Events in Syria over the last several weeks show signs of a looming regional sectarian conflict. This conflict is complicated and requires a deep understanding of many nuanced aspects. Therefore this analysis will be conducted in two parts: the first focusing on al-Qaeda’s operations and Iranian influence in Syria; the second focusing on Kurdish autonomy and the Balkanizing of the Syrian state.
Al-Qaeda has been a prominent and growing player among the kaleidoscopic Sunni rebel movement in Syria. The terror network’s presence is complicated as it has two official branches operating in country, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although JN was created by al-Qaeda in Iraq, a dispute arose over JN’s moves toward independence. This dispute, as I have described previously, led to JN and ISIS becoming distinct administrative entities. Although both are al-Qaeda branches, their relationship is complicated:
There are places where their names are used interchangeably or both operate but do so separately; where they are distinct but cooperate on attacks; and where one or the other is the sole or prominent actor… Aleppo and Deir ez-Zor [are] cities where JN and ISI(S) function separately, Deraa as a city where JN maintains primacy, and al-Raqqa as a city where they are indistinguishable, although these dynamics are in constant flux.
Despite the confusing relationship, both groups have the same ideological goal of establishing a Salafist-jihadist caliphate, but their operational goals are markedly different.
JN is attempting to gain territory and establish a positive reputation among Syrians. With their public relations and social welfare programs, they are trying to project a moderate image of al-Qaeda. “By all accounts this strategy has been successful, allowing JN to continue to gain supporters and prestige in a conflict where its ultimate goal is fundamentally anathema to the underpinnings of the larger revolution.” This is in contrast to ISIS’s reputation of brutality. It is likely that this is a symbiotic relationship, where JN looks the part of a community savior and ISIS takes on the negative image of an oppressor. Despite JN’s winning over the Sunni populace with their battlefield successes and recent public relations programs, it should be noted that their actions are not altruistic. Their takeover of the majority of oil wells in the eastern Deir ez-Zour province in concert with the EU’s easing of oil sanctions on Syria effectively gives them power over the Sunni tribes and access to a large money stream. Besides the money they make off the oil itself, JN is paid roughly $2 million per month by the regime to “guarantee oil is kept pumping through two major oil pipelines in Banias and Latakia. Middlemen trusted by both sides are to facilitate the deal and transfer money to the organisation [sic].” Some Syrian experts even say that JN has “cut a deal with the regime not to participate on front-lines of battles and reduce spectacular attacks in exchange for being allowed to govern their own territories in the north.” In effect, al-Qaeda has its own territory with which to train, operate, and even function as a state, governing citizens and controlling the economy.
As noted above, JN is seeking to project the image of jihad that every Syrian Sunni can approve of. The goal of ISIS, however, is simply to spark a sectarian conflict that will lead to the establishment of a unified area of operation from Iraq to Lebanon. Their operations in Iraq have gained momentum in recent months, most notably with the recent spate of jail breaks and daily waves of bombings. These operations generally target the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and Shia civilians. ISIS has expanded its operations to North and Western Syria, targeting the Shia Alawites in the villages they overrun. The importance of these operations is such that ISIS has effectively moved its battlefield headquarters into Syria. Recent developments in ISIS’s Syria operations include the capture of the Minnagh air base near Aleppo, and an incursion into the Alawite homeland in northern Latakia province. One Free Syrian Army commander participating in the incursion said, “The objective is to… hurt them like they are hurting us. The Alawites have been huddling in their mountain thinking that they can destroy Syria and remain immune.” ISIS will commit massive ethnic cleansing of Alawites if the Syrian Army cannot push them out of Latakia.
With ISIS sparking sectarian conflict on the Sunni side, Iran is fueling the fire from the Shia side. Iran is increasing its calls for Shia men to join the fight to protect holy shrines in Syria, principally the Sayyida Zaynab shrine in Damascus. The influx of independent Shia militias creates a command and control problem for the Syrian military. With the government not able to control all of these allied groups, the likelihood of ethnic cleansing against Sunni civilians increases, “Government troops have sometimes been forced to prevent massacres from taking place by the hands of Iraqi and Lebanese Shia militia groups.” Iran’s call for fighters to intervene is particularly useful to its expanding influence in the region, as it “can save a strategically important ally, lessen the influence of its Shia clerical rivals and foster a greater acceptance of its own radical doctrine within the Shia Islamic community.” These goals, particularly the last two, require an understanding of the politics in the Shia community:
A struggle is underway between the two intellectual centers of Shia political power: Najaf, in Iraq, and Qom, in Iran… The former, which has strained itself to interpret events in Syria as a political struggle, and which maintains a certain theological distance from such matters, has urged Iraqi Shias to spurn the fight there and not fan the sectarian flames… In Qom, the situation is different. The Islamic Republic of Iran… has been issuing quite contrary edicts. Their version of Shi’ism merges the political and theological spheres and, through the counsels of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the faithful are enjoined to travel to Syria and fight against what they regard as a Sunni insurgency.
The Iranians are carefully crafting a narrative of a defensive jihad that is inspiring Iranian and Iraqi Shi’ites to fight the Sunnis all over Syria, ostensibly while defending the Sayyida Zaynab shrine. This is done through Iranian media campaigns within Iraq that take statements from Iraqi clerics such as Muqtada al-Sadr or Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and carefully highlight or omit points in order to paint a picture of the Iraqi clerics’ support for intervention in Syria. Additionally, these campaigns put out banners advocating Shia intervention with an approving picture of al-Sadr or Ali Sistani. It is obvious that these moves by Iran not only increase its influence on the ground in Syria, but also its influence over Iraqi Shi’ites.
With al-Qaeda and Iranian action increasing its tempo, the transition from nationalist civil war to regional sectarian conflict will occur more rapidly. With little being done to stem those actions by outside forces the situation will get worse, including a growing number of ethnic cleansing incidents. US policymakers should implement plans that reduce both al-Qaeda and Iran’s capabilities in the region. In Syria, plans should include increased sanctions that specifically target oil exports that are financing al-Qaeda. In Iraq, monetary aid should be given to bolster the Iraqi government’s ability to counter ISIS operations and should include funds ear-marked for programs countering Iranian clerical influence in Iraq.