By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
Iraq has remained febrile this week with multiple high impact attacks killing hundreds, predominantly in the northern and central belts. As September draws to a close it is clear that the Syrian conflict is penetrating deeper into the fabric of Iraq as groups up and down the length of the western Iraqi border fight one another.
In the wake of the Nairobi attack by Al Shabab radical groups would appear to be consolidating and reaping a new wave of popularity, much of which has gripped many units operating under the Al Qaeda banner in Syria. This past week has seen hundreds of rebels pledge allegiance to al Qaeda-affiliated forces in northern and eastern Syria, activists and Islamist sources said on Friday, strengthening the group’s control in the region at a point where many commentators have been questioning how long the ISI, for example, can maintain that same tempo of operations they have been maintaining in Iraq.
Not only individual fighters but also entire units have joined the small but powerful al Qaeda-linked groups – the Nusra Front and the ISI – in recent days, according to the sources inside Syria confirming a growing worry that the radical groups are still growing in power. Many echoed the feeling of an activist group in Syria who suggested that the region could ultimately fall to jihadist forces.
Clashes have been intensifying between Nusra or ISI and the less effective but more moderate forces that make up the majority of opposition fighters, especially in opposition-held territory along Syria’s northern and eastern borders. At least two entire rebel brigades are said to have joined the Nusra Front in the opposition-held province of Raqqa, which borders Turkey. One of the groups, the Raqqa Revolutionaries, has an almost battalion strength of about 750 fighters in total, which represents a significant capability, much of which could be brought to bear in Iraq.
Another group, the God’s Victory Brigade, said in a statement on Facebook that all of its leaders and fighters had pledged loyalty to Nusra Front.
“God’s Victory Brigade, which is comprise of 15 battalions (its is unlikely that these battalions will replicate a true battalion size, which would suggest that they have up to 15,000 men at arms), had pledged its allegiance to the Nusra Front, giving complete submission (to it) in times of hardship and of ease,” it said.
Clearly, this represents a direct threat to Iraq as the increasing size of radical groups in Iraq often directly translates into greater numbers of insurgents moving between the two countries. Furthermore it means that the ISI and other Sunni insurgent groups will be able to continue the high tempo of attacks that have been so commonplace through the middle of the year.