The ever-intensifying interaction between the insurgencies on both sides of the porous border goes beyond the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The appeal of jihad in Syria combined with the growing political crisis in Iraq seems to have reactivated a wide range of disaffected Iraqi Sunni groups, including armed factions that had turned against al Qaeda as part of the "Awakening." A recent International Crisis Group report, for instance, quotes a member of the Islamic Army in Iraq (a key resistance group during the Awakening) as saying, "We are counting on the success of the Syrian revolution, which will provide us with a surplus of men and weapons.… We see in these protests a chance to liberate Iraq from Iran." Maliki would not disagree; he has similarly argued that "the internal situation in Syria is playing a major role with what's happening in Iraq."
Iraq's internal polarization has been inflamed by the regional environment, of course. The Gulf regimes and individuals funding and supporting the armed insurgency in Syria have taken a similarly dim view of Maliki and have reacted with fury to his perceived support for the Assad regime. For years, they had viewed Iraq's government through a hard sectarian lens and disparaged Maliki as an Iranian puppet. Iraq's tolerance of Iranian resupply overflights to Damascus and ambivalent attitude toward the Assad regime made things worse. Gulf support for Iraq's Sunni protest movement (if not the armed insurgents) has been widely rumored. While Maliki's denunciation of the protests as a foreign-backed plot should be understood as politically expedient scapegoating, there is little doubt that Iraqi politics remain thoroughly penetrated by the same regional sectarian proxy wars now afflicting Syria.
For all the grim circumstances, then, Maliki and Obama should actually have more basis for productive discussions than in their previous meetings. Even Maliki understands the growing scope and nature of Iraq's security challenges. He will likely be looking for more American security assistance and support for what he will surely describe as counterterrorism. Washington might finally be able to get him to make the necessary political reforms as part of such a security assistance package. This would cut against the grain of every move he has ever made as prime minister, of course, and nobody should be optimistic. But the combination of the greatest security crisis his government has yet faced and his growing recognition of the value of American assistance just might now make him more receptive.
The American decision to not bomb Syria last month should also help. It was not only Iraqi Shiites who were opposed to such a military strike, after all. Most prominently, the leading Sunni politician Usama al-Nujayfi also publicly warned against it: "The military strike will not be beneficial towards Syria and will ignite a fire that will possibly extend to Iraq and nearby countries." Having wisely backed away from bombing Damascus, the White House should now push Baghdad even harder on allowing Iranian supply flights to transit Iraq. It also should look for ways to work with Baghdad on their common interest in combating the jihadi groups wreaking havoc on both sides of the border. A shared interest in fighting ISIS must not be taken as license to further repress Iraqi Sunnis, however -- Obama should make clear that he views political reforms and Sunni inclusion as an essential part of any new security cooperation towards that shared goal.
The tantalizing prospect of a U.S.-Iranian political bargain, however remote such a deal may seem, should also be a key part of the new dialogue with Iraq. There are few countries that would benefit more from a cordial working relationship between Iran and the United States. While it hasn't often felt like it, Iraq still represents a natural potential bridge between Iran and the United States, and the greatest potential challenge to the alarming regional sectarian division along Sunni-Shiite lines. The United States has a profound interest in seeing Iraq break its vicious cycle of sectarian polarization, autocratic entrenchment, and insurgency. Maliki has never behaved as if he shared those interests. But Obama's coming meeting with his Iraqi counterpart would be the ideal time to test the possibility of pushing him to change his course.