Friday, March 15, 2013

Sunni Rollback: the Second Front

“If Syria falls, we are liberated; if we are liberated, Syria will be liberated. We have the same battle with Iran – by defeating them we break the Shia crescent of Iran, Syria and Lebanon."

Readers of this blog know I have been promoting the idea that Saudi Arabia, in particular, will not be interested in negotiating an end to the bloodshed in Syria that involves anything less than an overthrow of Assad and a triumph by the largely Sunni rebels.

That’s because I believe Saudi Arabia has its eyes on the prize: a Sunni resurgence that captures Iraq as well as Syria and isolates Iran.  And it isn’t going to endanger the regional Sunni insurgency by letting peace break out in Syria and standing idly by as Western and non-Sunni governments mop up the extremist foot soldiers (as happened in the “Sunni Awakening” a.k.a. the violent suppression of Al Qaeda in Iraq coordinated by the US military with more moderate Sunni sheiks).

So the pot is going to stay boiling, in my opinion, with Saudi fuel thoughtfully provided via western Iraq as well as directly to Syria.

On the subject of Iraq—the second Sunni front, by my formulation--two data points torn from the headlines.

First, from the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on the apparently snowballing (if such a simile is apt for the torrid deserts of western Iraq) Sunni insurgency against the Maliki regime and the major buy-in it has received from the Gulf:

In Mosul and Falluja, tent cities have sprung up in public squares. Some have even demonstrated in Sunni areas of Baghdad, braving the draconian Friday security measures imposed on them.

But perhaps more remarkable is the scene inside the tent. Among the tribal sheikhs and activists around Abu Saleh are former enemies and victims, men who feared him and men who hunted him on behalf of the Americans. Sensing an opportunity, Sunni factions have put aside their differences to mount a common front against Baghdad.

Abu Saleh, rotund and balding, explains how a week after the first demonstrations in Sunni cities, he and other fighters commanding the remnants of Sunni insurgent groups held a series of meetings to form a pact and use the momentum in Sunni cities.

"Call us the honourable nationalistic factions – people here are still sensitive to using words like mujahideen or resistance. We decided to sign a truce with the tribal sheikhs, other factions and even moderate elements in al-Qaida," he said.

"The Sunnis were never united like this from the fall of Baghdad until now. This is a new stage we are going through: first came the American occupation, then the resistance, then al-Qaida dominated us, and then came internal fighting and the awakening ... now there is a truce even with the tribal sheikhs who fought and killed our cousins and brothers.

"The politicians have joined us and we have the legitimacy of the street. To be honest, we had reached a point when people hated us, only your brother would support you."

One of the things that transformed the reputation of men such as Abu Saleh in the eyes of their fellow Sunnis has been their involvement in the Syrian conflict, a few hundred miles west along the highway.

The conflict pitted Sunni rebels against government forces and Alawites, backed by Iran, also patrons of Iraq's Shia leadership. Weapons flowed to the rebels from the Iraqi tribes – sold for a comfortable profit – while the Iraqi Shia prime minister toed the Iranian line and lent his support to the Syrian regime. With both sides using the same sectarian rhetoric, it was easy to join the dots between the two conflicts.

Abu Saleh found himself fighting his old war in a new field. He lent a hand to the novice Syrian rebels and joined the fight, commanding a unit of his own operating in the city of Aleppo and the countryside north of it.

"We taught them how to cook phosphate and make IEDs. Our struggle here is the same is in Syria. If Syria falls, we are liberated; if we are liberated, Syria will be liberated. We have the same battle with Iran – by defeating them we break the Shia crescent of Iran, Syria and Lebanon."

Abu Saleh claims that once he and his men had been accepted back in Ramadi, they formed three battalions that had hit convoys carrying supplies to Syria as well as an Iraqi army helicopter.

In another echo of recent Arab uprisings, Abu Saleh says he and other Sunni leaders have now secured support from wealthy Gulf state figures who funded them during the early years of their insurgency against the Americans.

After the truce between Sunni groups, he says, a meeting was set up in the Jordanian capital, Amman, between a united front of Iraqi factions and representatives of "charities" from the Gulf.

The Iraqis asked for money and weapons; after a decade of war their arsenals were almost depleted. What didn't get destroyed by US or Iraqi forces was sold to the Syrians. They needed money to train and recruit new fighters but more importantly a religious sanction from the religious authorities for a new round of fighting.

The Gulf figures asked for more time and a second meeting was held in Amman, this time attended by a higher-ranking group of officials from the both sides. The answer was yes: the "charities" would offer support as long as the Iraqi Sunnis were united and used their weapons only after Iraqi government units used force against them. Another Sunni leader confirmed to the Guardian that the Amman meetings had taken place.

"There is a new plan, a grand plan not like the last time when we worked individually," another commander told me. "This time we are organised. We have co-ordinated with countries like Qatar and Saudi and Jordan. We are organising, training and equipping ourselves but we will start peacefully until the right moment arrives. We won't be making the same mistakes. Baghdad will be destroyed this time."

And, at LobeLog, ex-US diplomat Wayne White describes the Iraq/Syria synergies and writes about the somewhat desperate (and in his view deluded and self-defeating) US efforts to assist the Maliki government in putting a lid on Sunni extremism inside Iraq—as a parallel to the well-publicized US efforts to funnel arms preferentially to more friendly or, at least, more tractable elements of the Free Syrian Army as a counterweight to Islamist groups:

With a long history of misguided, damaging American intervention and meddling in the Middle East, the reported CIA effort to target the al-Nusra Front in Syria by helping Iraqi anti-terrorism units to attack its roots in Iraq seems to be the former and possibly destined to be the latter.

Resentment over Maliki’s disinterest in anything that would re-integrate Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority into much of the country’s core activities has done a lot to sustain a drumfire of AQI bombings inside Iraq and, since late 2011, sent gaggles of Islamic fighters from Iraq’s Sunni Arab northwest into the raging battle for Syria.

Al-Nusra probably is to a large extent an arm of AQI, as the US alleges, but also could be the recipient of many Iraqi fighters simply enraged over the plight of Sunni Arabs in their own country more generally. Additionally, there are quite a few historic tribal and family connections that extend far beyond the Syrian-Iraqi border, making events in Syria that much more palpably personal for quite a few Sunni Arabs inside Iraq.

 I have a feeling that the United States, when it opportunistically encouraged the bedraggled Syrian opposition not to negotiate with Bashar al Assad, did not realize that what it would get in return was not an admirable but weak and easily led democracy in Syria but a near-total loss of control of the Middle East agenda to the Gulf autocracies and a narrative of trans-national sectarian aggression.

Not the Obama administration's finest hour, perhaps.

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