Historically, both domestic and foreign powers have treated the areas known today as Iraq and Syria as a single territory. However, the differences between the two lands have been significant enough to prevent any one force from simultaneously dominating both territories for very long. This is a recurring theme going back centuries, even before the rise of Islam, and was as true for the Sassanid and Byzantine empires as it was for the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates, and later for the rival Baath parties in Iraq and Syria in the post-colonial period.
The U.S. ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime brought to power a Shia-dominated government in Iraq, which, combined with Iran's decades-old alliance with Syria, gave Tehran two friendly governments along its western border. However, this newfound position of strength was quickly jeopardized by the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Now, transnational jihadists based in Iraq are trying to use the Sunni rebellion against the Syrian Alawite regime to turn Iraq and Syria into a single battlespace.
In keeping with the strategy developed in the 1980s during their experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, transnational jihadists — and specifically, members of al Qaeda — often try to take advantage of the vacuum created by collapsing orders to establish a caliphate or emirate. Al Qaeda in Iraq attempted to implement this strategy during the country's insurgency in the mid-2000s, but Iraq's demographic makeup as a majority-Shia country and the group's hard-line vision of Islamic law in the areas it controlled created a backlash, and al Qaeda has struggled to remain relevant there ever since.
Al Qaeda in Iraq is now trying to exploit the transition of the Syrian uprising into a civil war — and, more recently, into a regional sectarian conflict. It has tried to appropriate Syrian jihadist movement Jabhat al-Nusrah through a merger of sorts, renaming the joint group al Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Al Qaeda in Iraq is also attempting to commandeer some of the money and weapons flowing to the Syrian rebels from international backers — particularly Saudi Arabia — that consider an Iranian-allied regime in Syria a strategic threat.
Both Riyadh and al Qaeda in Iraq are trying to capitalize on the growing anti-Shia and anti-Iran sentiments in the region caused by Sunni deaths in Syria. While the Saudis are using the jihadists to weaken Iran, the jihadists hope to emerge as a major political force in Syria and Iraq as a result of this anti-Iran drive. In order to achieve this goal, the jihadists need the sectarian war to spill over into Iraq, though there are a number of obstacles that will hinder their plans.
The Jihadists' Constraints
First, the conflict in Syria between loyalist forces and rebels appears to be stalemated. Western fears of jihadists filling the security vacuum, should Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime fall, are limiting external support for the rebels. Rather than moving toward military intervention or lethal support for the rebels, support that could fall into the wrong hands, the United States is instead trying to pursue a diplomatic resolution to the civil war.
These diplomatic efforts are unlikely to achieve an enduring political solution, but they will at least allow the United States to claim that it is doing something to address the conflict. U.S. and Western reluctance to remove the regime in its entirety means the rebels will continue to struggle in their fight against loyalist forces for some time, which in turn will have a mitigating effect on the spillover into Iraq.
Second, the Iraqi jihadists' capabilities are somewhat limited. Several jihadist groups in Syria are actively trying to assume some governmental responsibilities while ramping up attacks in Iraq, and consequently their human and material resources are being stretched thin. At the same time, Iraqi jihadists are also facing resistance from Syria, not just from mainstream rebels but also from transnational jihadists and their ostensible partners in Jabhat al-Nusrah. There is also a debate underway in the jihadist community over how to prioritize battles, with many arguing that they need to gain more ground in Syria to create the momentum for a successful campaign in Iraq. So long as the jihadists remain focused on Syria, they will not be able to devote sufficient attention or resources to sparking widespread sectarian violence in Iraq.
Third, the Iraqi political landscape is not especially hospitable for the jihadists. While Iraq's sectarian split between Sunnis, Shia and Kurds is a major challenge for domestic political stability, jihadists have largely failed to exploit those divisions for their own ends in recent years, which is why they are looking to take advantage of the Syrian situation. The jihadists face major obstacles on three levels. The Shia-led government has been able to develop a robust security apparatus trained to fight insurgents and terrorists, and therefore the jihadists have not been able to do much more than launch periodic attacks. Additionally, despite their own bitter power struggle with the Shia, the Kurds tend to align with the majority community when it comes to jihadists and any attempts at a Sunni resurgence.
Most important, the Sunnis of Iraq abhor the jihadists, which is why in 2007 and 2008 they made the decision to join the Shia-dominated political system and redirect their insurgency away from the state and toward al Qaeda. While the Sunnis in Iraq would like to be able to take advantage of the uprising of their counterparts in Syria to weaken the Shiite hold over Baghdad, the Iraqi Sunni community remains divided over whether it is worth the risk of empowering the jihadists, who would be the beneficiaries of any sectarian civil war in Iraq.
Different Positions, Different Aims
Syrian Sunnis are a majority who see themselves as capable of toppling the Alawite minority-dominated regime, given their numbers. Toward this end, they are willing to align with the jihadists, and indeed Salafist and jihadist factions are increasingly dominating the rebel landscape.
In contrast, the Iraqi Sunnis are a minority and struggle to compete with even the Kurds, let alone the Shia. Furthermore, over the years Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has been able to take advantage of the Sunnis' status as a divided lot to co-opt significant portions of the community.
The jihadists understand this and thus are not counting on the Iraqi Sunnis to make a conscious decision to turn against the Shiite regime just because their fellow Sunnis in Syria are up in arms. But because of the extremely charged sectarian environment in the region, jihadists are hoping that their attacks on the Shia will lead them to retaliate against the Sunni population, which in turn will force the Sunnis to respond.
The Shia too are internally divided, and the jihadists would need communal discipline to get to the point where non-state Shiite actors would be able to take matters into their own hands, instead of relying on the Shia-dominated state to handle the attacks.
The Challenge for al-Maliki
Given the jihadists' strategy, it is up to al-Maliki to ensure that the Shia are restrained in their reactions to jihadist provocations, such as the recent wave of bombings. While formal Shiite militias have long been rolled into the state security organs, every Shiite political faction possesses stockpiles of weapons they could begin to use again.
Certain Shiite groups, including the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr (al-Maliki's main Shiite rivals), may use the security situation to undermine al-Maliki by arguing that he is incapable of protecting their collective interests. Indeed, al-Maliki's recent reshuffling of Iraq's military leadership may have been intended to head off such criticism. Still, Iran plays an extremely influential role in Iraq, and since Tehran is not interested in seeing sectarian conflict in Syria and Iraq at the same time, the Shiite factions can be expected to fall in line for now.
Al-Maliki will need to be able to maintain this firm discipline indefinitely, since the Syrian crisis could go on for years. The constraints on the jihadists at least give him enough time to avoid the worst-case scenario of Iraq and Syria turning into a single jihadist operation space.