After Assad, armed groups seen migrating to Iraq or back home with no incentives to stop fighting

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By Brian M Downing

The Syrian civil war has raged for over a year now, ever since peaceful protest turned into armed rebellion.

Islamist gunmen and family members carry the body of a fighter in Tripoli, Lebanon. / Reuters

In recent months, rebel groups have become more effective and various armed units have emerged. They have little in common beside opposition to the Assad regime, and their allegiance to any command structure, including the recently-formed shadow government, is doubtful.

This augurs poorly for a smooth transition to a new government. A period of protracted infighting seems inevitable, much as the one we are now seeing in post-Gadhafi Libya. Perhaps just as important, and just as disconcerting, is what does this mean for regional stability. What might we expect from these groups once Assad falls? Where will they go and who will support them?

The aftermath of Col Gadhafi’s fall from power in Libya last year offers an instructive parallel.

Gadhafi’s loyalist forces included thousands of Tuareg – an indigenous North African people who battled Arab invaders centuries ago and French ones in the nineteenth century. Following Gadhafi’s collapse, the Tuareg fled south where they have seized control of parts of northern Mali.

Syrian fighting groups, fresh from victory over Assad, may be eager to continue their work elsewhere – either for ideological or financial reasons.

Their religious fervor has become increasingly apparent as fighting and atrocities have continued. Saudi-style religious police (mutaween) have been reported in some rebel-held areas, which suggests a zealous disposition and perhaps a foreign influence as well. The adjacent lands of Lebanon and Iraq may attract them.

Lebanese Shias are supporting Assad diplomatically and small numbers of their Hizbullah fighters are serving with his forces. Lebanese Sunnis, on the other hand, are smuggling arms to Syrian rebels.

Predictably, sectarian fighting has spilled over into Lebanon – though only at limited levels so far. The Sunni Gulf states might see Assad’s fall as an opportunity to further reduce the “Shia arc” stretching from Iran into Lebanon. Hizbullah, however, has a solid popular base and a formidable military, making it no easy target for Saudi schemes.

Iraq is a more likely future theater of operations. Sectarian fighting has been underway there ever since the U.S. ousted the Sunni minority from the preeminence in national affairs they’d enjoyed since independence after World War One.

Iraqi Sunnis are waging a bombing campaign against the Shia government in Baghdad, almost certainly with the support of Sunni Gulf states, and some Iraqi Sunnis are taking part in the fighting inside Syria as well. Supply channels that brought men and materiel into Iraq to fight U.S. troops are now helping to bring down Assad. There can be little doubt that the traffic can flow into Iraq again once Assad is gone.

Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states are deeply engaged in regional affairs, especially in regard to Iran, and they will encourage Syrian fighting groups to redeploy into Iraq. It is there that the Sunni states see the greatest danger from Iranian-Shia power.

Iraqi fighters inside Syria will return home with greater skills and sounder backing. Their goal will be a Sunni autonomous region or perhaps even an independent Sunni state tied to a Sunni-majority state in Syria – and of course also to the Sunni Gulf states.

A more worrisome result of the Syrian civil war will be a reservoir of former fighters, who are indisposed to quotidian life and open to entreaties of taking up arms again somewhere in the Islamic world. This should give the Saudi and U.S. governments pause as many of the Arab mujahideen who came home from victory in Afghanistan thirty years ago, turned on their former paymasters.

Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at

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