As the Syrian crisis continues, Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq may form a cross-border zone between Iraq and Syria that could threaten regional stability.

The protest movement in Iraq that began in December 2012 is not occurring in isolation from events in Syria over the past two years. Since the US troop withdrawal at the end of 2011, Iraq has not seen organized activity by armed opposition groups, though the Islamic State of Iraq and some smaller groups that have continued to carry out major attacks in Baghdad and other provinces. Most prominently, suicide bombers stormed the provincial council building in Tikrit on March 29, 2011 and the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad on March 14, 2013, leaving over 20 employees dead in addition to a number of other sporadic bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.

As the Syrian revolution evolved into an armed struggle, the Islamic State of Iraq strongholds in Nineveh and Anbar provinces along Iraq’s western border with Syria have also seen a flow of the group’s fighters into Syria’s eastern provinces—particularly Deir al-Zour—where they have spread out into the Syrian heartland, providing the guerrilla warfare expertise the Syrian rebels previously lacked. Unable to make use of the official border crossings, the fighters usually cross illegally along the over 600-kilometer (373-mile) stretch between Mosul in northwestern Iraq and Anbar in western Iraq.

The Syrian border had been a passageway for Islamist fighters headed into Iraq throughout the US occupation, as well as a crossing point for smugglers of weapons, goods, and livestock across the border in both directions. As acknowledged by more than one American official, including Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry, it has also become a transit area for Iranian weapons and pro-Assad militia members.

The power struggle in Syria has taken on a sectarian nature, seen in the growing divide between those supporting Bashar Assad’s regime and the various revolutionary factions. Sectarian rhetoric has intensified notably in the public squares where protests are being staged in Anbar and other Sunni-majority provinces in Iraq, along with a more visible presence of Free Syrian Army flags and banners. This has drawn the wrath of the Iraqi government. Maliki warned on February 27, 2013, that “a Syrian opposition victory would lead to the breakout of a civil war in Lebanon and divisions in Jordan, as well as a sectarian war in Iraq.”

Governments in both Baghdad and Damascus are keenly aware of the geographic distribution of the fighters in Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. These fighters’ movement across the border, however, is outside of both governments’ control—especially in the rugged border strip south of Mosul and north of the border town of Al-Qa’im on the Euphrates, as well as the border region between the Al-Walid crossing near Rutba (300 km/186 mi west of Ramadi) stretching 140 kilometers (87 miles) north to the area around the phosphate mines. On March 4, 2013, over forty Syrian and ten Iraqi soldiers were killed in an ambush by the Islamic State in Iraq near Rutba while the Syrian soldiers were traveling to the Al-Walid crossing to return into Syria, escorted by Iraqi soldiers. 

The Iraqi army has been trying to enhance its combat capabilities in Anbar, moving in early July 2012 to support its positions along the Syrian border. They have cracked down on the cooperation between the Iraqi tribes and the Islamic State of Iraq with the armed Syrian opposition, while simultaneously seeking to facilitate the flow of aid to the Assad regime. Subsequently, in early March 2013, the Iraqi army formed the Jazeera and Badiya Operation Command, for the same purpose. The Iraqi army is still working on this objective, recently deploying four new combat regiments (a total of roughly 4,000 soldiers) to the Syrian border in Nineveh and Anbar provinces.

In an effort to prevent the attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq, on May 23-24, 2013, the Iraqi government launched a sweeping land and air military operation against the organization’s positions in the desert region between Mosul and Rawa district (90 km/56 mi east of Al-Qa’im), and also between the cities of Ramadi and Rutba. This initial action was followed by similar operations. The Iraqi government announced that a number of Islamic State of Iraq fighters had been killed and others arrested, and that a training camp was captured. The jihadist websites affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq, meanwhile, claimed that government forces had suffered heavy losses, including damages to a helicopter and several armored vehicles, in addition to the dead and wounded Iraqis confirmed by the Ramadi hospital. 

As extremists grow in strength on both sides of the border, the relationship between the Islamic State of Iraq, which is active in western and northwestern Iraq, and Jabhat al-Nusra, which controls broad swathes of Syrian territory, is deeply troubling for the US, Iraq, the Gulf States, Jordan, and other countries. There are fears that the two militant organizations will be able to link up their areas of influence and create a cross-border zone, despite the disagreements which have sprung up between the two groups in recent weeks.

Jabhat al-Nusra enjoys support from a number of the armed Syrian factions and Syrian society. This support prompted the US to place Jabhat al-Nusra on its list of foreign terrorist organizations on December 5, 2012, setting off demonstrations on December 14, 2012, labeled the Friday of “No to American Intervention…We Are All Jabhat al-Nusra”, and with chants including “Jabhat al-Nusra Represents Us” and “We Are All Jahbat al-Nusra.”

Jabhat al-Nusra, which was officially founded on January 24, 2012, includes fighters primarily from Iraq, Tunisia, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, as well as dozens of other Arabs, Muslims, and Europeans, who outnumber its locally recruited fighters.

Jabhat al-Nusra argued in one of its statements that “fighting against the Shiite Iraqi government in Baghdad is a jihad and sacred religious duty in order to liberate it from the Magi [a derogatory term for Iranians and Shiites].” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on April 9, 2013 announced the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and that Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, was actually “one of the Islamic State of Iraq’s soldiers, whom we assigned for action in Syria.” Only two days later, Jabhat al-Nusra implicitly rejected this claim by announcing its loyalty to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the global al-Qaeda, who intervened to break up the dispute between the two. However, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected al-Zawahiri’s proposal that the merger be aborted and that he “continue to work in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq while Jabhat al-Nusra would be considered an independent branch of al-Qaeda, following the General Command,” according to a message televised by al-Jazeera and attributed to al-Zawahiri. In the message, al-Zawahiri called for a stop to “the debate over this disagreement,” since it could portend infighting between some of the most powerful and effective armed groups fighting against the Assad regime.

Sunnis in Iraq see the weapons captured by the Free Syrian Army and other rebel factions, especially Jabhat al-Nusra, in the border areas as a strategic reserve for them, safe from confiscation by Iraqi troops. However, if the Assad regime falls, or the situation in Iraq spirals out of control, the arms stored in Syria would rapidly pour across the border into Iraq. Likewise, seasoned Iraqi fighters would return from Syria, having acquired new experience in fighting local armies in urban warfare. Those fighters would battle the Iraqi government to curb Iranian influence in Iraq and the region at large, possibly supported by powers that share their goal including the US, Turkey, and the Gulf States. Free Syrian Army veterans and other Syrian and foreign fighters could also pour into Iraq, accompanied by a huge arms flow, a possibility recognized by both Islamist and non-Islamist leaders within the Syrian opposition.

Raed El Hamed is an Iraqi scholar.

This article was translated from Arabic.