As more news stories emerge of various groups within Iraq aiding one side or another in the emerging Syrian conflict, some recent reports highlight that not everyone is interested in their neighbor’s affairs. A few Iraqi insurgent groups and tribal sheikhs in Anbar have both announced that they would not be getting involved in Syria.
In February 2012, Reuters had a story interviewing two insurgent leaders who said that they were not interested in Syria. First, a commander from the Islamic Army said it was not going to send any aid to help the opposition against the government of Bashar al-Assad. He claimed that Al Qaeda was trying to take advantage of the chaos next door to expand its base of operations. Earlier in the month, the head of Al Qaeda central Ayman Zawahiri issued a video calling for a jihad against Damascus, while Al Qaeda in Iraq’s umbrella organization the Islamic State of Iraq said that the opposition there should be supported. The Islamic Army commander went on to argue that sending fighters into Syria would only aid the government there as it has been claiming that their main opponents are foreign terrorists. Obviously, groups in Iraq getting involved would prove Damascus correct, and perhaps lead to a greater crackdown on the activists there. The news service also talked with a leader from the Rashideen Army who said that getting involved in Syria could lead to sectarian fighting, and therefore his organization was not going to get involved either. While Al Qaeda is being opportunistic, seeing in Syria a conflict that it could exploit to spread its ideology and use its experience in terrorism, other Iraqi militants do not share that view. A major reason is that the latter’s main focus has always been on Iraq as they are indigenous organizations. Al Qaeda in Iraq in comparison, was started by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and after his death has moved much closer to following Al Qaeda central, which sees itself as an international revolutionary group. Al Qaeda has always looked to expand into any conflict area that might be open to its ideology, which is why they are now turning towards Syria. That is not a goal of other Iraqi insurgent groups who still have a fight with Baghdad.
Along with some Iraqi insurgent groups, several sheikhs in Anbar said that they too would not help the Syrian opposition. Again, Reuters was responsible for a story interviewing several tribal leaders in Anbar. One sheikh in Habaniya said that aiding the Syrians would only increase the violence, and it would be they, not Iraqis that would ultimately pay the price of such action. Other tribal headmen interviewed in Anbar claimed that the demonstrations in the province were all that was really happening with regards to their neighbor. One protest happened in Fallujah on February 16, and another on March 2 in Hit for instance. Some of the sheikhs said that they were worried that violence in Syria would spill over into Iraq. Oddly enough, this is the same reason why the Iraqi government and several Shiite parties are now backing the Assad government, hoping to prevent Sunni militants from taking power next door. While they are giving diplomatic, and perhaps military support to Damascus, it seems that some tribes in Anbar are doing the opposition, and trying to stay out, believing that outside intervention would only make the matter worse, and increase the likelihood that Iraq would suffer in the long run.
Syria was once one of the main sources of instability in Iraq. Much of the Baathist leadership relocated there after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, insurgent groups set up their offices there, foreign fighters, weapons, and money all flowed through the country into northern and western Iraq, sowing chaos. Now various groups within Iraq are becoming very concerned about what is happening next door. Some are deciding to back one side or another in the conflict, but that does not mean that everyone in Iraq is jumping into the fray. The two stories by Reuters show that a few insurgent groups and some tribes do not want to get involved, because they are either more concerned about Iraq, or worried that greater engagement would only inflame violence and tensions on both sides of the border. Which ever side various groups within Iraq take, it shows that many are growing more concerned about the turn of events in Syria since the two countries have been so closely tied together in recent history.
Bayoumy, Yara, “Iraq Sunni tribes warn against arming Syrian opposition,” Reuters, 3/4/12
Al-Salhy, Suadad, “Iraq insurgents reject sending arms, fighters to Syria,” Reuters, 2/22/12