The Syrian Civil War comes to Iraq, as 8 Iraqi and 48 Syrian Troops are Killed on Iraqi Soil

So on Saturday, Syrian rebels in the east of the country attacked another government checkpoint along the Iraqi border, al-Ya`rabiya, and took it. Some of the besieged Syrian troops, many wounded, escaped to the Iraqi side and were being escorted by Iraqi troops south when they were ambushed early on Tuesday and 48 were killed, along with 8 Iraqi border guards. The attackers had rocket propelled grenades and left three vehicles burning. It is not clear if the attackers were Syrian rebels in hot pursuit across the border or if local Sunni Iraqi clans, who are related to the largely Sunni insurgents in Syria, struck for themselves.

Alarabiya was reporting Tuesday morning Iraqi time that Iraqi tanks had advanced on the Free Syrian Army checkpoint at al-Ya`rabiya, presumably seeking revenge for the ambush. That isn’t a good sign, to have an Iraqi-Syrian border clash.

The steps being taken by the US, as explained on Monday by Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh, to strengthen the Syrian opposition (by which he meant the moderates, not the Jabha) increasingly look too little, too late. Asthe Syrian rebellion grinds on, the most radical factions are coming to the fore in very worrying ways. It is not clear that Washington has the slightest idea what to do about this, though a new plan to arm moderates via Jordan in Syria’s southern district of Deraa may, behind the scenes, have American backing or at least the US isn’t vetoing it. (The Saudis are said to be buying the weapons and cooperating with Jordan in this effort because they are afraid of Jabhat al-Nusra and angry at Qatar winking at its growing prominence in the ranks of the northern rebels).

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had warned just last week in an AP interview that if radical Sunnis come out on top in the Syrian civil war, they would be a source of profound instability in the Middle East and that Jordan and other neighbors could be dismembered.

Shiite-ruled Iraq faces an on-going guerrilla war from radical Sunnis, some of them apparently now fighting in Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. In addition, the Sunni Arab population of the west and the north of the country, about a fifth of the population, has been demonstrating peacefully against the al-Maliki government, with large rallies, for several months. Al-Maliki is afraid that if the Sunni radicals win Damascus, there will be severe effects on Mosul and Ramadi. Indeed, those effects may already have begun.

To be fair to Iraq’s Sunnis, most of them voted for a secular party in the 2010 parliamentary elections, and many joined the ‘Awakening Councils’ movement against ‘al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.’ And virtually no one thinks al-Maliki, a fundamentalist Shiite, has been good about reaching out to the Iraqi Sunnis or seeking national reconciliation.

Then al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra took the provincial Syrian capital of Raqqah on Monday. Raqqah was a place to which large numbers of refugees had fled, and most of the Free Syrian Army had considered it off-limits as a result. The Jabhat al-Nusra fighters still faced pockets of resistance around the Baath Party HQ. The opposition controls much of the countryside in Raqqah province, and had only lacked the provincial capital. The city is the first provincial capital to fall largely into rebel hands. Syria has fourteen provinces, so the opposition has 13 to go (though to be fair, Syria is still 50% rural and the rebels control much of the countryside in the north).

Video circulated on the internet of rebels pulling down a statue of Hafez al-Assad (r. 1970-2000), the father of current dictator Bashar al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron hand for thirty years.

One fears that some of the excitement in the video is that of radical Sunnis happy to destroy a monument to a Shi’ite, Alawi secularist.

So, I think you can largely color in Raqqah in the below map black (the radical fundamentalists like black flags).

In the central depot town of Homs, the Syrian government on Monday waged a fierce battle to take back some districts lost to the rebels. Homs is key to the ability of Damascus to import supplies, ammunition and new weaponry from the port of Latakia and from the Russian naval base at Tartous. If the rebels ever take Homs, they’d be in a much better position to besieged, cut off, and take Damascus.

Ironically, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia wanted to take over a whole Iraqi province (it especially wanted al-Anbar, where it launched thousands of attacks in 2006-2007) but never was able to, in part because Sunni Iraqis turned on it when it killed their own sons for ‘collaborating’ with al-Maliki. But now Jabhat al-Nusra, with some of the same fighters in its ranks, has taken the Syrian province of Raqqah. And the Syrian brand of radical Sunnism is somehow implicated in a major attack on Iraqi soil.

I think that al-Maliki is right, and that King Abdullah II of Jordan may not sleep very well tonight. Many Jordanian Salafis are said to be fighting in Syria, and no one knows what will happen when they come home. But with 6 dead Iraqi soldiers on his hands, it is al-Maliki who is most alarmed of all.

20 Responses

  1. In the first paragraph you say they killed 8 Iraqis, in the last 6. Not that it makes much difference in the political implications, but I thought I’d point it out.

  2. This has been my fear all along, as I’ve said here a few times: that the Syrian civil war will metastasize as a sectarian conflict, and help to pull Iraq apart along sectarian lines. And yes, it does imperil Jordan and could cause trouble in the Gulf states. Meanwhile it’s also a proxy war between SA and Iran. The Saudis are making an alliance of convenience with Israel, in fact, to confront Iran, and seem to be encouraging Israeli belligerence. It’s all very discomfiting.

    • The U.S. government has welcomed Israeli air strikes into Syria and would like to see Israel do more to oppose the Assad regime.

      In fact, most major governments of the world have recognized one way or another the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of Syria, as opposed to the Assad government.

      There is no doubt that Jabhat al-Nusra – which has only several hundred combatants – has been fighting admirably against Assad’s troops, however some Free Syrian Army members have stated that Jabhat al-Nusra will be opposed militarily as soon as Assad is removed from power. Sectarian violence similar to what has happened in Iraq could be the unfortunate result as a post-Assad aftermath.

  3. When I read a news item such as Kerry confirms US helping train Syrian opposition, it makes me very sad and angry.
    Havent we done enough to mess with the regional stability there.
    Kerry needs to remember his youth when he testified in Congress and made a point about Vietnam being a “mistake”. And now with power to actually make a difference shouldnt he be working towards resolution rather than fueling of conflicts??

    • It is not entirely clear to me why Assad smashing his opposition and committing a gigantic massacre worse than the one his father carried out – the faster end to the war that would have obtained in the absence of international support for the rebels – is supposed to be a more desirable outcome for someone who adheres to liberal and humanitarian values.

  4. The absence of American intervention and arms for the rebellion was supposed to prevent the rise of al Qaeda-linked extremists in Syria.

    As it turns out, the decision not to arm them has brought about that very outcome. It allowed Salafist-friendly governments to step in to the void, and it allowed the war to go on long enough for the Salafists to grow and consolidate their power.

    • I don’t this was the goal. The Administration said they didn’t want to send arms to people they couldn’t vet. But Al Queda types would be in Syria with or without American arms.

      • The jihadist presence has grown steadily over time; they were not a significant part of the fighters initially, and grew into one. If aid had ended the war quickly, there would be fewer of them.

        Also, there would be Salafist elements in Syria even if we were backing the FSA, but they would not be the best-armed, most capable force in Syria, and the non-Salafist elements would have much less interest in cooperating.

        • How do you know? You’d have to provide evidence of your assertions to convince me.

        • “If aid had ended the war quickly, there would be fewer of them.”

          In my opinion, no amount of aid we or anyone else could have given the rebels would have “ended the war quickly.” Assad has a pretty tough military with lots of equipment, and he would have outgunned any rebel armaments at many points in this ongoing battle. That’s not to say he will prevail; I don’t think he will. But the Jabha al-Nusra and other Salafist elements would have been in the fray anyway, and in my opinion, their superior fighting ability and organizational skills would have still made them a major player. This civil war would have continued without a quick end with or without additional aid to the rebels.

        • You first, RBTL: “But Al Queda types would be in Syria with or without American arms.”

          If this is what we’re going to do, you’ll have to start.

        • Bill,

          “Quick” is a relative term, I admit. Perhaps “quicker” would have been better.

          It’s been two years and even the most optimistic timelines have this war going on for more months.

  5. There is an interesting subtle connection between this story and the case of Pvt. Bradley Manning. Glenn Greenwald, of The Guardian, is interviewed on DemocracyNow and when discussing the consistency of Pvt. Manning’s testimony, states that some of the people detained and poorly treated by the authorities in Iraq were NOT terrorists, but rather political opponents of Nouri al-Maliki. The question begins at 5:00 and the answer is at 6:00:
    link to

  6. I am skeptical of the hand-wringing about the US stepping in with too little, too late as a cause of the prominence of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabha al-Nusra and other militants within the Syrian opposition. I suspect they would have come to the fore in the opposition even if we had provided small arms and other materiel earlier. These Al-Qaeda affiliated organizations would have taken full advantage of the situation, regardless of our actions. They are tough fighters, well-organized, and very likely would have gotten access to any arms we provided the opposition. In summary, they may be bastards, but they are tough, well-organized, and they know how to lead.

  7. Dear Professor Cole

    It is not only the Jordanians who will sleep badly after the fall of Ar Raqqah.

    For some time we have been hearing desperate appeals from the Syrian Christians who have been cut off, pillaged and abandoned in Al Hasaqa

    link to

    Sadly this tragedy has remained below the notice of the media who are concentrating on the areas where heavy fighting is taking place.

  8. “Ironically, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia wanted to take over a whole Iraqi province (it especially wanted al-Anbar, where it launched thousands of attacks in 2006-2007) but never was able to, in part because Sunni Iraqis turned on it when it killed their own sons for ‘collaborating’ with al-Maliki.”

    On one al Jazeera programme, it was said that the jihadists “may have learned some of the lessons of Iraq”.

  9. Today the Diane Rehm show just did a one hour program on Syria. The lack of diversity of opinion on this program was astounding. The Rehm show seems to be promoting ever more narrow views on the middle east. The new screener seems to have been sent over from the American Enterprise institute or Aipac. Used to be able to get through on a regular basis with challenging questions. No longer. During this particular program the screener only allowed one challenging question of the panel who were all on the same page. I made every effort to get some of the things that I have read here about Syria, at Prof Cole’s and Micheal Scheuers about 50% of the Syrian people supporting Assad etc through to no avail. Dennis Ross was one of the quest. Robin Wright actually said that the situation in Syria has to do with “core morality” I could barely take it. They brought up Clinton, Kerry’s Ross’s, struggle with compassion for the Syrian people. What a bunch of horse shit. Who believes this hooey? These very same people supported the invasion of Iraq where hundreds of thousands died, millions displaced and somehow our MSM including the Rehm show can repeat how many thousands have died in Syria, how many refugees there are (and it is very sad) But now the MSM actually thinks they can convince us this is a humanitarian issue and that Ross, Kerry, Clinton care about Syrian lives. The show made me sick to my stomach. So with the Leveretts would take a program like this and dissect what was said statement by statement. When oh when will MSM outlets like the Rehm show have the Leveretts on or others who have different views on Syria, Iran etc? The MSM just seems hopeless no matter how hard some of us push

    Hope folks especially the Leveretts listen to this show about Syria and share their opinions
    link to

    One of my comments. Most of my comments went up on Diane Rehms Facebook page. Nothing challenging made it through except one person who challenged Ross a bit

    Former Bush administration officials Flynt and Hillary Leverett, Professor Juan Cole and former head of the CIA’s Bin Laden unit Micheal Sheuer have all written that 50% of the Syrian people support Assad.

    Hillary Clinton and Kerry voted for the invasion of Iraq hundreds of thousands died, millions of Iraqi people became refugees. Dennis Ross supported the invasion of Iraq. And now we are supposed to believe that these people care about the people of Syria. Please this is absurd

    And now the Diane Rehm Screener only allows people through to make comments supporting the war in Syria. Your new screener seems to have been sent from the American Enterprise Institute or Aipac. Come on allow some challenging questions through.

  10. Prof Cole would be great if you would be willing to that Rehm show on Syria and dissect. The lack of diversity on the panel was disturbing. The Rehm show seems to be narrowing their scope even more narrow than it had all ready been.

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