Syria and Iraq: One conflict or two?

Recent weeks have highlighted more clearly than ever the growing symbiosis between the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. 

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme

Recent weeks have highlighted more clearly than ever the growing symbiosis between the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Advancing from its existing base in both countries, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has seized a number of key Iraqi cities, including Mosul, and now controls a swathe of contiguous territory from Raqqa in Eastern Syria across to Baghdads doorstep.

Given these developments the conflating of the two conflicts is increasingly understandable. As indicated by its name ISIS espouses a transnational jihadist agenda with ambitions to unite the two countries under an Islamic caliphate. It is already in the process of establishing a pseudo-state in a territory nearly the size of Jordan, spanning Syria and Iraq, and has made a very public display of destroying the border line separating the two countries, an overt rejection of the Western-established Sykes Picot order. There is no doubt that ISIS’ ability to operate in Syria has given it room to build, mobilise and gain access to resources which are now being directed at the battle in Iraq.

While ISIS has widely been seen as the unifying actor between the two conflicts, it is not the only one. Regional actors also view Syria and Iraq as key battlegrounds in a broader struggle for regional hegemony. Most fundamentally this pits Saudi Arabia against Iran, both of whom view their active involvement in Syria and Iraq through the lens of strategic ambitions with the two conflicts fitting together as different parts on the regional chess board.

Syria is ground zero for this struggle but Iraq is in many ways seen as more important. Its swing into the Iranian orbit post-2003 is viewed by Sunni states as a key reason behind Iran’s rise to regional dominance and there is a desire, most pronounced in Riyadh, to loosen Iran’s hold over Iraq, even if it is acknowledged that the country cannot be pulled back into a pro-Sunni role given its Shia majority. While Sunni regional involvement in Iraq is currently less significant than in Syria after three years of existing conflict in the latter, it is not likely to be insignificant and could well quickly escalate. For Iran, by contrast, Iraq, historically a hostile threat on its immediate border, seen most recently in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, is now its single most important regional ally and source of strategic depth, more so than even Syria where it has been heavily invested since the outbreak of conflict. For both Riyadh and Tehran, engagement in the two conflicts is driven by the imperatives of this regional cold war.

Both have employed direct sectarian mobilisation as an important means of exerting influence in the two conflict zones. Groups like ISIS have clearly developed in part due to the patronage of regional Sunni actors, both governmental and private, even if Riyadh has declared them a terrorist organisation and has focused on more salafist orientated fighters. Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iraq have in turn been mobilised by Iran for the battle in Syria (and are now being redirected to Iraq). While these groups are clearly being instrumentalised for great game power politics, the theological underpinnings drawing fighters to the conflicts are becoming increasingly dominant, pointing to the worrying prospect of an even more dangerous unitary conflict, a fully-fledged sectarian civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, engulfing Syria and Iraq, in what would represent the most dangerous of mergers.

The overlay of extremism and regional struggle is of course a narrative that has been eagerly – and cynically – exploited by the leaderships in both Damascus and Baghdad as a means of diverting attention away from the potential existence of domestic grievances and of providing justification for the need for a military response. Despite their longstanding personal antipathy, and Maliki's claims over the past decade that Assad was sponsoring ongoing terrorism in Iraq, the two leaders have found common cause in framing the conflicts as a united struggle against Gulf-funded terrorism. While Maliki has actively been providing assistance to Assad over the past three years, their shared narrative and active military cooperation is likely to now increase even more given the intensified challenge facing Maliki.

 

Rather than merging into one conflict developments in Syria and Iraq still represent the outgrowth of two separate domestic struggles, which while similar in form, are also highly distinct.

Nonetheless, even as the overlap between the two conflicts has become more and more self-evident it would be a mistake to view the events unfolding in Syria and Iraq solely through this lens. Clearly a number of key actors see Syria and Iraq as one battlefield and are seeking to exploit the environment to fulfil their own related ambitions. However, domestic actors motivated by country-specific grievances still remain the dominant force shaping events in both countries. Rather than merging into one conflict developments in Syria and Iraq still represent the outgrowth of two separate domestic struggles, which while similar in form, are also highly distinct.  Both are rooted in similar causes emanating from questions of political and sectarian representation, have witnessed similar outcomes as political dissent has morphed into armed conflict, most significantly the rise of ISIS, and will ultimately require similar solutions if peace is to return, namely new cross-sectarian political contracts. But they are not the same and continue to be shaped by contrasting political economies.

 

The domestic political grievances fuelling the rebellion in Syria are grounded in the Assad family’s brutal and Alawite-dominated monopolisation of power. While Hafez al-Assad carefully cultivated the Baath party's core constituency, the rural periphery, his son, Bashar al-Assad, largely abandoned this grouping in favour of urban elites tied to the regime, fuelling unprecedented social inequality, which combined with the deepening corruption of the security state, exploded into a Sunni-dominated rebellion in 2011. Despite the emergence and rapid growth of ISIS in Syria, which is today estimated to number at least 10,000 fighters, the overwhelming majority of the approximately 100,000 armed fighters in the country are focused on securing political and economic empowerment, within the confines of the Syrian nation-state.  Even Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's official affiliate in Syria, has rejected transnational ambitions in favour of domestic objectives linked to the overthrow of Assad and the establishment of an Islamic state – as also displayed by other opposition groups including the Islamic Front.

Iraq’s conflict meanwhile is rooted in the intensified unrest witnessed since 2010 as the Sunni minority population, dislodged from power by the 2003 US-led invasion, has felt increasingly disenfranchised by the Maliki government – both a true reflection of his sectarian, marginalising politics, but also a function of the Sunni community’s refusal to accept the structural shift towards a new Shia-dominated political order ushered in by the occupation. While ISIS has been at the vanguard of recent armed advances, having maintained an ongoing presence in the country since the US occupation, the current uprising draws strongly on the anti-government sentiment of Sunni tribes and neo-Baathist forces with whom ISIS is in alliance. As in Syria, however, the likes of the Naqshbandi Army and the General Military Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries, which have been part of the recent offensive, are focused on more narrow ambitions rather than the establishment of a transnational Sunni caliphate pursued by ISIS.

 

Over the last six months the Syria uprising has descended into an intra-rebel civil-war as rebel armed groups have turned on ISIS.

The ambitions displayed by the majority of opposition actors on both sides are largely set within the context of the existing nation-states. Significantly both Syria and Iraq have witnessed clear signs of domestic opposition against ISIS’ attempts to pull the two conflicts together. Over the last six months the Syria uprising has descended into an intra-rebel civil-war as rebel armed groups have turned on ISIS. In Iraq there are already signs of tension and conflict between ISIS and local tribes, who it should not be forgotten turned on ISIS once before as part of the Awakening movement that began in 2005.

 

If anything, the local contexts suggest that even as some forces bind the two conflicts together, others will push them towards increasing fragmentation. The war economy of Syria points to the powerful forces of decentralisation now at play as the central state loses its ability to control events on the ground, even in areas nominally still under its authority, and as intra-rebel discord becomes more pronounced. This consolidation of localised power bases and of the proliferation of competing rivalries could well also become a prominent feature in Iraq as the anti-Maliki alliance faces the strain of competing rebel ambitions. Meanwhile, as Sunni forces have advanced towards Baghdad, the Kurds have quietly extended their own influence, using the breakdown in authority to move into the highly-disputed city of Kirkuk. As in Syria, Iraq’s Kurds are using the conflict to advance their own more narrow ends.

It is true that these developments are in many ways different forms of a similar process now unfolding across the entire region. ISIS represents the extreme end of a broader struggle underway as Sunni populations look to redress political and economic marginalization. This process and the sectarian framing, in part, represents the continued undoing of the post-colonial order, loosened by the US led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which allowed the Shia majority to seize power from the Sunni minority who had ruled the country since the Ottoman era. Recent events in Iraq are part of the continued fallout from this redistribution of power. In Syria, meanwhile, the Sunni majority are engaged in battle to wrest control away from the Alawite minority empowered by the policies of French colonial rule. The Kurdish dynamic can be read in a similar light. Given the sectarian nature of the colonial established order, directly instrumentalised by the ruling regimes, identity politics has emerged as the prime vehicle of political expression in both conflicts, exacerbated by the regional dynamics.

But even as these broad contextual similarities colour the nature of the two conflicts, it is important to note an accompanying distinction that in many ways marks them out as the exact inverse of each other. In Syria, a majority of the population has risen up against minority, authoritarian Alawite rule and the post-colonial system holding the system today. In Iraq, the developing conflict represents the discontent of the minority Sunni population against majority and, by and large, democratically representative Shia rule. In Iraq there is Sunni nostalgia for precisely the authoritarian minority-rule system – some form of restoration of the post-colonial order – which a large number of Syrians are now looking to unravel.

 

The threat of ISIS is likely to be the main focus through which external actors, particularly the West, now view the conflict – and may in fact be a point of convergence around which regional and international actors can unite.

Looking forward, it remains to be seen whether the threat of ISIS, which is only likely to grow given that their seizure of territory, arms and finances has provided them with a greater degree of self-sustainability than ever before, will transcend the sharp and increasingly localized differences tearing at the two conflicts. The threat of ISIS is likely to be the main focus through which external actors, particularly the West, now view the conflict – and may in fact be a point of convergence around which regional and international actors can unite. Already Western states are hinting at collaboration with Iran in Iraq, and Assad has launched unprecedented attacks on ISIS positions since its advance deep into Iraq, suggesting an attempt to exploit the circumstances to gain international favour.

However meaningful progress in forging a wider anti-ISIS coalition will ultimately depend on domestic deals that respond to local grievances and allow for some form of regime-opposition cooperation against ISIS. It is not unreasonable to assume that as occurred in Syria, Iraqi Sunni forces may eventually turn on ISIS, just as they previously turned on al-Qaeda as part of the Awakening movement. However such a development would almost certainly necessitate a preceding political deal with Baghdad granting them extensive and unprecedented federalised powers. If accompanied by a similar type of deal in Syria, regime-opposition alliances combating ISIS could emerge in both countries, reconfiguring the conflicts as one broader struggle against ISIS.

In light of the concurrent fragmentary forces at play and the slim likelihood of regime compromises that would make meaningful political settlements possible this prospect is clearly some way off. There are also ongoing accusations in Syria that the Assad regime, despite its recent intensified targeting of ISIS, has been content to allow it to thrive (not the same as collaboration) in order to validate its claims of an extremist opposition. If anything, Assad and Maliki are likely to use the expanded presence of ISIS to mobilise greater support from their respective external backers behind their militarily campaigns, a tactic that will only further fuel the fragmenting rather than unifying dynamics of the two conflicts.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

Author

Director, Middle East and North Africa programme