The Coming War in the Middle East

by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Rayburn (contributor to the working group on Islamism and the international order)

Imagine a sectarian conflagration, fueled by Al Qaeda, raging across the Fertile Crescent.


In the days of the Ottoman Empire, British diplomats referred to the Arabic-speaking territories of the empire as “Turkish Arabia.” It was these Arabic-speaking lands that Britain and France, in the aftermath of the First World War, divided into the modern Arab states we know today: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Those arbitrary colonial boundaries have endured for the better part of a century, but the people within them have never fully acknowledged the legitimacy of the lines that British and French officials drew for them.

Tribal confederations that span the borders, adjacent river towns, minority co-religionist communities—in these places, people have continued to live as they had done for centuries, intermarrying, trading, fighting, and migrating with light regard for the political borders of the states in which, by an accident of history, they happened to be residing. It is for this reason that political and social developments in one part of the former “Turkish Arabia” can spread so quickly to another, as they have done at key points in modern Arab history such as the revolutionary year of 1958.

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Today, Turkish Arabia is at another such point in its history, as political forces unleashed in one region are spreading to others. The revolt that began in Syria in early 2011—itself inspired by events elsewhere in the Arab world—is on the verge of becoming a sectarian war spanning the entirety of Turkish Arabia. The most powerful of the Syrian revolutionary forces, the Nusrah Front, has been formed around a core of what we have previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent and terrorist organization once led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

In its battle against the Iraqi government and the U.S. military from 2004 to 2011, Al Qaeda in Iraq relied on a deep support network of fixers, safe houses, financiers, and radical religious figures in Syria, who helped to push thousands of jihadists in Iraq to kill and maim tens of thousands of Iraqis.*

Al Qaeda Takes Root in Syria

Now, the operational and support networks have been reversed, so that the operatives of the Nusrah Front in Syria draw upon an extensive support base in Iraq. Syrian observers report increasing numbers of Iraqis and Jordanians in the Nusrah Front’s ranks, experienced fighters who have brought with them the skills they honed against U.S. and Iraqi troops. Just as Al Qaeda in Iraq has ostensibly been fighting to free Baghdad from what it calls heretical “Persian”—read “Shia”—domination, the Nusrah Front today fights to free Syria from the supposedly heretical rule of the nominally Shia Alawite regime of Bashar al Assad.

For Al Qaeda in Iraq, then, the Iraqi and Syrian conflicts are one theater of war, where Al Qaeda and its allies seek a common objective of beating back the forces of what its leaders consider an Iranian-led coalition of Shia sectarian parties from Iraq, the Assad regime, and Lebanese Hizballah.

What is the next stage in this conflict? It is not hard to predict if we recall how the Nusrah Front behaved in Iraq in its earlier Al Qaeda in Iraq incarnation. Initially welcomed into Iraq in 2004 and 2005 by more nationalist Sunni insurgent groups who were glad of reinforcements, Al Qaeda quickly moved to take command of the entire Iraqi rebellion itself and transform an insurgency into a sectarian war.

Al Qaeda leaders, well-provisioned by wealthy Gulf financiers, could easily outspend their local Iraqi nationalist rivals, hiring away the labor pool of young Sunni fighters who were the foot soldiers of the Iraqi Sunni insurgent groups. Al Qaeda’s leaders then installed a reign of terror in Sunni territories, murdering Iraqi tribal and community leaders who defied them, imposing Taliban-style Islamic law, and forcing Iraqi tribes to surrender their daughters into marriage with Al Qaeda commanders.

Having established bases in Iraq, Al Qaeda also sought to expand its jihad beyond the country’s borders, launching massive attacks against hotels in Amman, Jordan, with the aim of opening a war against the Jordanian monarchy (though the effort backfired when it horrified the Jordanian population). Eventually, Al Qaeda leaders even attempted to become the political alternative to the Iraqi state, declaring themselves the government of an “Islamic State of Iraq” in 2006. Al Qaeda’s overbearing treatment of Iraqis ultimately resulted in the local backlash known as the “Awakening,” and, by 2007, the terrorist organization was in a full-blown war with the Iraqi Sunnis that had originally welcomed them.

In retrospect, Al Qaeda in Iraq did these things because it could not help it. It is in this totalitarian organization’s nature to attempt to bring its narrow religious ideology into reality on the ground. In its current guise of the Nusrah Front, we can expect them to do the same. Having been welcomed into Syria by hard-pressed rebels who were eager to see the arrival of well-armed, well-trained, well-financed reinforcements, we will increasingly see Nusrah commanders use their Gulf cash to hire away the foot soldiers of other non-jihadi rebel groups.

As the Nusrah Front conquers more and more territory from the Syrian regime, we will see Nusrah commanders imposing strict Islamist rule over their local fiefdoms, and it will not be long before some grouping of Nusrah commanders declares the “Islamic Emirate” or this or that sub-region of Syria—probably beginning with an emirate in the vast desert area of the Jazeera or Deir ez-Zour in eastern Syria, adjoining the Iraqi provinces of Anbar and Ninewa that were longtime Al Qaeda strongholds. The creation of such Islamist enclaves will be a relatively easy matter for Nusrah if Syria continues to break into warring communal pieces, a la Yugoslavia, as it appears to be doing.

Are Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon Next?

We are told by journalists and Syrian observers that the Nusrah Front contains in its ranks a large contingent of Jordanians, just as Al Qaeda did. Once Nusrah has confidently established some territorial bases in Syria, Nusrah fighters will likely begin to branch into Jordan, as Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Zarqawi unsuccessfully attempted to do in 2005. This time, Nusrah fighters will find a more amenable situation awaiting them.

To begin with, Jordan’s radical Salafi community has grown in strength in recent years, and will offer a ready pool of fighters and other supporters. And the Jordanian state, which rose firmly to Zarqawi’s challenge in 2005, is far more vulnerable now, with a long-running protest movement and popular discontent over the government’s perceived corruption having greatly weakened the state’s legitimacy. Indeed, evidence that such plots are already underway emerged just weeks ago, when Jordanian police foiled a “Mumbai-style” plot in which Al Qaeda operatives planned to “bring Amman to its knees” by killing as many people as possible. Simply put, to Nusrah’s eyes, the shaky Hashemite monarchy probably looks ripe for the picking.

Nor will Nusrah and its fellow travelers ignore the rest of Turkish Arabia. At Al Qaeda in Iraq’s peak in 2005-2007, the organization’s line of supply and manpower in Syria extended into northern Lebanon as well, where the jihad enjoyed a base of support among Lebanese Salafis and radicals in the Palestinian camps. Today northern Lebanon, where angry Sunnis and Alawites face each other in a tense sectarian standoff, is like a stack of dried wood awaiting the kind of match that Nusrah has shown it can strike.

Another sectarian faceoff looms in Iraq, where Nusrah’s original version, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has never ceased its campaign against the Iraqi government. For most of the last five years, Al Qaeda has been eclipsed by Iraq’s mainstream Sunni political parties, which largely eschewed violence after the Sunni population broke with Al Qaeda in 2007.

But today, the Iraqi Sunnis that rejected Al Qaeda are turning against the government in great numbers, enraged by their perception that Nuri Maliki and his allies mean to turn Sunnis into a permanent underclass in a Shia-dominated country. The tens of thousands of Sunnis marching in the streets of Iraq’s Sunni cities in recent weeks have shouted the same slogans that Syrians shouted in Deraa and Hama in early 2011 (“The people want the fall of the regime”) and waved the flags of the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, the deadly clashes between Sunni protesters and government troops in Fallujah recently have had the distinct feel of the early days of the Syrian rebellion.

The Sunnis of Iraq and Syria also share an angry perception that Iraq’s Shia parties are intervening in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, reports from Syria tell us that Iraqi Shia militants are arriving in increasing numbers to “defend” the Shia shrine of Zaynab (daughter of the Imam Ali) by fighting alongside the Assad regime against Sunni rebels. In this polarized atmosphere, Al Qaeda in Iraq and its Nusrah branch will have a wide open window of opportunity to step up attacks against the Iraqi government—and the Iraqi Shia community, for that matter—from the bases that Nusrah is establishing inside Syria. When they do, they will likely find a high level of popular support in an Iraqi Sunni community that is moving ever closer to revolt against the Maliki government.

Turkish Arabia’s Coming War

We can envision, then, a sectarian war raging across the whole of the Fertile Crescent, drawing in all the former territories of Turkish Arabia. The prospect will be a frightening one for the region’s major powers. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia could one day find chaos rather than functioning states on their permeable borders. If Al Qaeda/Nusrah can establish a base in Jordan, Saudi Arabia will find itself threatened by Al Qaeda franchises on both north and south that will be well-positioned to resume the pursuit of Al Qaeda’s core goal of toppling the Saudi monarchy and “liberating” the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The Saudis showed great resiliency in defeating a serious Al Qaeda insurrection in 2004-2008, but that was a strictly internal threat that lacked a real foreign base. Simultaneous Al Qaeda bases in Jordan and Yemen would pose a more serious, if not an existential, threat to Saudi rule. If watching the fall or near-fall of half a dozen regimes in the Arab Spring has taught us anything, it should be that the Arab states that appeared serenely stable to outsiders for the past half century were more brittle than we have understood. The implosion of Turkish Arabia would test those regimes to the limit, and we cannot assume that the rulers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait would be any better equipped to defeat the potential challenge than Muammar Qaddhafi and Bashar al-Assad were.

The rulers of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran are surely not blind to this nightmare scenario. As the situation in Turkish Arabia continues to unravel, those regional powers will be compelled to become ever deeper involved in an attempt to keep the tide of war from breaking on their own lands. This conflict could very well touch us all, perhaps becoming an engine of jihad that spews forth attackers bent on bombing western embassies and cities or disrupting Persian Gulf oil markets long before the fire burns out.

And what of Turkish Arabia in the long run? One eminent scholar of the Middle East assures me that the borders drawn by the British and French were artificial, yes, but now have staying power. The people of the region are too used to the lines to erase them, even if they don’t love them. I don’t doubt him, and I am sure that whatever else happens, there will continue to be a Syria, a Lebanon, a Jordan, and an Iraq. But those countries are about to pass through a crucible, a painful test in which their peoples will be sorted by sect; driven from traditional homelands; starved, taxed, or pressed into service by warlords; terrorized by militant Islamists; forced to witness their ancient heritage destroyed by bombs; and live without the rule of law. It will be terrible to watch, and we will not be left unsullied in our watching.


Lieutenant Colonel Joel Rayburn, a contributor to the Hoover Institution Working Group on Islamism and the International Order, is a senior military fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. A US Army intelligence officer with nineteen years of experience in intelligence and political-military affairs, he has specialized in strategic analyses of the Middle East for the past decade.  He has served in a variety of assignments and deployments in the Middle East and South Asia, with special emphasis on Iraq and Afghanistan.  Rayburn received his undergraduate degree in history and English literature from the US Military Academy in 1992 and a master’s degree in history from Texas A&M in 2002.  From 2002 to 2005 he was an assistant professor of history at the US Military Academy.


*Author’s aside: Some western observers have taken great care to distinguish between Al Qaeda—meaning the original core organization of Osama bin Laden—and Al Qaeda in Iraq, or, as the New York Times has anachronistically termed it, in an admixture of Arabic and Greek terms, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Iraqis and others in the region have made no such nice distinction, referring to this terrorist organization as simply “Al Qaeda” and considering it a direct outgrowth of the extremist movement founded by bin Laden. The author therefore will use “Al Qaeda” and “Al Qaeda in Iraq” interchangeably.

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