By Landon Shroder
BAGHDAD—Syria was always the dark horse of the Arab Spring, and for those of us who have lived and worked in Iraq, it is easy to predict the outcome of the revolution there. Watching the final chapter of the Assad sequel from Baghdad provides 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 we see in Syria today could have come from most major Iraqi cities between 2005 and 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. 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 minority group (Allawite), which 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 growing sectarianism. All of this will dominate the post-regime landscape unless the opposition can unify in a way that will promote national reconciliation, be it through the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council. Unfortunately, this is not likely. The internal opposition is disparate and close to ten countries have a strategic stake in the outcome. There are too many variables at play.
Watching 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. In Iraq, car bombs or vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) have been one of the most devastating forces in the proliferation of terrorism. A singular terrorist tool that has killed thousands is now migrating across the border into the hands of a growing Syrian Islamist movement. The old specter of al-Qaida in Iraq is at work. Realistically, this was always going to happen in Syria. 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 keeping Syrians out.
This development is important for a variety of reasons. There has always been a history of support for groups like al-Qaida in Iraq from within Syria. During the height of the Iraqi insurgency, arms, finance, and fighters flowed freely into Iraq over the Syrian border. Now the flow of supply chains to support terrorism has been reversed. As of July 5th, the Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshar Zebari publicly acknowledged that al-Qaida in Iraq 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 U.S. military to a stalemate—imagine the damage they can cause in yet another country that lacks basic governance or security mechanisms. 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, which is exactly what they want.
It is in the conditions mentioned above that foreign militant groups like al-Qaida will try and establish a foothold in Syria. The recent suicide bombing that killed three senior defense officials has been linked to a faction calling itself Lord of the Martyr Brigades, which appears to be another emerging jihadist group. The success of recent suicide attacks cannot be attributed to an organic literacy in terrorism but has been pioneered with outside assistance. Although it is debatable where this assistance originates, these attacks show many similarities to those in Baghdad.
It is understandable why the al-Qaida in Iraq approach would be appealing in Syria and why Syrian groups would reach out for assistance; there are few alternatives. The international community has not provided any assurances that rebel support will be steadfast or forthcoming and there is little recourse internally. The new leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, recently dedicated a 33 minute speech to Syria indicating the organization’s intention to open a new front by supporting jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. In this vacuum of power in Syria, groups like al-Qaida in Iraq can provide financial, material, and technical support that certain armed factions are lacking. Naturally, these factions will take what they can get, but the price for this kind of support is well known: the destruction of secular communities at the impulse of imported religious fanaticism, indiscriminate killing of civilians by suicide and car bombs, and regression of the national character at the expense of short-term strategic and tactical gains. But it does not stop there. Groups such as al-Qaida 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, which explains their hesitancy to intervene. Especially for the United States, the memory of Iraq is still too fresh, and election-year politics too immediate. But without any kind of unified international intervention, Syria—like Iraq—will turn into a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shiʼa), drawn across sectarian factions with both countries supporting the worst elements on either side.
This leaves the Iraqi government in a very precarious position. It recently resisted calls from the Arab League to denounce Assad and support regime change. Some highlight this as a loss of U.S. 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 Iraqi government cannot afford an integration of Sunni terror networks in both Syria and Iraq. Baghdad 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-Qaida 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.
Those in Baghdad are now waiting for the inevitable, as the situation looks increasingly grim. So what can we do? Are there any lessons learned in Iraq that might be applicable in Syria? Certainly, and the international community, at some stage, will have to get involved.
First, it is key to understand who the opposition is in aggregate in order to assess a course of action against them. 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 are an accelerant in any sectarian environment.
Secondly, if a military intervention is being prepared, so too must a political intervention. As seen in Iraq, a clear lack of understanding with regards to politics, culture, demographics, and deep-rooted historical grievances 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 its varied agendas. Syria is not like Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia. 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 other. The stakes for Syria are too prohibitive to let the machinations of any one country or bloc of countries control the outcome. If anything, the great irony of the story between Iraq and Syria is that by their own admission, Syria does 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-Qaida 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 Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
[Image courtesy of Benjamin Cooper]