Small Wars Journal

Iraq, Syria, and the Twelfth Imam

Tue, 09/25/2012 - 5:30am

Syria has been driving everyone in Iraq mad. In the past week, I visited four embassies in Baghdad and all we talked about was Syria. I went to the United Nations for a meeting on Iraq and all we talked about was Syria. On a conference call this afternoon, every point I made somehow had a connection to Syria. During the conference call one of my Iraqi colleagues sent me an email saying “The fall of the armies of Syria signals the coming of the 12th Imam”. In short, everyone in Iraq is mad on Syria. Let me explain.

Whatever the outcome is for Syria, the impact on Iraq will be appreciable. Iraq, like Syria is a sectarian environment driven by the self-interest and self-preservation of the various sects, primarily, Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish. In the spectacular news coverage of Syria the unique similarities to Iraq are being overlooked. It is no secret that most commentators and analysts are fatigued when it comes to Iraq. The sectarianism and terrorism is all old news. The day the US military left for Kuwait, Iraq became relatively uninteresting, but this is all about to change and Syria is the reason.

Since December 2010, the Government of Iraq has been glued together through the various machinations of the Shia political class. The interjection of the petrodollar has provided a degree of legitimacy and finance, but enduring political solutions have been abandoned. The current governance strategy is rooted in a sectarian realpolitik and most attempts at compromise have been forgone. Entrenchment across factional divisions within the political and security frameworks has become the perpetual status quo. As a result, terrorist groups have space to operate and the security forces lack the political sponsorship needed to draft effective counter-terrorism policies. Mass casualty attacks have now become a cyclical event, occurring every four to six weeks. In the aftermath of the last terrorist attacks between July 22nd-23rd, there was not even a press release from the Prime Minister, Nouri al Maliki. There are no more assurances he can offer.

Amongst this mix of political gridlock, ineffective security forces, and sectarian division  there is now the possibility of radical regime change in Syria. This is a huge concern for the government of Iraq and rightfully so. While the commentary on Syria has been succinct and focused, it has not charted the impact on the region as a whole, and more specifically, Iraq. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Iraq has the second largest oil and gas reserves globally and an antagonistic eastern neighbor who is about to lose their strategic depth in the Levant.

If there is radical regime change in Syria (driven by sectarian engines) it could invert the tenuous balance of power in Baghdad. If this happens the government of Iraq will be in an untenable position based on a combination of internal and external factors.

Iraq as a sectarian society can be broken down into three geographical locations. Kurdish in the North, Sunnis in the Center, and Shia in the South. Each of these factions  now has a unique role to play in how Iraq responds to regime change in Syria.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq, led by Massoud Barzani, has made it a policy to arm, finance, and train Syrian Kurds. This is in direct opposition to the strategy adopted by the government of Iraq, which has been a mixture of neutrality and maintenance of the status quo. An estimated 300 Syrian Kurds have already been trained in the KRG with another 3,000 scheduled for training in the coming months. Moreover, at least six Kurdish towns in Syria are now being occupied. No precaution towards national reconciliation is being established within this policy. The possibility of uniting an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, at least in the short term, achieves aspirations of a pan-Kurdish alliance, but it will be short lived. The Free Syrian Army has already implicitly stated that it will not recognize Kurdish autonomy and clashes between the two have been reported. This kind of factious fighting is exactly what the government of Iraq is desperate to avoid.

In response to this policy, on July 27th the Iraqi Army maneuvered to a border crossing with Syria along the contested KRG boundary. The military of the KRG, known as the Peshmerga halted their advance and until August 3rd, both sides reinforced their positions only a kilometer apart. As of writing, the situation appears to have de-escalated, but only after significant mediation by US Vice President, Joe Biden. This has now intensified internal resentment between the political coalitions and compounded sectarian positions within Iraq even further. The Shia coalitions have firmly aligned behind the Prime Minister to disrupt what they perceive to be a consolidation of North Iraq (and subsequent oil reserves) by the Kurdish.

This stand off along the KRG - Syrian border has wasted security resources and manpower from where it is really needed. For the past month there has been a noticeable increase in the rate of terrorism in the central Sunni provinces. This has coincided with new leadership and strategy from groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq. Their new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, in a recent audio release, has licensed a campaign targeting both the judiciary and the Iraqi Security Forces, called “Break the Gates”. More perturbing was also a call urging Iraqis forward to jihad in Syria. Syria remains the perfect environment for groups like al Qaeda in Iraq to metastasis and is accelerating enthusiasm for their core base inside of Iraq.

This is an intolerable scenario for the government of Iraq. If terrorist networks such as al Qaeda in Iraq are able to establish rear-bases in Syria they will expedite the tempo of terrorist attacks inside of Iraq. This scenario is also supported by a fear of radical regime change in Syria. If regime change is proceeded by the rise of a conservative Sunni government, a new sphere of influence will develop between Syria and the central Sunni provinces in Iraq. This will not only provide leeway for continued terrorism, but renew calls for greater Sunni autonomy within Iraq. This would also be in the strategic interests of Saudi Arabia, who is financing the Sunni opposition in Syria.

This leaves the southern Shia provinces who are the core of the Iraqi political elite, and their relationship to Iran. If a Sunni dominated government comes to power in Syria, Iran will lose their strategic depth in the Levant, but not necessarily their ability to project power. For Iran, the existing relationship with Iraq will provide new depth. This will come through a further integration of cultural and religious institutions, which are tied to the political and economic policies of Iraq. Certain Shia groups will try and maintain a level of autonomy, but if a Sunni government comes to power in Syria, the Shia political class will gravitate towards Iran out of a perceived necessity. This will come at the expense of the central Sunni provinces, who are skeptical, at the best of times about government connections with Iran. Increased polarization of the different political coalitions can be expected along with a catalyst for continued sectarian violence.

Iran through a clandestine military unit known as Quds Force still maintains an impressive network of Shia insurgent groups inside of Iraq. Groups such as Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq battled the US military to a deadlock and their experience in urban and insurgent warfare remains a potent tool. While these groups are currently dormant they can provide a tactical depth, which can be used in Syria. If the Alawite community resorts to insurgency, post regime, they will receive funding and support from Iran, some of which will come via these groups in Iraq. The recent abduction of close to 50 Shia pilgrims in Syria on August 4th could very easily provide the rationale for a wider involvement of these networks. It would not be impolitic to assume they are already there.

Unfortunately, the current scenarios for Iraq are discouraging vis-à-vis Syria. Without international intervention, Syria will continue to slip into deeper sectarianism, which is the worst case scenario for Iraq. The links between al-Qaeda in Iraq and Islamist groups in Syria are becoming well established. The impact of this will further embolden grievances and frustrate the compromise needed to establish effective security mechanisms in Iraq. The policy of the KRG to arm Syrian Kurds remains myopic and divisive for both Syrians and Iraqis. In reality, the best policy has already been adopted by the government of Iraq, remain neutral and maintain the status quo. At a minimum this provides space for strategic leverage and does not overtly antagonize sectarian issues domestically or within Syria.

It is only a matter of time before the Syrian regime and House Assad is relegated to the back pages of history. It might take three, six, or eight months, but the end will come and a measured approach is required. Giving countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar a free hand in the arming and financing of the Sunni opposition remains nonsensical. To much has been invested in Iraq to let it destabilize because of a sectarian conflict in Syria that could have been prevented with a bit of calculated foresight. If anything, call in the Iraq experts. They understand better than most what happens when a country divides across ethnic or religious boundaries.

The international community, especially Western countries must pay special attention to developments in Iraq. It has only been six months since the US military left Iraq and the security profile continues to shift from bad to worse. Short term gains in Syria should not be made at the expense of regional stability, specifically that of Iraq. Look at it another way. When the fighting in Libya was at its zenith, oil shares peaked at a two year high and this accounted for only 3% of the market in a localized conflict. Imagine if Iraq can not maintain its oil exports due to stability issues and this accounts for almost 11% of total oil reserves globally.

The Shia believe in a prophecy that the 12th Imam will return after the destruction of Syria and its armies. In another Shia legend, affliction and fear will plague the people of Iraq and herald the return of the 12th Imam. Iraq survived the latter prophecy once, there is no need to tempt fate again with the former. 

Categories: Syria - Sunni - Shi'a - sectarianism - Iraq - civil war

About the Author(s)

Landon Shroder is a security and political consultant in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked in a variety of sectors including humanitarian aid, mine clearance, arms reduction and commercial intelligence between Colombia and Iraq. He currently splits his time between the oil and gas sector in Iraq and a whisky bar in Richmond VA. 


I'd take issue with this paragraph:

<i>Giving countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar a free hand in the arming and financing of the Sunni opposition remains nonsensical. To much has been invested in Iraq to let it destabilize because of a sectarian conflict in Syria that could have been prevented with a bit of calculated foresight.</i>

We didn't "give" the Saudis and Qataris "a free hand". They don't need us to give them anything, they do what they want and they don't ask permission. They are not vassals. How would you propose that we stop them?

I would love to know how the sectarian conflict in Syria "could have been prevented with a little foresight". Words of that size require some supporting argument.


Thu, 09/27/2012 - 6:19pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Certainly people cross borders all the time, both in countries along the historic Silk Road and in many that are not. Certainly the Shi'a crescent and Iran's desire to lead it pose some interesting challenges. I don't see what either of those situations has to do with the Silk Road per se, as a long disused land trade route from the far east to Europe.

History tells us that the Silk Road was effectively abandoned due to the rise of efficient maritime transport and the extreme expense and inconvenience of transporting goods huge distances across rugged terrain dominated by rapacious and capricious powers (there's a reason why silk was phenomenally expensive in the days of the Silk Road). Those conditions still prevail today, and while it may at some point be possible to foster some degree of regional trade among the countries along that route, the idea of an economically relevant long-distance trade passing through the area is pretty far-fetched.

The "new Silk Road" concept was briefly tossed around some time ago in what seemed a halfhearted attempt to convince Americans that Afghanistan had some economic relevance, an attempt doomed to failure by the simple reality that Afghanistan has no economic relevance.

Outlaw 09

Thu, 09/27/2012 - 2:04am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan---if you define as the Army does what a strategic LOC is then in fact the Silk Road has been always a major historical economic and military LOC.

It runs out of AFG through Iran into Iraq and through Syria to Lebanon---during the Iraq war a large number of the rat runs were actually the Silk Road or next to the Silk Road especially coming into and out of Iran and Syria. Yes it was used for trade with Europe but it connected hsitorically the entire ME and SW Asia.

You also will notice the large number of Shia communities that sit astride the road also from AFG to Syria.

Those of us that did time fighting around the road in Iraq have maintained that view for a long number of years---we in the US tend to ignor history.


Wed, 09/26/2012 - 6:35am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Possibly a digression, but I'm curious about the notion that "who controls the old Silk Highway controls the ME". The old silk highway in its original role, a route for land transport of goods from the far east to Europe, would seem to have little economic relevance today. Is there some other sense in which this offers control of the ME?

Outlaw 09

Wed, 09/26/2012 - 3:50am

Actually a good article in a number of ways and it goes back to an article I wrote and was published in SWJ concerning the lack of ability to "See" and "Understand".

Iraq has in fact been in a spiralling downward sectarian fight since we pulled out and the Shia have no intent in stopping it. It all goes back to two historical events---who controls the old Silk Highway controls the ME and who controls the old Silk Highway controls what has been called for by Khomenani --the creation of a "Green Cresent".

Historically Sunnis understand governance and the Shia understand religion and in Iraq and Syrian the two defintely are crossing boundaries and if in fact the Sunni majority in Syria are able to establish a new government the various Shia groups/countries from AFG to Lebanon (the Green Cresent) are effectively cut in half and the Sunni's sit astride the old Silk Highway---this is what is driving Saudi to support Sunni insurgent groups across the ME especially though in Iraq and Syria as well as creating a counterbalance for what Saudi feels is Shia expansionism driven by Iran.

What is more than intersting from the article is the total lack of mentioning the "other" major Sunni insurgency group that has been quietly and steadily rebuilding itself into a major military force in the Sunni provinces-the Islamic Army in Iraq (IAI) which is an effective counterbalance to the ISI but largely overlooked as in this article.

The IAI has and still maintains close ties to all Sunni insurgent groups based in Syria both from a recruiting as well as financial standpoint AND what is being overlooked in the article is the simple fact that all Sunni insurgent groups plus AQI all worked with each other to varying degrees in the planning, financing, and fighting in several large complex attacks throughout the war in Iraq. Look at the styles of ongoing attacks in Iraq and one sees the division of labor extremely well--AQI has taken the lead in the IO campaign of suicide attacks but what is not be talked about openly in the press is the constant direct small arms attacks against police stations and checkpoints and asassinations being carried against the Shia security forces-which is being attributed to the IAI as well as theie RC/EFP focused IED strikes. NOTE: The Syrian insurgency is now shifting to an effective RC/EFP driven IED campaign against the Syrian tanks/APCs and it is paying off in that they are not moving them deeper into the urban conflict areas due to IED losses.

Recent European TV interview with a leading Arab politican uttered something we have recently heard "the call for a no fly zone to protect civilian enclaves".

We the US needs as a country to fully understand that what started 1400 years ago has yet to fully play out and actually we are only observing bystanders regardless of how much US blood and money was spent in Iraq-we lost our influence even with the Kurds when we pulled out.

What needs though to be fully understood is the simple fact that when military/security forces are built in our image and in large numbers-it will never stop a determined insurgency---we built what over a total of more than 300K in forces in both Iraq and AFG and still those sheer numbers are not slowing down both insurgencies.

Something that needs to be thought about.

Just a side note---a large number of Sunni's (tribal and insurgents)especially in Dilyala in 2005 kept warning the BCTs of the influence and threat of the Quds Force which even in 2005 were slipping into Iraq via the Mandaley border crossing point as well as any number of rat runs on the Iraq/Iranian border to Diyala.