(Once More Down the Rabbit Hole)
Syria was always the dark horse of the Arab Spring and most of us know what is going to happen. At least those of us who have lived and worked in Iraq do. Watching the final chapter of the Assad sequel from Baghdad has provided many moments of pithy déjà vu. Two nights ago, one of my British colleagues at dinner said something along the lines of, “we’ll be sitting in Damascus having the same conversation this time next year”. All of us nodded our heads in agreement. It is entirely possible. The images of dead civilians, running gun battles, and the creeping sectarianism could have been most major Iraqi cities from 2005-2008.
There are differences of course, and that provides a modicum of hope, but when we talk about Syria, we also need to talk about Iraq. The similarities are becoming too obvious, the tactics too familiar and the regional dynamics too palpable. If we are looking for a bearing, a direction Syria is headed, then Iraq should be the compass. As the Syrian regime continues to deteriorate so too will the balance that holds together the different sectarian agendas, the measure and outcome of these forces will determine the future of Syria.
The Syrian government, much like the former Iraqi regime is dominated by a vicious minority (Allawite), which, as we have now seen, is ruthless in pursuit of the oppressed majority (Sunni). As the fall of House Assad looks more assured and the momentary joy of possible victory comes to the people of Syria, we must brace ourselves for what will come next - power struggles, regional meddling, mass reprisals, and of course growing sectarianism. All of this will dominate the post-regime landscape unless the opposition, whether it be the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council, can unify in a way that will promote national reconciliation. Unfortunately, this is not likely. The internal opposition is disparate and at cursory glance, close to ten countries have a strategic wager in the outcome. There are to many variables at play.
As we watch from Baghdad, we know the struggle for Syria is only in its infancy. This was evident when the first car bomb detonated against the Military Intelligence Directorate in Damascus. When we watched the news cycle on this incident, a collective groan was released. We all knew what was happening. In Iraq speak, car bombs or vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) have been one of the most devastating forces in the proliferation of terrorism in Iraq. A singular terrorist tool that has killed thousands was now migrating across the border into the hands of a growing Syrian Islamist movement. We all knew the old specter of al-Qaeda in Iraq is at work or in broad terms, Sunni terror networks originating in Iraq. Realistically, this was always going to happen in Syria, we just never wanted to admit it out loud. The border between Syria and Iraq remains uniquely porous and recent attempts to shut down the border crossings have been just as much about keeping Iraqis in, as it has been keeping Syrians out.
This development is important for a variety of reasons. There has always been a history of support for groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq from within Syria. During the height of the insurgency, arms, finance, and fighters flowed freely into Iraq over the Syrian border. Now the flow, the logistical supply chains to support terrorism has been reversed. As of July 5th, The Iraq Foreign Minister, Hoshar Zebari publicly acknowledged that ‘al-Qaeda’ operational officers from Iraq were moving through the old smuggling routes into Syria. Unfortunately, for all of those involved, these terror networks from Iraq have nine years of experience in urban combat, insurgent warfare, and terrorist operations. Put into perspective, these groups battled the US Military to a stalemate - imagine the damage they can cause in yet another country that lacks basic governance or security mechanisms? We also need to remember that these groups, migrating into Syria from Iraq are unusually adept at exploiting disenfranchised populations, especially across sectarian lines. They will accelerate the climate of reprisals against both historic and current grievances and set the country on a divisive path that will take years to recover from and this is exactly what they want.
It is with the conditions mentioned above that groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq will try and establish a foothold in Syria. The recent suicide bombing, which killed three senior defense officials has been linked to a faction calling itself ‘Lord of the Martyr Brigades’, which (based on syntax) appears to be another emerging jihadist group. The success of recent suicide attacks cannot be attributed to an organic literacy in terrorism, but pioneered with outside assistance. From who is still being debated, but observing from Baghdad, the acts of terrorism that we have grown familiar with are now accumulating in Syria. If not completely obvious now, they soon will be. To further underline my point, twenty-seven car bombs were detonated around Iraq between the 22nd and 23rd of July.
It is understandable why the al-Qaeda in Iraq approach would be appealing in Syria and why Syrian groups would reach out for assistance. There are few alternatives. There is little recourse internally and the international community has not provided any assurances that support will be steadfast or forthcoming. The new leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi recently dedicated a thirty-three minute speech to Syria indicating their intention to open a new front by supporting jihadist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra. In this vacuum, groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq can provide a financial, material, and technical support that certain armed factions are lacking. Naturally, they will take what they can get; however, the price for this kind of support is well known. The destruction of secular communities at the impulse of imported religious fanaticism. The indiscriminate killing of civilians by suicide and car bombs. A regression of the national character at the expense of short term strategic and tactical gains, but it does not stop there. Groups like al-Qaeda in Iraq will force all other sectarian factions to take an offensive posture in their own perceived defense and in the process destroy communities that have previously coexisted. Once this happens, as it did in Iraq, hopes for reconciliation will shatter.
It should be assumed that most of this is known by both regional and Western powers. It is partly one of the reasons why there has been such a loathing to get involved. For the United States, the memory of Iraq is still too fresh and election year politics too immediate. Regardless, without any kind of unified international intervention, Syria like Iraq, will turn into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shi’a), drawn across sectarian factions. Both countries supporting the worst elements on either side with weapons and financing.
This leaves the Government of Iraq in a very precarious position. Recently they resisted calls at the Arab League to denounce Assad and support regime change. Some highlight this as a loss of US influence over Iraq in deference to Tehran, or a wider assimilation into the regional strategy of Iran. Both might be true, but it does not address the basest element of Iraqi concern. At the most fundamental level the Government of Iraq cannot afford an integration of Sunni terror networks in both Syria and Iraq. The Government of Iraq is in self-preservation mode with the political class in perpetual gridlock and the security services not capable of managing localized domestic terrorism. The idea of groups like al Qaeda in Iraq establishing rear-bases in Syria remains an egregious scenario. From the Iraqi perspective, if a broad Sunni support base develops between west Iraq and Syria it could upend the tentative power dynamic in Baghdad. This is an alarming situation in a country that is scheduled to be one of the largest exporters of oil and gas over the next few years.
So all of us in Baghdad are now waiting for the inevitable. The more we talk through the scenarios the more the situation looks increasingly grim. So what can we do? Are there any lessons that we learned in Iraq that might be applicable in Syria? Certainly, and the international community, at some stage, will have to get involved.
Firstly, we must understand who the opposition is in aggregate. This will be the baseline for us to assess a course of action against. We need to understand their motivations, goals, objectives, demographic composition, cultural disposition, and capabilities. The international community must reach out to the various groups and open assorted channels of communication. Supporting the ‘opposition’ is a misnomer since it is not unified under one command and facilitating clandestine arms shipments by Saudi Arabia and Qatar is a strategy that lacks all but the most basic strategic foresight. Eventually some of these weapons will make their way to the Islamist groups, who as we know are an accelerant in any sectarian environment.
Secondly, if a military intervention is being prepared, so too must a political intervention. As we saw in Iraq, a clear lack of understanding with regards to politics, culture, demographics, and deep rooted historical grievance set the conditions for civil war. If a UN sanctioned peace enforcement is authorized then mechanisms must also be put in place for the immediate development of a post-regime governance model. One that is inclusive of the opposition factions, as well as current regime elements (regardless of how distasteful). The longer Syria goes without a governance model that promotes reconcilement the more entrenched the different opposition groups will become along sectarian lines. Once this happens the conditions for protracted conflict are set.
Thirdly, the international community must reconcile their own agendas. Syria is not like Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia. Syria is the keystone in the region, whose removal will impact on Israel, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, United States, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, amongst others. The stakes for Syria are to prohibitive to let the machinations of any one country or bloc of countries to control the outcome in its entirety. If anything, the great irony in the story between Iraq and Syria, is that by their own admission, they do have weapons of mass destruction. Let the idea of unsecured chemical weapons be the rallying point for the international community to coalesce around. One canister of VX gas in the hands of Hizbollah, Hamas, al Qaeda in Iraq or any other third party antagonist has the ability to change the entire course of history in the Middle East.
Landon Shroder is a security and political consultant in the energy and private equity sectors in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
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