Al Qaeda in Iraq reasserts itself as war in Syria drives regional conflict

Al Qaeda's Iraq faction is already a major player in the Syrian conflict. This past week, it dramatically reasserted itself in Iraq by seizing parts of the western Anbar province.

Tribal fighters who have been deployed onto the streets, patrol in the city of Fallujah, 50-kilometres west of Baghdad on January 5, 2014. Government officials in western Anbar province met tribal leaders to urge them to help repel Al Qaeda-linked militants who have taken over parts of Ramadi and Fallujah, strategic Iraqi cities on the Euphrates River. Reuters
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Istanbul // The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was born in conflict a decade ago and is now thriving due to the new war in Syria.

Also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq and Levant, or, as Da’ash in Arabic, the group has become a major player in Syria and, in the past week, has dramatically reasserted itself by seizing parts of Iraq’s Anbar province.

The group has its roots in the Sunni-dominated western province, where it was established in 2003 by radical Islamists intent on fighting invading US troops.

Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led the fledging movement, quickly became one of the most feared and notorious figures in the Iraq war.

Swearing allegiance to Al Qaeda, he embarked on attacks against US forces, the struggling Iraqi authorities, international aid groups and, with the most dire consequences, against Iraq’s Shiite community.

A series of atrocities against Shiite civilians and shrines eventually provoked a sectarian war in Iraq – something Al Zarqawi had aimed to do – and it quickly created bloody chaos throughout the country.

Eventually the group’s extremism – it was known for gruesome videos showing hostages being beheaded – turned local supporters against it and, in conjunction with US troops, Sunni tribesmen and Iraqi government forces routed it from power bases in Mosul, Baquba, Ramadi, Fallujah and to the so called triangle of death, a killing zone south of Baghdad.

Al Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2005, US troops eventually pulled out at the end of 2011, and that appeared to be the end of Al Qaeda in Iraq. However, it turned out not to be that simple.

Underlying political problems in Baghdad went unaddressed by an increasingly imperious and sectarian-minded Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki and, in the absence of a genuinely inclusive national settlement, Sunni grievances in western Iraq festered. Al Qaeda in Iraq, dramatically weakened but not destroyed, began to revive and regroup under new leadership.

The start of the Syrian uprising or, more specifically, the strategy of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime to ignite a civil war rather than make genuine political reforms, in a desperate bid to cling to power, gave Al Qaeda in Iraq a golden opportunity to reassert itself.

As peaceful Syrian protesters were gunned down, arrested and tortured by regime security forces, an armed rebellion began to spread, one increasingly tarnished with sectarianism, broadly pitting a ruling Shiite sect, the Alawites, against the dispossessed Sunni majority.

In January 2012 Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, sent teams to establish a network, Jabhat Al Nusra, in Syria.

As the international community watched, doing nothing to stop the spreading war, Al Qaeda, bolstered by an influx of foreign fighters, joined the fight.

In many ways, 2013 was Al Qaeda’s year in Syria, with its affiliates emerging as the regime’s most implacable and effective military foe.

It was also a classic case of blowback. In Afghanistan, the US had fuelled Islamist militancy to defeat Soviet forces in the 1980s. Al Zarqawi was among those who joined that fight against the Russians.

Similarly, after the US-led invasion of Iraq, President Bashar Al Assad helped radical Islamists wage war against the US and the Iraqi government. Militants, Syrian and foreign, and weapons flooded across the border, facilitated by regime security networks in Damascus.

Those same militants, many of them freed from Syrian jails by Mr Al Assad after the uprising started, turned their guns against his regime, some of them under the Al Qaeda banner.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) - as it was officially branded in April 2013 - is drive by a political programme. It seeks to establish a caliphate, ultimately across the Arab world, ruled in accordance with its own austere and highly intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The group’s refusal to compromise, its brutal violence and its ability to spread fear are its hallmark, and perhaps its greatest strength. They are also its most obvious weakness.

Just as Al Qaeda’s allies in Iraq’s Sunni tribes eventually turned against it, now in Syria there are increasing incidents of Isil forces clashing with other powerful Islamic rebel factions – groups ostensibly on the same side in the war against the regime.

There has also been a schism within the Al Qaeda movement, with Jabhat Al Nusra and Isil splitting with ill-concealed acrimony. Hardly a liberal group, the Syrian-dominated Al Nusra also seems to have tired of Isil’s belligerence.

So too does Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman Al Zawahiri, who chastised Al Baghadadi in November and ordered Isil be dissolved, leaving the  field open for Al Nusra. That was an order Isil has shown no sign of obeying.

If, over the coming months, Isil is beaten back in Iraq by government forces and in Syria by other, less extreme, rebel factions, it will be a relief to many Syrians and Iraqis alike, and to the international community.

But, the pattern is clear. Without inclusive political settlements, and in the absence of justice and peace, the environment remains ripe for outbreaks of extremism and ideally suited for groups like the Isil to rise.