With the Obama administration now pushing talks to try and end Syria’s civil war as early as next month in Geneva, a major complicating factor is the black flag of Al Qaeda that now flies over major swaths of northern Syria, planted there by increasingly powerful affiliates such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the al-Nusra Front. The emergence of the Al Qaeda affiliates as the most powerful of the rebel groups fighting the Syrian regime has already complicated U.S. efforts to arm and train more moderate, secular rebel factions. It will also cast a long shadow over the proposed negotiations in Geneva. More to the point, the establishment of a mini-Al Qaeda caliphate on the border of NATO ally Turkey and a day’s march from Israel, in the heart of an increasingly volatile Middle East, puts the groups on an almost inevitable collision course with the United States.
Recall that U.S. military forces already have a long and bloody history with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the organization that spawned both ISIS and its quarreling Syrian sister Jabhat al-Nusra. Under its previous founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in a U.S. strike in 2006), AQI honed to a lethal edge its preferred tactics of suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices, killing hundreds of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites. Only the efforts of more than 140,000 U.S. soldiers and Marines, and a Sunni tribal revolt against AQI’s harsh methods and wanton slaughter, kept the group from plunging Iraq into an all-out, sectarian civil war.
A long political paralysis in Iraq and the increasingly sectarian nature of the civil war next door in Syria, however, have predictably revived the fortunes of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Last summer the group launched a bold prison break at Abu Ghraib, for instance, freeing hundreds of its hardened fighters and reconstituting the force that nearly split Iraq asunder. Their subsequent attacks on Shiites have made this year the bloodiest since the U.S. troop “surge” of 2007-08, with more than 1,000 civilians already murdered in 2013.
Al Qaeda in Iraq leaders view Syria as an extension of that same campaign to hijack the Arab Spring uprisings and turn them into an Islamic revolution that sweeps aside secular and Western-backed leaders in the region, as well as “apostate” Muslims (ie; Shiites). Indeed, to grasp AQI’s vision for the future of Iraq and the region, you need look no further than Syria today.
“Once they gain a geographical base from which to launch attacks, Al Qaeda and its affiliates never remain just a local threat, but rather they always think regionally and often internationally,” says counter-terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman, director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. The reason Al Qaeda in Iraq has poured in so many fighters and resources into Syria is precisely because physically being able to hold onto territory there has enormous consequences for them. “They want to use Syria as a base for exporting the sectarian war there between Sunnis and Shiites to the wider region. That’s their stated strategy.”