Second, the nature of the developments in Syria point to the crystallization of a new reality after militant groups associated with al-Qaeda, like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, have taken control of the northeastern regions of Syria bordering Iraq. This situation gave ISIS an opportunity to change its Iraq strategy, which went from being based on guerrilla warfare, planting sleeper cells in neighborhoods and a nebulous structure to establishing outposts, building logistical camps and establishing mobile sanctuaries across the border, especially as the environment in those isolated areas changed.
Third, the interdependence between al-Qaeda groups in Iraq and Syria is critical not only on the geographical level, but also in military plans. It used to be difficult for al-Qaeda to manage its operations in the two countries, using two very different strategies.
Thus, since the start of the Syrian conflict, the Iraqi-Syrian border has been a central strategic target for al-Qaeda, more so than Damascus and Baghdad, because erasing the border by eliminating the official controls on it means, strategically, the possibility of a “new state” that would include the Sunni areas in Iraq and more than half of Syria, in accordance with demographic and sectarian factors. That would increase the support for a Sunni province among the political and religious groups in those areas.
Fourth, Maliki, who’s seeking a third term, cannot go into the parliamentary elections at the end of April without a real achievement on the ground. The fact is that Maliki’s greatest achievement during his reign was to re-impose the rule of law by military force after the 2006-2008 civil war. A security achievement would greatly help his election chances. His breaking up the Sunni sit-ins may also serve this purpose.
Fifth, international circumstances, especially after Maliki’s US visit, the US-Iran rapprochement and the soon-to-be-held Geneva II conference on Syria will create an international environment more sympathetic toward the Iraqi government’s war against al-Qaeda.
Regardless of the security results produced by the “Avenging the Leader Mohammad” operation, which has already announced the killing of ISIS members and the destruction of camps and arms depots, the operation has several dangers:
- The operation doesn’t mean the end of the war with al-Qaeda, defeating the organization or even dramatically reducing its activity in Iraq. Promoting that picture in the media may help the strained relationship between the population and the Iraqi army and government, but that confidence can be shaken later if al-Qaeda is dealt with only by military means, because al-Qaeda can change its tactics and adapt to the security environment.
- Linking the operation’s military goals with breaking up the sit-ins on charges that the protesters are harboring terrorists is extremely dangerous, especially if accompanied by violence. A political solution to the sit-in problem would ensure the military operation’s success.
- Using the military campaign for electoral purposes may be a foregone conclusion, but that would require maintaining the security effort to seal the Iraqi-Syrian border, which would allow the Iraqi army to gain full control and deprive al-Qaeda of a foothold that would allow it to maintain the link between al-Qaeda groups in Iraq and Syria. It would be difficult for the Iraqi army to achieve this goal, which requires more time and capabilities.
Today, more than ever before, it may be possible for Iraqi forces to win control of Anbar. But holding the ground is only half the battle with al-Qaeda. The other half lies in developing the security, intelligence, social, political and diplomatic efforts to starve al-Qaeda of funding sources, block its moves and prevent it from developing new strategies to perpetuate violence.
Before that, what Iraq needs is the restoration of social harmony, which the country has lacked for years.