The Battle for Syria
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|Jonathan Spyer||March 11th 2013|
This week, 48 Syrian soldiers who were reported as having ‘sought refuge’ in Iraq were ambushed and killed on Iraqi soil. At least 9, and possibly as many as 19 Iraqi soldiers who were reported as being in escort of the convoy of Syrian defectors also died in the ambush.
This incident lays bare the extent to which the Syrian civil war has now burst its banks. The expansion follows the lines of local and regional sectarian ties cutting through the borders of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The Iraqi defense ministry, in an official statement, blamed “a terrorist group that infiltrated into Iraqi territory coming from Syria.” The ministry’s statement described the soldiers as wounded men who had sought refuge in Iraq, at the Rabiya border crossing. They were, according to the ministry, being transferred to al-Walid border crossing further south to be returned to Syria when the attack took place.
This official Iraqi version raises a number of questions. The Syrian soldiers who were killed were nowhere described as seeking to defect from Assad’s army. Rather, it appears that they were operating within the framework of their duties in Assad’s army at the time that they were attacked. Certainly, this would fit with the broader pattern of relations between Assad and Maliki.
A close de facto alliance currently exists between the two. Both are allies of Iran. A western intelligence report obtained by Reuters late last year provided evidence of Maliki’s making Iraqi airspace available for the transfer of large amounts of Iranian weaponry in civilian aircraft to Assad. The report stated that “Planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost daily basis, carrying IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) personnel and tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting against the rebels.”
It also asserted that Iran was “continuing to assist the regime in Damascus by sending trucks overland via Iraq” to Syria.
Maliki himself spoke this week in apocalyptic terms of how he sees the consequences of a victory for the Sunni rebels in Syria. Such an outcome would, he suggested, lead to a sectarian war in Iraq, and renewed civil war in Lebanon.
No Syrian soldier seeking to defect from Assad’s forces would attempt this by making contact with Maliki’s army, any more than they would do so by making contact with Assad’s allies on the opposite border – the Hezbollah organization.
So if the soldiers were not seeking refuge, this suggests that their transfer to Iraqi soil took place in an act of cooperation between Assad’s and Maliki’s armies, indicating a level of practical cooperation on the ground between the two forces, in the face of the fierce battles currently raging between the Syrian army and rebels in the border area.
In a statement at a press conference in Baghdad reported by the Sharq al Awsat newspaper, Iraqi parliament Speaker Osama al Nujaifi mentioned this possibility. Nujaifi, a Sunni opponent of the Shia-dominated Maliki government, called for the Iraqi government to open an inquiry into the incident. He noted that ‘some eyewitnesses said that the Iraqi army had intervened to support the Syrian army against the FSA,” according to Sharq al-Awsat.
The attack itself took place near the town of Akashat in the north-west of Iraq’s Anbar province, close to the Syrian border.Anbar province is a known hotbed of Sunni Islami, anti-government and pro-jihadi sentiment. There are close links between the Sunni populations on either side of the border.
It is therefore likely that parallel to the close practical links between the Assad regime and the Maliki government, there is also cooperation between jihadi rebels opposed to them both, on either side of the border.
So the statement by Ali al-Mussawi, Maliki’s spokesman, that the incident represents ‘the attempt of some to move the conflict to Iraq,” is disingenuous.
Iraq is already part of the civil war in Syria – as a result of decisions made in Baghdad, and perhaps Teheran, no less than on the rebel side in Syria itself.This week also brought further evidence of the Syrian civil war bursting its banks in the other direction – toward Lebanon.
A statement issued by the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, reported by the Turkish Anadolu news agency, accused Hezbollah of ‘displacements and sectarian cleansing in a number of border towns… and burning many houses.”
The FSA statement concluded that “Our problem today has become with Lebanon as a state, it is no longer solely with Hezbollah. It has… turned into an Arab, regional and international issue.”
The Syrian civil war has indeed become an Arab and regional issue. The regime’s survival is made possible largely because of the support of Iran and its regional allies and proxies – Hezbollah and the Maliki government in Iraq.
The rebels, with only lukewarm support from the west, rely on their fellow Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to provide them with the arms and ammunition for their fight.
But more fundamentally, the overspill of the war into Iraq and Lebanon derives from the fact that the issues underlying the Syrian civil war are not Syrian alone. They are shared between Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.All three ‘countries’ are artificial entities, whose borders may be traced back to the western carve-up of former Ottoman territories. None have succeeded in establishing a functioning national identity of a type recognizable to the west.The strong hand of dictators professing loyalty to ‘Arab nationalism’ succeeded in obscuring this for a while (the Syrian dictatorship forcibly put the lid back on the boiling sectarian cauldron in Lebanon between 1990 and 2005. It predictably boiled over as soon as the Syrians withdrew.)
But with the iron hand of the dictators broken or in decline, sectarian loyalties are coming to define the political dynamic – crossing over artificial state borders.So the forces of the Shia Maliki cooperate with those of the Alawi Assad. Both are part of a regional alliance headed by Shia Iran. On the other side, their Sunni opponents also work across state lines. Sometimes their joint efforts have resounding results, as seen in Anbar province this week.
Further west, the Shia, Iran-activated Hezbollah does its share of the work – seeking to keep open the link between Lebanon and an emerging area of Alawi domination in western Syria. The Syrian rebels respond by threatening to expand their own operations to include Lebanon – where they also have many friends in the Sunni communities.
Where this is all heading cannot be predicted. But it may be said with confidence that the old order in the Arab world that held sway since the 1950s is dead. New, cross-border sectarian interests and alliances are currently making war over the ruins.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel. Aauthor of "The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict," (Continuum, 2010) he also writes a column at the Jerusalem Post.