to pursue maximalist policies of state disintegration against Iranian allies in the region.

Thus we would expect in the case of Iraq, where armed Sunni networks and militias opposed to Al-Qaeda already exist, that Saudi Arabia would choose to back the Anbar tribal militias.  This achieves the dual policy aims of both destabilising the Iraqi state while not allowing Sunni fundamentalists hostile to Saudi Arabia to take power.  We would look in particular to Saudi Arabia trying to assert control over the Iraqi protest movement in predominantly Sunni regions of the country, to leverage political support for the Anbar militias and provide legitimacy in their dispute with the Iraqi government.

However, should the Anbar tribal militias come under sustained assault, either from the Iraqi state or from ISIL-sponsored militants, to such a degree that significantly degrades their ability to fight, it may well be that Saudi Arabia would be willing to temporarily embrace their activities. In the long-term, Saudi Arabia would look to less radical Sunni allies, but as a stop-gap measure the author believes they are willing to cooperate with ISIL when it comes to undermining the Iraqi state.

Thus far, there has been no evidence of Saudi involvement in Iraq’s sectarian fighting.  However, Saudi Arabia has no faith in al-Maliki, as leaked US diplomatic cables show: “He expressed lingering doubt on the Iraqi government’s willingness to resist Iran. He also repeated his frequently voiced doubts about Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki himself by alluding to his ‘Iranian connections.’ The Saudi monarch stated that he does not trust al-Maliki because the Iraqi prime minister had ‘lied’ to him in the past by promising to take certain actions and then failing to do so. The King did not say precisely what these allegedly broken promises might have been. He repeated his oft heard view that al-Maliki rules Iraq on behalf of his Shiite sect instead of all Iraqis.”

Obviously, this policy would put Saudi Arabia in conflict with the United States, which has been supporting Al-Maliki’s security efforts against the resurgent AQI since US forces left the country.  However, Saudi Arabia has been acting increasingly independent of the United States, citing its failure to deal with the Syria conflict as their main reason, though it is almost certainly the case that Saudi Arabia also fears US rapprochement with Iran.

Splits with the US could also be seen in Saudi Arabia’s backing of the coup in Egypt this summer.  While the US had been cooperating, albeit uneasily, with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, Saudi Arabia backed the military leadership and the coup they initiated.  In addition to scaling back cooperation with US intelligence, Saudi diplomats have also been airing the idea that European powers, such as France or the UK, could take over the US’ role.  This may account for France’s attempted “spoiler” role in recent Iranian negotiations.

Nevertheless, the implications are alarming.  Saudi Arabia, as a major regional player, is more than willing to undergo a split with the United States in order to support its own policy of regional regime change.  The situation in Iraq will need to be closely monitored as, if the past is any guide, it seems very likely that Saudi Arabia will attempt to manipulate the conflict to its own benefit – and against the interests of the United States.