There’s always a risk in putting data points out there without having prepared the way for them, by starting with a comprehensive analytical piece. (Well, technically, I did the fundamental analysis back in 2009, when I posted the “Next Phase of World War IV” series, whose theses have been borne out by the Arab Spring and other developments since.)
That said, I am trusting readers to understand that what we have here is an emerging trend, whose course is not set in stone, but whose potential impact is very far-reaching. The basic element of the trend is Sunni jihadis gaining control of territory in the Middle East, as they are currently doing in Iraq and Syria. Peter Bergen had a CNN piece on this on Wednesday, 8 January (which Jim Geraghty noted in his Morning Jolt dispatch).
But Bergen’s emphasis was slightly misdirected. He characterized the issue as “al-Qaeda gaining territory.” It’s quite true that al-Qaeda can be identified in the forefront of the jihadis doing the gaining of territory. But it is misleading to imagine that this matters, or that it is accomplished as a coordinated effort, only if “core” al-Qaeda is explicitly involved. Americans, in general, are too boresighted on al-Qaeda, and on the “al Qaeda model” of spectacular attacks and occasional disruptions. Our minds need to get around the truth that jihadis who call themselves other things, who were not necessarily created by al-Qaeda operatives, and who wage guerrilla warfare over territory are a danger to the general peace as well.
Al-Qaeda may or may not be in the lead in jihadi efforts that matter to U.S. national security, either directly or through their impact on other nations. More often than not, there is some kind of al-Qaeda link to any jihadi group that pops up on our radar. But it’s a sloppy shorthand to emphasize the al-Qaeda link over the character and actions of the group. It’s the kind of emphasis that begs to be parsed mendaciously, as if doubt is thrown on all legitimate suspicions about a group, if doubt can be thrown on its links with al-Qaeda.
It’s equally dangerous to imagine that, because a group has ties to al-Qaeda, that means the group’s objectives and M.O. will be those of al-Qaeda. The important nexus isn’t the senior leadership of al-Qaeda. It’s the profile of Islamist jihad.
We are going to be running into a lot of this in the days ahead. The Middle East is on the brink of becoming a playground for guerrillas. They won’t all be under the direction of the top al-Qaeda leadership. That won’t mean they are not Salafi fanatics, terrorists, and a danger to civil society. It won’t mean they have meaningful differences with the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. It will, on the other hand, mean that their presence and intentions have the potential to raise the geopolitical stakes on multiple vectors radiating out from the “Great Crossroads.”
One such group is the Chechens who figure prominently in the al-Qaeda-backed “ISIS” group in Syria: the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.” This is sometimes rendered “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” in English, because that’s what it refers to. Its political vision includes the territory of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel (as well as Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, of course). The Chechens didn’t start the group, by any means, but they have joined forces with it. ISIS, in turn, has figured prominently in the fighting in Anbar Province in Iraq, as well as in northwestern Syria. (See MEMRI for additional background on the Chechens in ISIS, including their motivations.)
Two comments for now on ISIS and territory. First, ISIS has yet to put together gains of contiguous territory across a wide area. (See Map 1.) For now, that will limit ISIS to a career of guerrilla harassment and destabilization, which is unquestionably bad, but not the same problem as ISIS being able to consolidate gains, expand operationally, and contemplate political power on a broad scale; i.e., in competition with state governments and armies.
That said, ISIS does have a presence among other groups of fighters in a strategically significant position: al-Bukamal (or Abu Kamal), on the border of Syria with Iraq, in the governorate of Deir az-Zor. From this town, the Euphrates River makes a natural line of communication to Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar Province in Iraq.
Rebels hold the Euphrates valley in eastern Syria, but some of the most significant fighting between rebel groups has taken place in Deir az-Zor, upriver from al-Bukamal. Basically, there is a slowly coalescing fight on among the jihadis, for control of this all-important corridor between Syria and Iraq. If a unified group can establish control of it, especially if that control extends westward past Deir az-Zor, it will have unique territorial depth and leverage relative to the fight in both nations.
(This means, as an aside, that an Iraqi push against the insurgents in Anbar would ideally seek to cut them off from al-Bukamal.)
Second, the presence of Chechens ratchets up the geostrategic stakes for Russia – not only in Syria, but in Iraq as well, and wherever the ISIS brand spreads to. Just as the U.S. could not tolerate Afghanistan as a redoubt for terrorists and their attack planning against America and the West, so Moscow can’t tolerate the prospect of Anbar becoming such a redoubt for attack planning against Russia and Central Asia.
The Saudis don’t want ISIS camped out in Anbar either. Saudi Arabia backs the nominally non-terrorist-affiliated rebels in Syria, and is at odds with Salafi regime-changers across the board. Iraq’s interim leader, Nouri al-Maliki, is at odds with the Saudis, however, repeatedly aligning himself (he’s a Shia) with Iran’s interests since the Obama administration helped him establish his government after rival Iyad al-Allawi posted a plurality in the 2010 election.
In the game of “Who’s Got Common Interests,” this potentially puts Moscow and Riyadh in the same corner, even as Moscow and Tehran are in the same corner. At the very least, it proliferates the scenarios in which regional actors can leverage each other for advantage.
Theory and diplomatic maneuver have been trumped, meanwhile, by the migration of bullets and bombs down the Euphrates from Syria. There’s no grand-strategic vision coming into focus quite yet. But we’re no longer talking just geographically isolated civil war.