An intriguing, but hardly surprising, report from CNN in Iraq about Sunni tribal support for rebel fighters in Syria is a reminder of the ways in which Syria's civil war could spread, and of the strange bedfellows created by a year of upheaval and change in the region.
The CNN report contains an interview with a man described as tribal leader of the Dulaim, one of the largest tribes in Iraq whose members also spread into Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Members of the overwhelmingly Sunni Arab tribe formed the backbone of the fight against the US occupation of Iraq, and the rise of the country's Shiite-dominated government during the height of the war in the country.
In the middle of the last decade, arms and fighters flowed across the Syrian border to aid Iraq's Sunni insurgents, inspired by a combination of tribal loyalty and religious piety. Now, the sheikh tells CNN, the Iraqi Dulaim are returning the favor.
"You've all seen what the Syrian government is doing. It's time for us to return our debt. It's our duty."
What debt? He said Syrian members of the Dulaim came to fight along with Iraqis against the US-led assaults on Fallujah in 2004. In April and November of that year, two separate attacks on the Sunni insurgent stronghold left about 90 coalition troops dead, most American, and over 1,500 residents and fighters dead.
The civilian casualties from the assault remain unclear, though the Iraq Body Count website estimated that 600 civilians died in the first assault in April on the ancient city along the Euphrates. Dozens of buildings in town were destroyed, and the vast majority of civilian inhabitants fled in late 2004, returning later.
The Dulaim leader told CNN that many of the skills developed in fighting the US are now being exported to Syria. He says expert IED makers have been sent to Syria (improvised explosive devices were the prime killer of US troops during the Iraq war), as well as 35 heavy machine guns, "hundreds" of AK-47 assault rifles, and about 30 Iraqi fighters. Most of that aid has flowed to Syria's Deir al-Zour Governorate, the eastern Syrian province that borders much of Iraq's Anbar province.
The fighters' goal is to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. That's the current objective of the United States, their old enemy. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Sunday that "Assad must go," though the US remains opposed to outside military intervention in the country.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs remain fearful of the new Shiite-dominated order they now live under, and the fact that Assad's principal external backer is Shiite Iran, which also has far closer ties to Iraq's government since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, should be kept in mind. If large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis begin fighting in Syria, insurgent talents will be imparted to a new generation that, if they survive the fight, will come home with those skills. (Consider that a 21-year-old fighter today would have been 12 when the US invaded Iraq in 2003.)
And oil-rich Saudi Arabia, a conservative Sunni monarchy hostile to both Iran and Assad, is becoming increasingly assertive in helping the Syrian opposition. Saudi recently led a group of Gulf monarchies in creating a fund to pay Syrian rebel fighters. If it decides to provide covert weapons assistance, the old smuggling routes across Anbar will be available.
The stance of Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to all of this?
"They are calling for sending arms instead of working on putting out the fire, and they will hear our voice, that we are against arming and against foreign interference," Maliki told a press conference over the weekend (forgetting, perhaps, that it was foreign interference that enabled him to come to power).
But he, and everyone else involved, is right to be nervous about the spread of conflict. For now, former Sunni insurgents in Iraq share the same overall goals of the United States, while the Iraqi leader the US helped install is siding with Iran.