Al Qaeda in Iraq has officially merged with Syria’s jihadists. This should come as no surprise, as al Qaeda in Iraq has been a feeder for the Jabhat al Nusra militia and provided a staging ground for many of its attacks. But the official announcement this week by al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi of the newly formed al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham (a term for the Syrian region) highlights a critical point: Syria faces not one civil war, but two.
The current Syrian civil war, which has reached beyond 70,000 casualties and just completed its most violent month in March, is an anti-Assad struggle. Insurgents range from pro-democracy secularists to hard-line Islamists, and they are united by only one thing: hatred of the Damascus regime. When the Alawite tyrant is defeated, though, the overwhelming odds are that yet another brutal power struggle will ensue.
The war in Syria, which is currently against President Bashar Assad, will turn quickly into a war of jihadists against all.
If the history of al Qaeda in Iraq is any indication, we can anticipate the next steps of the newly consolidated al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham. With Mr. Assad gone, the organization will solidify its control over territory near the Iraqi border, such as the Jazira desert area, and other strongholds it acquires in urban and rural Syria.
When al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham feels confident of its local support and coercive powers, it will declare an Islamic state, probably starting in Iraq’s Anbar province and stretching deep into eastern and northern Syria. It will institute Shariah courts, create and disseminate extensive online propaganda, and continue its clarion call to jihadists from around the world to join.
After Mr. Assad, it will get worse. Invigorated with its perception of victory, the organization will push its advantage against whatever fledgling transitional government sits in Damascus. The terrorist group is already a highly adept insurgency, with the deadly skills and suicidal devotion of many seasoned insurgents from Iraq. It will turn those tactics against any Syrian government that does not fly the black banner of jihad.
From the onset, any new Syrian government will be at a severe disadvantage. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham doesn’t have to be in control of much to wreak havoc on the country. Even if the jihadists can count on the support of only a handful of towns and villages, they will be able to cause mayhem to undermine whatever coalition replaces Mr. Assad. The Syrian people will be caught between fanatical tyrants and an ineffective, squabbling government reliant on international aid.
This, in turn, will encourage further meddling from outside proxies that have extended their tentacles deep into the Syrian conflict. Shiite Iran has been a patron of Sunni Hamas for some time, and an alliance of convenience between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham is not beyond the pale. Sunni Arab states such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, on the other hand, will be receiving pressure from the United States to put the jihadist jack back in the box. But it won’t happen.
If the United States, with the most well-trained, capable military ground force the world has ever known, had difficulty maintaining order in a post-Saddam Iraq, one can only imagine the havoc that al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham will be able to create in a war-torn, decimated post-Assad Syria. Failed states and failing regimes have been the most effective incubators of al Qaeda’s brand of jihad. Syria threatens to become what Abu Musab Zarqawi so nearly achieved in Iraq.
Americans could be forced to watch from afar as a replay of the 2005-08 Iraqi sectarian bloodshed occurs without the presence of 150,000 U.S. troops to bring the country back from the brink. Even in this scenario, Iraq may be more cautionary tale than call to action unless there is an imminent threat that chemical weapons will fall into the jihadists’ hands.
At a minimum, it is time for President Obama to change his thinking on Syria. By failing to back any side, the administration has left itself in a reactive posture. U.S. inaction has ceded the field to other interested parties. Al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham is merely one enemy among many who are not just fighting Mr. Assad, but also preparing for the struggle that looms.
Al Qaeda in Iraq and Sham has announced its intention to create an Islamic state. It will push tirelessly toward that goal, whatever the cost. Although Mr. Obama and his senior advisers consider U.S. options, they should recognize that the greatest threat Syria faces may not be from the Assad regime, but whatever comes after it.
Buck Sexton is a former CIA officer assigned to the Counterterrorism Center and the Office of Iraq Analysis. He is currently co-host of Real News on TheBlaze TV.