Caught between al Qaida and Iran, U.S. struggles over Syria conflict

12/20/2012 6:36 PM

12/21/2012 11:00 AM

The bloodshed in Syria has continued for so long that extremist forces have taken charge, with U.S. officials saying they now face two familiar enemies in the struggle to find a resolution: al Qaida in Iraq cells and Iranian-backed sectarian militias.

Those groups were responsible for thousands of American and Iraqi casualties during the eight years U.S. forces fought them next door in Iraq. Now, U.S. officials and some analysts say, the Sunni Muslim extremists of al Qaida have regrouped in Syria as the Nusra Front, the leading rebel faction fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime. The Syrian military, meanwhile, is relying increasingly on backup from the thuggish pro-Assad militias known as shabiha, elements of which receive Iranian training and funding, U.S. officials say.

“Round 2,” said Joe Holliday, a Washington-based researcher who specializes in Syrian militants at the Institute for the Study of War, noting the resurgence of two foes the United States thought it had left behind after withdrawing from Iraq last year.

The Obama administration designated the Nusra Front and elements of the shabiha as terrorist groups earlier this month in a move to isolate extremists on the battlefield. While few observers dispute that al Qaida-style forces have moved into Syria from Iraq, some analysts say the U.S. government might be overstating the Iranian role with the shabiha, an unstructured entity that was born of Syrian clan loyalty rather than any shared ideology with the Iranians. However, the analysts added, the chance for more Iranian involvement only increases as the bloodshed nears its second year with no end in sight.

With unfriendly forces now on both sides of the conflict, analysts say, the U.S. seems out of policy options in Washington as its leverage on the ground in Syria evaporates. Joshua Landis, a Syria expert who’s the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said the Obama administration was now sandwiched between its archenemies al Qaida and Iran, making it hard to maintain a position of avoiding direct involvement in the conflict.

“America is paralyzed,” Landis said. “They don’t like Assad, but they’re even more fearful of the rebels.”

The Nusra Front’s connections to Iraq seem concrete, with U.S. officials tracking movement of the group’s leaders from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to Syria in late 2011. The administration believes that Nusra is just a renamed incarnation of Iraq’s al Qaida branch, which has “dispatched money, people and materiel from Iraq to Syria over the past year,” one senior administration official said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in a conference call this month. Nusra fighters have openly – and proudly – admitted that they’re veterans of the anti-U.S. insurgency in Iraq.

The Syrian regime’s connections to Iran and the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militias based in Iraq are harder to prove, analysts say, though that hasn’t stopped the Obama administration from drawing direct links. During the conference call this month, a second senior administration official said the Syrian shabiha known as Jaysh al Shaabi, or the People’s Army, was modeled after the powerful Iranian paramilitary group known as the Basij.

“Jaysh al Shaabi was created and continues to be funded and maintained with support from Iran and Hezbollah, and it is modeled after the Iranian Basij militia, which has proven so deadly and effective at using violence and intimidation to suppress political dissent in Iraq,” the official said.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland parroted the administration’s line that the shabiha militias, made up primarily of fellow members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, copy the Iranian Basijis’ tactics.

“They are very much, in terms of the form that they’ve taken, a reflection of Iranian tactics and Iranian methods and advice to the Syrian regime,” Nuland said this month.

Some analysts who specialize in Iran and who’ve closely followed Iranian involvement in neighboring Iraq say the U.S. assertions about Iranian training of the shabiha are overblown, designed to protect the administration from looking too pro-regime as it goes after Nusra on the rebel side.

And Syria experts say the shabiha certainly are not modeled after the Basij, a deeply ideological force born of the Islamic revolution that turned Iran into a Shiite theocracy. The shabiha, by contrast, began as Alawite protection rackets that were loyal to the clans and “paid by cousins,” as Landis put it.

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in the Middle East and Iran, said it didn’t make sense for the Iranians to train a loose militia confederation such as the shabiha. He said such assistance more likely would go to more formalized fighters such as Assad’s special forces.

“The shabiha are a much more murky and informal and criminal group,” Cole said. “The idea that the shabiha are like the Revolutionary Guard Corps or the Basij is, to me, an error of analysis.”

Other analysts said the better model for the Iranian role with the Syrian militias was the Shiite sectarian groups that flourished in Iraq thanks to their leaders’ long-standing ties to Iran.

The Institute for the Study of War issued a report this week on the resurgence in Iraq of a particularly sophisticated militia that was part of the so-called “special groups,” the catchall term U.S. forces used for the Iranian-backed militias that fought them and participated in attacks on Sunnis during Iraq’s sectarian war.

The report’s author, research analyst Sam Wyer, found that this militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq, whose name means “League of the Righteous,” had been quietly transforming itself into a Hezbollah-style group, with not only a militia but also political and charitable offices throughout Iraq and the region.

One of those new offices, Wyer said, was in the northern, predominantly Sunni town of Tal Afar, a strange choice for a Shiite extremist group except that it’s strategically located on a long-established smuggling route into Syria. Another of the new offices, Wyer said, was opened in Beirut, where the Iraqi militiamen have met regularly with Hezbollah operatives and once again play “an integral role in Iran’s regional proxy strategy, augmenting Lebanese Hezbollah in the struggle for Syria.”

Wyer said there wasn’t enough evidence to say conclusively what the scope of the Iraqi special groups’ activities in Syria was but that he’d seen surprisingly similar organizational and tactical maneuvers.

“Obviously, Iran has pretty huge stakes in Syria, and they’re going to want to influence the conflict any way they can – and the best way they know how is through these proxy groups,” Wyer said.

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