Al Qaeda’s most significant victory in the Syrian war was achieved this week in the Iraqi arena. Its Iraq and Syrian branch (ISIS), under the command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, resoundingly defeated the Iraqi army which two weeks ago launched a major offensive to relieve the country of the jihadist grip. Baghdadi’s troops were able to throw back the Iraqi army’s crack 7th and 1st divisions and keep going to capture large sections of Ramadi and Falluja, the key Sunni cities of western and central Iraq.
This victory enabled ISIS to forge a territorial chain of control stretching from Ramadi in central in Iraq, 110 km west of Baghdad, all the way to the northern Syrian town of Al-Raqqah, 160 km from Aleppo.
It also brought the Iraqi military offensive to a standstill. Soldiers downed arms and fled and units still intact started falling back toward Baghdad, dumping their heavy weapons to hasten their retreat.
debkafile’s military sources report that Al Qaeda owes much of its victory to the decision of the Sunni tribes of western Iraq to join and spearhead its counter-attack on Iraqi forces. After smashing whole Iraqi units in the two cities, these tribal militias opened the door for the ISIS jihadists to march in.
Ironically, the tribal militias backing al Qaeda are the same “Awakening” groups which the US army sustained and armed for the battle to root out Al Qaeda from western Iraq during the 2005-2007 landmark “surge” campaign devised by Gen. David Petraeus.
That surge wheel has clearly turned round in favor of al Qaeda. Iraq’s military downfall is the worst it has suffered since the US invasion of the country in 2003 and al Qaeda’s greatest Middle East battlefield triumph, following which its commander Al-Baghdadi has vowed to proclaim the first Middle East caliphate stretching between western Iraq and eastern Syria.
This development has many critical ramifications:
1. There is no military force in the region capable of going into Iraq and stopping al Qaeda’s advance, which was allowed to happen in consequence of the US army’s precipitate exit from the country three years ago.
2. Al Qaeda’s fortunes in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have received a major boost. The Sinai affiliates in particular are in close touch with Al Baghdadi.
3. The hook-up between them exacerbates the terrorist threat hanging over Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
4. The Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, has acquired strategic depth in Iraq. Its leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani (Golani) is expected to announce that his movement will join the new Islamist state.
5. A merger of the Iraqi and Syrian al Qaeda branches could draw in a host of sympathetic Middle East Islamist groups.
6. The ISIS victory in Iraq represents a humiliating setback for Tehran, which heavily backed the Iraqi army offensive led by its pro-Iranian prime minister Nouri al-Maliki for cleansing the country of the violent Al Qaeda presence.
7. The US, by its decision to send weapons to the Iraqi army for its engagement with al Qaeda, was shown to have backed the losing side.
8. The Iraqi army used up all its reserves for this offensive. Its only remaining option now is to fall back to Baghdad and regroup for the defense of the capital.
9. For Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Hizballah ally, Hassan Nasrallah, the Iraqi military debacle was the worst possible news. It struck them at the tipping moment of the Syrian war. Just as they gained the advantage over the rebel movement, they were confronted with a fresh war arena against al Qaeda now invigorated by its Iraq victory.