The news that the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has captured a large portion of the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah, as well as other major strongholds in Anbar province, has come as extremely unwelcome news to those hoping (and somewhat vainly) that a post-withdrawal Iraqi state would be strong enough to maintain a resistance to al Qaeda affiliated Sunni militants. Instead, the now open border between Anbar and rebel-controlled eastern Syria is increasingly beginning to resemble an highway for jihadist ambitions. The Anbar Sahwa (Awakening) forces who, with strong US financial support, drove al Qaeda in Iraq out of the province in the late 2000’s have now dispersed under pressure from the Shia-backed Maliki government or are now in open revolt against it. With the collapse of arbitrating state authority in neighboring Syria, many of the al Qaeda fighters crossed the borderlands (which they identify with al-Sham; the Province of the Damascene Caliphate of the Sunni Umayyads) to fight against the ‘heretical’ Shia Alawites in 2011. Now they are back over the border, buoyed by financial contributions from abroad and in control of the Upper Reaches of the Tigris and nearby oil resources.
With the fall of Fallujah, the scene of two mass engagements with Iraqi insurgents that proved costly to American, British, and Coalition forces a decade ago, it seems that history has proven unkind. Despite our best efforts, blood, money, and toil, Iraq emerged from the Occupation divided and ripe for new conflict. Our jihadi foes are back, refreshed, and this time the local forces which aided the US military to clear Anbar of the worst of the militants will not have American support or succor from Maliki’s government, which, not entirely unfairly, did not support the idea of local Sunni militias in foreign pay. With the decline of the Sons of Iraq, and other insurgents-turned-allies, in the face of al Qaeda pressure or under attack from the Baghdad government, the truly frightening possibility is that an Emirate of al Sham, under the black banner of ISIS, might arise in the chaos of the Syrian crisis and the collapse of Government authority in Anbar.
If the horror of sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shia arises again in Iraq, this time between expansionist jihadists and Shia populations in eastern Iraq, the violence endemic in Syria could easily infect Iraq, which already has witnessed a spike in violence in 2013. Such sectarian violence as has developed in Syria, each day recruiting fresh Shabiha or Jihadi fighters from abroad and at home, could bring the whole of Iraq into the scope of this carnage, with fighters from across Islam flocking to a new front in the midst of Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, closing in on Baghdad. At its most worrisome, potential Iranian intervention in defense of the Iraqi Shia in the south and along its border threatens to drag the entire region, and the wider world, into violent contest. In the crossfire, Sunni Iraqis and Syrians on the whole may reject jihadists (who are a still a minority, albeit an extremely well organized one), but without assistance from their governments (who they are openly fighting) or outside powers, the moderate Sunni militants of Iraq and Syria may not be able to resist the jihadists for long, and may join with them if they perceive the black banner is their path to political and literal survival. These alliances might be shaky, but are strong enough to make the land of al Sham into an even greater sectarian and pan-national bloodbath than it already is.
The Jihadists play up this point: the regular news and video updates from ISIS bear the stirring title “Window on the Land of Epic Battles”. The Shia too are keenly conscious of their foes and their history: the restored Umayyad’s are pushing towards Karbala, the site of the martyrdom of the Shia Saint Husayn at the hands of their Sunni opponents. A mobile Al Qaeda affiliated army based in Anbar could potentially lead to a civil conflict in Iraq the likes of which will make the religious violence during the Occupation look tame by comparison.
As talks in Geneva are scheduled for January 22nd, it is unclear what the reaction of the west should be. Against the threat of Salafist Jihadi terrorism is the desire to oust the authoritarian Assad regime, linked with horrendous violations of human rights and violent repression. Somewhere in between these two unpleasant alternatives, the west may pin its hopes on the Free Syrian Army and the Free Syrian Council. But it is hard to know if a deal could be reached that would be not only mutually acceptable, but could even be enforceable. In the best of worlds, a reunified National Syrian coalition government would turn allied Kurd, Alawite, and Sunni moderate forces against ISIS and Jahbat al Nusra in order to expel the jihadists from Syria and restore national borders and territorial sovereignty. But such is merely speculative, and unduly optimistic.
Syria is largely in ruins, its populations displaced, its peoples now deeply conscious of their religious and ethnic affiliations. There are too many weapons in too many hands with too many agendas for a sudden surcease to occur. The FSA has fought alongside the jihadists as well as Islamist nationalist brigades, the armed wings of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to join their bitter Alawite rivals seems nearly unthinkable after nearly 3 years of war and Assad’s open attacks on civilians. Nor could the Alawites or Christians be so easily convinced of the good intentions of the Sunni populations they have been told are religious fanatics, bent on nothing less than their total eradication.
Disentangling these narratives, bringing the foes together to talk, and coming to terms will take further herculean efforts, and unfortunately for Syrians in general, many are still perfectly able, and perfectly willing, to continue the fighting, inside their country and outside it. Jihadists in Iraq, Hezbollahi in Lebanon, Saudi Businessmen, Oil magnates, Russian Arms dealers, and all others who see their livelihood or their cause in the tragedy of Syria are willing to persecute that war despite the horrors it brings. History teaches that weariness over war rarely hampers its continuation. In Syria and in Iraq, war feeds itself quite handily.