Monday, March 5, 2012

More Iraqis Becoming Involved In Conflict In Syria

Starting in March 2011, Syria faced a series of public outbursts against President Bashar al-Assad that turned increasingly violent. Syria’s neighbor Iraq immediately became concerned over those turn of events. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and many Shiite parties in Iraq were afraid that Sunni militants would take power if the Syrian government fell, so they started providing diplomatic support as well as sending fighters to Damascus’ aid. At the same time, Al Qaeda in Iraq saw an opportunity to take advantage of the growing chaos next door, smugglers thought that they could make a quick buck selling weapons to the Syrian opposition, and some tribes that straddled the border felt that they had to help out their compatriots. This is a dramatic turn of events as Syria use to be the source for foreign fighters and other militants infiltrating into Iraq to sow chaos, but now the tables are turned, and various Iraqi groups are going into Syria to assist both sides in the growing conflict there.

News of Iraqi militants being involved in Syria started when a series of bombs went off in the country. The first was a dual suicide car bombing outside the State Security Directorate and military compound in Damascus on December 23, 2011 that killed 44. On January 6, 2012, a bomb went off in a residential section of the capital leaving 26 casualties. Then on February 10, there was another explosion in Aleppo leaving 28 dead. U.S. officials such as the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, believed that the bombings had the hallmark of Al Qaeda in Iraq. That seemed to be confirmed two days later, when Al Qaeda central’s leader Ayman Zawahiri issued an 8 minute video calling for  President Bashar al-Assad to be overthrown, and for Islamists from around the world to go to Syria to fight the government there. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, also released a statement on its website saying that rebels in Syria deserved their support. That same day, Iraq’s Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Asadi claimed that weapons were being smuggled from Baghdad and Mosul to be delivered to the Syrian opposition. Back in December 2011, police in Ninewa said that explosives and armed groups were going back and forth between the province and Syria. Insurgents had used Syria to transit arms, money, material, and fighters into Iraq in the past, and now it appeared they were using those same networks and routes to travel back into Syria. During the Iraqi civil war, militants believed that they were the vanguard for the Sunni community in its battle with Shiite militias and the Iraqi government. Now they might be feeling that they can take up that role again as much of the Syrian opposition is Sunni, which is struggling against the government in Damascus, which is Alawite, an offshoot of Shiism. At the same time, newspapers have said that not many jihadists have gone from Iraq to Syria.

Tribes, regular Iraqis, and smugglers may also be involved with Syria. There are reports that common smugglers in Anbar, Ninewa, and Kurdistan are shipping weapons and ammunition to the Syrian opposition. Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, who is a leader in the Awakening movement, and from the Dulaim tribe, one of the largest in the province, told the New York Times in February that many locals were backing the Syrian rebels. Another sheikh from Qaim, Anbar said that people there were sending money and medicine to Syria. There have also been several demonstrations in Anbar in support of the Syrian opposition. One occurred on February 16 in Fallujah, and there was another on March 2 in Hit. Finally, a group in Anbar calling itself the Army of Free Iraqis, has claimed that it is monitoring the Syrian border to stop any help from Baghdad going to Syria. Many in Anbar appear to be legitimately concerned about the growing unrest in the country next door. The extent of their support for the Syrian opposition is unknown. While some money may be going across the border, much of their backing appears to be moral for now. Smugglers on the other hand, are just responding to the demand for weapons. They are not motivated by politics, but money.

The increasing violence in Syria is drawing in many parties from within Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has given diplomatic support to the government in Damascus, while the militias such as the Mahdi Army may be sending fighters to help Assad’s forces. This is driven out of fear that Sunni militants may take power in Syria, who could then return to fighting in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq could be carrying out terrorist bombings, in the hopes of taking advantage of the chaos in the neighboring state to spread its ideology to another country. Iraqis in northern and western Iraq are growing more concerned about the events next door as many of their tribes span the border. Finally, smugglers are shipping weapons into Syria to make money off of the brewing chaos. Each groups sees something to gain or protect from the events in Syria. As long as instability continues there, more and more Iraqis are likely to join the fray, which will only increase the violence. 
An arms smuggler outside of Mosul, Ninewa disassembling AK-47s to be sold in Syria (Reuters)

A protest against the Syrian government held in Fallujah, Anbar after Friday prayers, Feb. 17, 2012 (Reuters)
Anti-Syrian government rally in Hit, Anbar, Mar. 2, 2012 (Getty Images)

Members of the Army of Free Iraqis in Anbar who claim that they are policing the border to stop any Shiite parties from sending aid or fighters into Syria to support the government there. It says "Free Syria" on the palm.  (AFP)
More members of the Army of Free Iraqis (AFP)

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Syria under ‘jihadist invasion,’” 2/12/12
- “Thousands of Iraqi Sunnis protest Assad,” 3/2/12

Alsumeria News, “”jihadists” and weapons from Iraq to Syria,” 2/12/12

Arango, Tim and Adnan, Duraid, “For Iraqis, Aid to Rebels in Syria Repays a Debt,” New York Times, 2/13/12

Associated Press, “Al-Qaida leader backs Syrian revolt; move likely to complicate int’l efforts against Assad,” 2/12/12

Aswat al-Iraq, “URGENT / Thousands demonstrate in Falluja supporting Syrian people,” 2/17/12

Dagher, Sam, “Syria Chaos Pushes Iraqis Back Home,” Wall Street Journal, 2/17/12

Fahim, Kareem, “Syria Blames Al Qaeda After Bombs Kill Dozens in Damascus,” New York Times, 12/23/11

Issa, Sahar, “As Al Qaeda moves fight to Syria, violence in Iraq drops sharply,” McClatchy Newspapers, 2/21/12

Jakes, Lara and Yahya, Mazin, “Iraqis profit from Syrian arms smuggling,” Associated Press, 2/16/12

Khalat, Khidir, “Arms still smuggled into Syria from Sinjar,” National Iraqi News Agency, 2/25/12

Khallat, Khudr, “Light arms smuggling from Iraq to Syria is flourishing,” AK News, 1/25/12

Landay, Jonathan, “U.S. officials: Al Qaida behind Syria bombings,” McClatchy Newspapers, 2/10/12

Miller, Greg, “Al-Qaeda infiltrating Syrian opposition, U.S. officials say,” Washington Post, 2/16/12

Russia Today, “Iraqi gunmen afoot to join Syrian insurgency (PHOTOS),” 2/20/12

Schmitt, Eric and Shanker, Thom, “Sunni Extremists May Be Aiding Al Qaeda’s Ambitions in Syria, Analysts Say,” New York Times, 2/15/12

Sengupta, Kim, “Syria’s sectarian war goes international as foreign fighters and arms pour into country,” Independent, 2/20/12

Shadid, Anthony, “Bomb Kills Dozens in Damascus, Stoking Suspicions,” New York Times, 1/6/12

Shallal, Azhar, “Iraq border town ready to repay debt to Syrians,” Daily Star, 2/22/12

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