Thursday, February 27, 2014

The ISIS-Nusra fight is but the latest installment in a centuries-long series of conflicts

The latest Iraqi-Syrian rivalry
The ISIS-Nusra fight is but the latest installment in a centuries-long
series of conflicts

Members of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra fire homemade mortar rounds
during fighting with goverment forces on February 8, 2014 in the Syrian
village of Aziza, on the southern outskirts of Aleppo

On Monday, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group
Jabhat al-Nusra, issued an ultimatum to the other main jihadist group in
Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Jawlani told ISIS that
it would be driven from Syria and fought even in Iraq if it did not submit
to arbitration by clerics within five days. The ultimatum noticeably
delineated the two groups' boundaries within their respective nation states.
It also represents the latest episode in the escalating conflict between the
two groups since Nusra rejected the forced merger with ISIS in the spring of
last year.

Observers are reading the Nusra-ISIS fight through the prism of the supposed
metamorphosis of Al-Qaeda from a presumably centralized, global outfit, to a
series of local splinter organizations. However, it is more useful to read
the conflict within the context of historical Syrian-Iraqi relations. It is
not really about the future of Al-Qaeda, but rather it is the latest
manifestation of an Arab political phenomenon of the Levant. What has
changed is the nature of the protagonists, for the role secular nationalist
movements once played is now reenacted by the Salafist jihadist movements.

Syrian-Iraqi relations have been marked by bitter competition for primacy.
The rivalry between Damascus and Baghdad as the seats of Muslim power goes
back to the Ummayads and Abbasids, and it persisted into the modern period.
In the decade after the two states gained independence, Syria was a
contested space and Iraq played a direct role in Syrian political life. The
Syrians who opposed it, mainly Damascenes, aligned with Cairo to counter
Baghdad. By the mid-1950s, with Syria plagued by a series of coups, Iraq was
positioning itself to take advantage of the chaos and assert its influence.
The Damascene elite sought protection through union with Gamal Abdel
Nasser's Egypt.

The rise of the Baath party to power in Iraq and Syria in 1963, although
ostensibly sharing the same ideology preaching Arab unity, did nothing to
bring harmony between the two states. The Baathist era was marked by
attempts by both sides to sabotage one another, and the era of the Baath
offers perhaps the most suitable precedent to the vicious conflict poised to
escalate between ISIS and Nusra.

Of direct relevance is the fact that a unifying transnational ideology meant
nothing in the face of the drive for raw power and the structural patterns
that have dominated the relationship between the two countries. By the time
Hafez al-Assad assumed office in 1970, the Baath party had already been
split into Syrian and Iraqi factions. Relations between Syria and Iraq
continued to deteriorate steadily. In 1979, Saddam Hussein formally assumed
the reins of power in Iraq, and his first order of business was a purge of
party members suspected of plotting a coup sponsored by Assad. In turn,
Saddam would go on to support acts violence against the regime, which was
then facing an uprising spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The war between the two continued throughout the 1980s. It played out in a
series of mutual assassinations and car bombs, mostly in Lebanon, where
local proxies of the Syrian and Iraqi Baaths existed, and where Assad and
his allies decimated the pro-Iraqi Baath faction. It's not difficult to draw
parallels to ISIS's campaign of assassinations and car bombs against its
Syrian rivals, and one wonders if and when Lebanon might witness pro-Nusra
and pro-ISIS factions begin to take shape and start going after each other
in the jihadist version of the Baathist war of the 1980s.

But Jawlani's threat to take the fight to ISIS in Iraq, where Iraqi allies
are allegedly ready to support Nusra in its battle, says something about the
options facing Nusra. Jawlani's turn to Ayman al-Zawahiri to fend off the
forced merger by ISIS's Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi - reminiscent of the Syrian
appeal to Abdel Nasser in 1958 - did little to deter the ISIS emir. The
appeal to the clerical authorities of the jihadist movement likewise did not
matter. The killing of Abu Khaled al-Souri, who had tried to heal the breach
between ISIS and Nusra and the Syrian Salafist scene more broadly, only
underscored Zawahiri's weakness, if not outright irrelevance. Baghdadi is
intent on bringing Syria into his domain, and Zawahiri is no Nasser to keep
him in check. Baghdadi controls fighters, territory, and resources, and has
declared that Al-Qaeda is history in Iraq. In contrast, what Zawahiri
actually controls is questionable, and it's unclear what he can do for
Nusra. Most probably, it is he who needs Nusra (and al-Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula) to remain relevant.

What Baghdadi's actions show is that, much as with the Baath in the previous
era, ideology takes a back seat to raw power. Baghdadi cares little that
major ideologues of the jihadist movement have sided with Nusra against him:
he is making his bid for primacy. The Syrian jihadists' only option is to
try and block him with violence of their own. The end result is likely to
harden the line between the Iraqi and Syrian Salafist factions, with smaller
allies on both sides of the divide, much as with the Baathist wars in

If these power games sound familiar, recalling the jostling of Arab
revolutionary parties and states, it's because they are. It is therefore
more useful to place the war between the Syrian and Iraqi Salafist jihadist
organizations in the context of the historically antagonistic relationship
between Damascus and Baghdad and of the structural patterns that have
governed their ties. The ISIS-Nusra rivalry is but the latest manifestation
of a longstanding Arab political phenomenon in the Levant.

No comments:

Post a Comment