Opinion: Al Qaeda winning as Maliki takes page from al-Assad playbook

Story highlights

  • Fahad Nazer: ISIS seems more interested in fighting other rebel groups than Assad regime
  • Nazer: Iraqi PM Maliki has resorted to tactics that have marginalized the Sunni minority
  • ISIS could transform into most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate, he adds
  • The international community, especially the U.S., should be cautious, he writes

The Middle East is no stranger to conspiracy theories. One that's been percolating in the Arab media -- both traditional and social -- over the past few months argues that contrary to their proclamations that they are sworn enemies, Bashar al-Assad has been colluding with the al Qaeda offshoot, The Islamic State in Iraq and Al Sham (ISIS) in an effort to discredit moderate factions of the Syrian opposition and to portray all rebels as "terrorists."

While evidence of outright collaboration is scant, ISIL has sold oil to the regime, according to U.S. officials quoted by the Boston Globe, after some oil and gas fields came under its control.

It is also well documented that al-Assad's forces have not focused their military assault on ISIS strongholds like Raqqa in the north, concentrating instead on areas that came under the control of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other less extremist Islamist groups in cities like Homs.

Fahad Nazer

For its part, ISIS seems more interested in fighting other rebel groups, including the FSA, as well as the other al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusra Front, than the Assad regime.

In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki appears to be taking a page out of al-Assad's playbook. The astonishingly quick takeover of Iraq's second biggest city, Mosul by ISIS -- and other armed groups -- has shocked the international community and created widespread panic over the prospect of al Qaeda coming close to establishing its promised "Khilafah" in a large swathe of land between Iraq and Syria. However, the precipitous collapse of Iraqi security forces there and elsewhere has led some to suspect foul play.

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While al-Assad's brutality radicalized elements of the opposition and allowed al Qaeda to craft a jihadi narrative that has resonated with some Sunnis in Syria and across the Muslim world, Maliki -- while no al-Assad -- has resorted to tactics that have marginalized the Sunni minority and radicalized some elements within.

The cry of "terrorists" has largely accounted for the international community's refusal to enter the fray in Syria to stop al-Assad's campaign which has resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. It remains to be seen whether Maliki's clarion call will compel the international community -- and especially the U.S. -- to enter the melee in Iraq.

    Some of us who study al Qaeda for a living, warned as early as January 2012 that Syria had the potential to become another Afghanistan. It has indeed become the favorite destination of Islamist militants worldwide, including hundreds from the West, and has allowed al Qaeda to rebrand itself, giving its recruitment efforts a massive boost.

    Nevertheless, the lack of interest al-Assad and ISIS have shown in fighting each other has struck many as noteworthy.

    A number of Saudi militants who recently surrendered to Saudi authorities after fighting in Syria and are now recounting their cautionary tales, have advised Saudi youths not to travel to Syria and not to join ISIS. Should they do so, they argued, they will find themselves fighting an "unknown" enemy or other Saudis who've joined other militant groups.

    By the middle of 2013, a serious rift had developed between the ascendant ISIS and al-Nusra Front that eventually led Ayman Al Zawahiri, the leader of al Qaeda central, to renounce ISIS.

    In a strongly worded rebuttal, ISIS accused Al Zawahiri of being the real source of discord among the mujahidin but more importantly, it also claimed that ISIS's predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), never targeted Iran because it was instructed not to do so by Zawahiri.

    The notion that Iran and al Qaeda have long had an understanding of some sort has also circulated for years and is perpetuated by the fact that al Qaeda has never conducted a terrorist attack on Iranian soil, despite its sectarian vitriol and its regular attacks against Iraqi Shia.

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    Maliki has been a polarizing figure who hasn't made a serious effort to include Iraq's Sunni minority in the "nation building" effort that the country has embarked on since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Allegations of cronyism and corruption are endemic in his government, including among the military ranks. Many have accused Maliki of promoting Shia allies and marginalizing competent Sunnis and Kurds.

    When Sunni tribal leaders made an effort to become stakeholders by spearheading what became known as the "Awakening" movement in 2008, which greatly reduced violence across the country and largely discredited al Qaeda, Maliki refused to integrate the up to 90,000 tribal elements into his security forces, as had been promised.

    Maliki has also occasionally employed sectarian rhetoric in describing the Sunni opposition in central and northern Iraq and like al-Assad, has used the term "terrorist" indiscriminately to describe Sunnis who began protesting against his regime in late 2012. Even though some radical elements with ties to ISIS had a presence in the encampments in Anbar province, so did tribal elements and former Baathists. And while casual observers -- especially in the West -- have largely framed the worrisome events of the past week as an ISIS offensive, Iraqi Sunni leaders maintain that the "rebellion" is comprised of a broad coalition, of which ISIS is only one element.

    There are indications that Iraq's security forces simply did not defend Mosul, which was more heavily fortified than other cities. Although hard to confirm, Arab media outlets ran stories quoting Iraqi military personnel as saying that they were "ordered" to abandon their posts in Mosul.

    The dozens of videos showing ISIS fighters in Mosul, Tikrit and elsewhere indicate that they were rather limited in numbers and that they were not heavily armed. However, the Iraqi security forces' refusal to defend their posts resulted in ISIS commandeering heavy artillery, including possibly tanks and helicopters. There are also reports that its fighters stole $400 million from Mosul's banks.

    It was also recently revealed that Maliki has been asking the U.S. to conduct aerial assaults against Sunni areas that came under the control of ISIS and other armed groups earlier this year, after the Sunni protest movement turned violent following clashes with Maliki's forces.

    There is little doubt that al-Assad's brutality has revitalized al Qaeda. Maliki's politicization of Iraqi life could transform ISIS into the most dangerous al Qaeda affiliate the world has ever known. The international community and especially the U.S., would be wise to exercise the same level of caution it has employed in Syria, in Iraq.

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