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Anbar Will Shape Syria's and Iraq's Future

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By Brian M. Downing* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

TEHRAN (IDN) - The Iraqi province of Anbar, which lies to the west of Baghdad and leads to the border with Syria, has been the scene of momentous historical events over the last decade. It was the site of fierce resistance to US forces and later a short-lived alliance between the insurgents and the US. Today Anbar is the site of Sunni opposition to the Shia government in Baghdad and of al Qaeda organizations that are fighting Shia governments in both Syria and Iraq. Initial stages of the campaign for Anbar are underway in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, with broader operations to follow for weeks if not months to come.

The battle of Anbar will be politics by other means and it will shape the future of Syria and Iraq as unified countries and of al Qaeda franchises in the region as well. There are three principal actors in Anbar: the Baghdad government, the Sunni of the province, and al Qaeda. Each actor has its own objective.

The Baghdad government

The ouster of Saddam Hussein inverted Iraq’s power structure that dated back to the 1920s when Britain imposed a Sunni ruling bloc that controlled the army and state. With the US invasion of 2003 the Sunni minority suddenly became a marginalized minority, mistrusted by the ascendant Shia majority. The new political arrangement has led to Sunni demands for greater participation – and sometimes for autonomy if not independence. It has also led to the re-emergence of al Qaeda organizations and a murderous bombing campaign against the Shia majority which kills scores of people each week.

The Baghdad government worries about maintaining Iraq as a unified country – with good reason. Countries throughout the region – Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, the Sudan – are breaking up or already have. Iraqi Kurds have all but declared independence from Baghdad and are now exporting their considerable oil resources through their own pipeline system, not that of the Iraqi state. The Sunni of Anbar are increasingly restive and several other provinces, even Shia ones, wish to establish their autonomy if not more. From Baghdad’s perspective, and that of its ally in Tehran as well, this would open up Anbar to Saudi influence or control and endanger the rest of Iraq. It would also endanger Iran one day.

The Baghdad government will approach events in Anbar with an eye toward retaining it as part of Iraq – a difficult undertaking at this point. It has three options.

First, it can refrain from risking its fledgling army and allow al Qaeda organizations to run roughshod over Anbar or parts of it and impose its aggressive form of Islamic law on a largely unwilling population. This will lead to local opposition and in time to reluctant recognition of the advantages of the relatively tolerant Baghdad government.

Second, Baghdad can allow Sunni militias to wage what would likely be a protracted war against al Qaeda, leaving devastated urban landscapes and shattered economic relations that could only be rebuilt with the help of Baghdad’s oil-based subsidies.

Third, Baghdad can direct its own army against al Qaeda organizations but with the same devastation and need for reconstruction aid, which will tie Anbar to Baghdad.

The Sunni of Anbar

The grim strategic situation facing Iraqi Sunnis today parallels that of ten years ago when they were beset by powerful enemies in al Qaeda but also US troops and Shia militias. The solution, albeit a short-lived one, came by allying with US troops in the Anbar Awakening. Of course, this option is no longer available as the US will never send ground troops back into Iraq. Three options remain.

First, the Sunnis can ally, if only briefly, with al Qaeda. Several reasons make this at least plausible. The two forces once jointly fought the US, and both oppose the Shia government in Baghdad. Al Qaeda franchises in Mali, Sinai, Yemen, and Pakistan have won measures of support from tribes disaffected by their central governments. Anbar is home to many Salafi networks whose austere interpretation of Islam resonates with al Qaeda beliefs, and many inhabitants of Fallujah today express at least grudging respect for al Qaeda fighters for opposing Shia rule.

However, al Qaeda over the years has greatly angered Anbar tribes, especially the vast and militarily powerful Dulayim confederation. Following the 2003 US invasion, Al Qaeda pushed aside Dulayim leaders and imposed their own rough administration, driving the tribes over to the American side in the Anbar Awakening. For their collaboration the leaders suffered immensely from al Qaeda reprisals, especially when the Americans withdrew from the province.

Second, Anbar Sunnis can request financial and military assistance from the Shia government. Baghdad will be wary of such support as it could strengthen Sunni tribes and militias, not only against al Qaeda but also against Baghdad, setting the stage for a war of independence. This, however, may be judged inevitable and even preferable to the deadly bombing campaign al Qaeda is waging against the Shia. This option would pit al Qaeda against the Sunni tribes in western Iraq, perhaps leaving the rest of the country more secure.

Third, a longer-term option may emerge as Anbar Sunnis ally with Syrian counterparts in anti-Assad rebel movements who can no longer hold the cities along the Mediterranean coast and must retreat to the border with Anbar. Such an alliance could develop into an autonomous region straddling the Syria-Iraq border, independent of both Damascus and Baghdad. It will enjoy considerable support from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf principalities who dearly wish to break Iranian-Shia power now stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria into Lebanon.

Al Qaeda

Franchises of al Qaeda, chiefly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), seek to foment Shia-Sunni warfare in the region and, amid the ruins, establish control over western Iraq and parts of Syria. It then seeks to coalesce a Syrian-Iraqi region with other regions in the Islamic world stretching from Mali to Afghanistan. These distinct “ink spots,” they hope (if quixotically), will expand and re-establish a unified Islamic empire. Recent events in both Syria and Iraq call into question the viability of ISIL control over the ink spots of major cities. Indeed, the movement may find itself facing sizable desertions as defeat weakens its image of divine favour and inevitable victory.

Two options stand out. First, ISIL could react to the ill-will it has created in cities it came to govern by moderating its brutal and alienating administration, ending harsh punishment for smokers, beardless men, and women they deem immodest. This, however, would require abandoning a key part of the disciplinary code which energizes its fighting groups and support networks and which constitutes a basis of the future they envision. ISIL and kindred franchises will likely see recent poor fortunes as transitory and as tests of faith. If anything, AI Qaeda groups may treat even more harshly with the hapless people who fall under their control until the latter show proper fealty and piety.

Second, ISIL and kindred groups such as the al Nusra Front may reduce their urban presence to dedicated neighbourhoods and cooperate more closely in controlling non-urban areas on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border, where they can rebuild before striking out against major cities on both sides of the border. Three problems are clear.

First, al Qaeda commanders are ambitious men who see themselves acting in accordance with God’s will, and one commander’s vision of the right path will almost certainly conflict with those of rivals, limiting cooperation among franchises.

Second, the region will also be claimed – and fought for – by less zealous Sunni groups from Syria and Iraq who seek to establish their own separatist region free of Baghdad, Damascus, and Islamist extremism. Third, al Qaeda chieftain Ayman al-Zawahiri, perhaps fearful of a power centre outside his control, has twice spoken out against unifying ISIL and al Nusra, though impending tactical defeats may cause him to rethink the issue.

*Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst, author of The Paths of Glory: Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam, and co-author with Danny Rittman of The Samson Heuristic. This article, originally published in Iran Review on January 29 under the headline The Battle of Anbar and the Future of Iraq and Al Qaeda is being republished by arrangement with the editors of the non-partisan website.  [IDN-InDepthNews – January 31, 2014]

2014 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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