Yesterday, I posted a brief piece for the Foreign Policy Association regarding the precipitous drop in violence localized in Iraq’s Nineveh province. This decline in hostilities is notable for one very important reason: Nineveh has served as the informal headquarters for al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) since the insurgency moved to Mosul and Tal Afar following the Battle of Fallujah in 2004.
Since that time, the region has experienced some of the worst, and most chronic, bloodshed in the country — daily car bombs and IED explosions have proved a fact of life on terror’s home turf.
Yet now, while the rest of the country is enduring a steep uptick in violence since the end of the U.S. counterinsurgency, Nineveh is enjoying a relative calm. Certainly, this represents a breather for the Maliki government, which has been staggered by political fragility and sectarian violence reminiscent of pre-surge Iraq. So this is good news, right?
Not really. Reports suggest that this comparative serenity is more likely indicative of AQI’s physical relocation, as opposed to an indicator of combat fatigue or tactical adjustment.
So where are they off to? Well, at the moment, Syria sounds like a pretty popular destination for battle-hardened, Kalashnikov-toting zealots taking their cues from al Qaeda’s braintrust.
Lest we forget — last week, Osama bin Laden’s right hand man and presumptive successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, released a video imploring Muslim radicals in neighboring countries to join the growing uprising against Syria’s Assad government. AQI was sponsoring violence before this summons, but formal marching orders have prompted a dramatic increase in the number of fighters crossing the border into the embattled neighbor-state.
With al Qaeda set to play an expanded role in the Syrian drama, it’s worth considering where they fit in this increasingly bewildering regional conflagration. As it happens, they’re simply the latest exogenous actor competing against (or alongside) a host of contenders including (but not limited to) our NATO ally Turkey, the Iranian menace and the region’s leading Sunni power and oil spigot, Saudi Arabia.
Not to be outdone, Senator McCain has suggested it’s high time we arm the rebels:
I’m not calling for an invasion of Syria, but I am calling for practical measure which can be of assistance to them, which would break this stalemate, which would allow the Syrian people to achieve the aspiration that we hold for all people.
Noble sentiments indeed and I appreciate the senator’s fondness for a fair fight. Rebels in the city of Homs — epicenter of Syrian uprising, past and present — are increasingly concerned by the mass of tanks and troops outside of their hometown. They’re outmanned and outgunned, and international observers fear a massacre. Arming these civilians would give them a fighting chance to dislodge the 40-year-old Assad regime, and simultaneously serve America’s short-term interests. The end of Allawite tyranny would rob Iran of its primary client state, and disrupt the flow of monies and munitions into Lebanon and Gaza.
However, I question the logic of inserting ourselves into a civil war on behalf of some seriously dubious partners through the provision of arms and ordnance. If we decide to equip the rebellion, we will escalate conflict, amplify violence and spark untold and unintended regional consequences.
Not to mention, in our haste to “oust a brutal dictator and puppet of Iran” it appears we’ll undoubtedly arm opposition forces that have been busy killing American soldiers in Iraq for the past decade.
That strikes me as an unpleasant proposal.