MESOP COMMENTARY : Syria: Spillover into Iraq?

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi – The Jerusalem Post – November 18, 2012 – Writing on his blog “Syria Comment,” Joshua Landis contends that “Iraq is seeing much more spillover from Syria than Lebanon.” His premise is that “already in response to the growing civil war in Syria, Iraqi violence has spiked and al-Qaida is resurgent there.”

However, I contend that Landis is wrong on several counts. Beginning with his premise, the notion that “Iraqi violence has spiked” is based on a short term overview of trends of violence in Iraq, without looking at the bigger picture. Indeed, this issue is a common fault when it comes to media reporting on statistics of violence and civilian casualties.For example, at the end of September, outlets like Reuters reported that Iraq had seen its bloodiest month for more than two years, citing a figure of 365 killed, supposedly double the toll from the previous month.However, as Joel Wing of “Musings on Iraq” quickly noticed, the media reports were simply basing themselves on government statistics, which have consistently understated casualties to a large degree.

After all, the leading “State of Law” coalition in government under the premier Nouri Maliki emphasizes security for Iraqis as a key part of its political platform.

An examination of the database of the Iraq Body Count (IBC), which compiles figures based on extensive corroboration of media sources in Arabic and English, will show that, in comparison with the preceding summer months, September has hardly been out of the ordinary. As of the time of writing, the IBC records 372 violent deaths for September, while June, July and August have 505, 419 and 398 fatalities respectively. These figures contrast strongly with the spring season, during which March, April and May witnessed 347, 330 and 231 violent deaths respectively.

The point is that these figures are part of the regular patterns in violence that have emerged since the end of the sectarian civil war: that is, violence picks up in the build-up to and throughout the summer, as insurgents step up their operations. If anything, the development of the Syrian civil war should lead to the opposite of what Landis suggests: namely, a reduction in violence, since it is apparent that many Sunni and Shi’a militants from Iraq have been heading into Syria to aid the rebels or the Assad regime, respectively.

By attempting to draw a link with the Syrian civil war, Landis overlooks the real problem of the growing sophistication of Iraqi insurgent tactics. Indeed, analysts such as Hayder Khoei and Prashant Rao have noted the increasing use of advanced technology among the insurgents, and their improved ability to disguise themselves as members of the Iraqi security forces.

This problem can in fact be tied to the US withdrawal, though it was not an inevitable consequence of the American pullout, but rather the result of poor decision-making on the part of the Iraqi government.

As Michael Knights pointed out in an interview with Joel Wing, after the US withdrawal the Iraqi government decided to release some detainees who had been held by the Americans. Part of the reason for doing this was undoubtedly an assumption that now there was no longer an occupying foreign force on Iraqi soil, these detainees would return to normal lives, perhaps also realizing that they could not overthrow the government. Yet the assumption proved to be mistaken. Rather than reintegrating, a large number of them simply rejoined insurgent groups like al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI). Driven by ideology, they had simply bided their time while imprisoned, thinking about how to launch more sophisticated attacks and becoming familiar with the operations of the Iraqi security forces.

The result, as Knights puts it, is that “AQI has benefited from an unprecedented infusion of trained terrorist manpower.” This therefore, and not the Syrian civil war, explains the claims of Iraqi and US officials that AQI has bolstered its manpower with training camps in Anbar.

What of the future? It is certainly true that many Sunni Arabs in Iraq feel that their position will be strengthened if a Sunni-dominated government replaces the Assad regime. Nonetheless, it is first important to note that said Sunnis have not said they are intending to return to an armed insurgency campaign against the Iraqi government. Second, given the severe damage to infrastructure in Syria caused by the civil war, as well as problems of demography, internal displacement owing to climate change, dwindling oil resources, and the presence of hardline jihadist factions that are at strong odds ideologically with other rebel factions (among other things), a Syrian government that succeeds Assad is likely to be extremely weak and far more preoccupied with its own domestic problems – including a dangerous insurgency – than supporting and empowering Sunni brethren in Iraq.

Third, even if the Syrian government did have time and energy to focus on asserting the position of Sunnis in Iraq, there is no reason to think that a post- Assad Damascus would do so with armed support for insurgents who have already attained a high degree of unpopularity, among all Iraqi communities, for their brutality.

On the contrary, given Syria’s trade ties with Iraq, a post-Assad regime would be much more likely to try to take on a role as mediator and advisor in Iraqi politics, similar to the way Iran tries to assert itself among the Shi’a factions.

Finally, Landis’ own view of how Iraqi politics works is simply based too much on an ethno-sectarian paradigm. He overlooks how the main issue in the country today is not a Sunni-Shi’ite crisis, but the monopolization of power under Nouri Maliki, who has built up a support base of many Sunnis in both the judiciary and the armed forces. Indeed, being Shi’ite is no guarantee of securing the friendship of the premier, as illustrated by the fact that he recently went after the Shi’ite head of the Central Bank Sinan Shabibi. This move was not supported outside Maliki’s own state of law coalition, widely perceived as a unilateral attempt on the premier’s part to accumulate greater control of government. In short, Landis is greatly exaggerating the threat of civil war spillover from Syria into Iraq. Iraq is a country with its own political and security dynamics that need to be taken into account before hastily assuming a link between the Syrian civil war and supposedly growing destabilization in Iraq.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.