This week, 48 Syrian soldiers who were reported as having “sought refuge” in
Iraq were ambushed and killed on Iraqi soil. At least nine and possibly as many
as 19 Iraqi soldiers who were reported as being in escort of the convoy of
Syrian defectors also died in the ambush.
This incident lays bare the
extent to which the Syrian civil war has now burst its banks. The expansion
follows the lines of local and regional sectarian ties cutting through the
borders of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.
The Iraqi defense ministry, in an
official statement, blamed “a terrorist group that infiltrated into Iraqi
territory coming from Syria.”
The ministry’s statement described the
soldiers as wounded men who had sought refuge in Iraq, at the Rabiya border
crossing. They were, according to the ministry, being transferred to the
al-Walid border crossing further south to be returned to Syria when the attack
This official Iraqi version raises a number of questions. The
Syrian soldiers who were killed were nowhere described as seeking to defect from
President Bashar Assad’s army. Rather, it appears that they were operating
within the framework of their duties in Assad’s army at the time that they were
attacked. Certainly, this would fit with the broader pattern of relations
between Assad and Iraqi Prime Minister Jawad Maliki.
A close de facto
alliance currently exists between the two.
Both are allies of
A Western intelligence report obtained by Reuters late last year
provided evidence of Maliki’s making Iraqi airspace available for the transfer
of large amounts of Iranian weaponry in civilian aircraft to Assad.
report stated that “Planes are flying from Iran to Syria via Iraq on an almost
daily basis, carrying IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] personnel and
tens of tons of weapons to arm the Syrian security forces and militias fighting
against the rebels.”
It also asserted that Iran was “continuing to assist
the regime in Damascus by sending trucks overland via Iraq” to
Maliki himself spoke this week in apocalyptic terms of how he sees
the consequences of a victory for the Sunni rebels in Syria. Such an outcome
would, he suggested, lead to a sectarian war in Iraq and renewed civil war in
No Syrian soldier seeking to defect from Assad’s forces would
attempt this by making contact with Maliki’s army, any more than they would do
so by making contact with Assad’s allies on the opposite border –
So if the soldiers were not seeking refuge, this suggests that
their transfer to Iraqi soil took place in an act of cooperation between Assad’s
and Maliki’s armies, indicating a level of practical cooperation on the ground
between the two forces in the face of the fierce battles currently raging
between the Syrian army and rebels in the border area.
In a statement at
a press conference in Baghdad reported by the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Iraqi
parliament Speaker Osama al Nujaifi mentioned this possibility.
a Sunni opponent of the Shi’a-dominated Maliki government, called for the Iraqi
government to open an inquiry into the incident.
He noted that “some
eyewitnesses said that the Iraqi army had intervened to support the Syrian army
against the FSA [Free Syrian Army],” according to Asharq al-Awsat.
attack itself took place near the town of Akashat in the northwest of Iraq’s
Anbar province, close to the Syrian border.
Anbar province is a known
hotbed of Sunni Islamist, anti-government and projihadi sentiment. There are
close links between the Sunni populations on either side of the
It is therefore likely that parallel to the close practical links
between the Assad regime and the Maliki government, there is also cooperation
between jihadi rebels opposed to them both, on either side of the
So the statement by Ali al-Mussawi, Maliki’s spokesman, that the
incident represents “the attempt of some to move the conflict to Iraq,” is
Iraq is already part of the civil war in Syria as a result
of decisions made in Baghdad, and perhaps Tehran, no less than on the rebel side
in Syria itself.
This week also brought further evidence of the Syrian
civil war bursting its banks in the other direction – toward Lebanon.
statement issued by the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, reported by the
Turkish Anadolu news agency, accused Hezbollah of “displacements and sectarian
cleansing in a number of border towns... and burning many houses.”
FSA statement concluded that “Our problem today has become with Lebanon as a
state; it is no longer solely with Hezbollah. It has... turned into an
Arab, regional and international issue.”
The Syrian civil war has indeed
become an Arab and a regional issue. The regime’s survival is made possible
largely because of the support of Iran and its regional allies and proxies –
Hezbollah and the Maliki government in Iraq.
The rebels, with only
lukewarm support from the West, rely on their fellow Sunnis in Saudi Arabia,
Qatar and Turkey to provide them with the arms and ammunition for their
But more fundamentally, the overspill of the war into Iraq and
Lebanon derives from the fact that the issues underlying the Syrian civil war
are not Syrian alone. They are shared between Syria, Lebanon and
All three “countries” are artificial entities whose borders may be
traced back to the Western carve-up of former Ottoman territories.
has succeeded in establishing a functioning national identity of a type
recognizable to the West.
The strong hand of dictators professing loyalty
to “Arab nationalism” succeeded in obscuring this for a while. (The Syrian
dictatorship forcibly put the lid back on the boiling sectarian cauldron in
Lebanon between 1990 and 2005 . It predictably boiled over as soon as the
Syrians withdrew.) But with the iron hand of the dictators broken or in decline,
sectarian loyalties are coming to define the political dynamic – crossing over
artificial state borders.
So the forces of the Shi’a Maliki cooperate
with those of the Alawi Assad. Both are part of a regional alliance headed by
On the other side, their Sunni opponents also work across
state lines. Sometimes their joint efforts have resounding results, as seen in
Anbar province this week.
Further West, the Shi’a, Iran-activated
Hezbollah does its share of the work – seeking to keep open the link between
Lebanon and an emerging area of Alawi domination in western Syria. The Syrian
rebels respond by threatening to expand their own operations to include Lebanon
– where they also have many friends in the Sunni communities.
is all heading cannot be predicted.
But it may be said with confidence
that the old order in the Arab world, which held sway since the 1950s, is dead.
New, cross-border sectarian interests and alliances are currently making war
over the ruins.