Islamists vs ex-colonels: Will radicals take over the Syrian insurgency as they did in Iraq?

The deadly attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi by presumed radical Islamists operating in Libya's post-civil-war vacuum are likely to make a significant impact on views of Syria's ongoing civil war. They will probably deepen concern over the rise of Islamists within Syria's rebel movement and the threat this will pose to post-war stability should the Assad regime fall.

Charles Levinson writing in the Wall Street Journal from northern Syria gives a fascinating glimpse at the interplay between rebel factions, particularly the social divide between them. I found it especially intriguing in light of my experience in a third Arab country, Iraq, where like Libya and Syria an insurgent movement was divided along Islamist and non-Islamist lines.

Levinson profiles one Syrian rebel, Col. Abdel Jabbar al-Ughaidy, whose CV is almost identical to the commanders of groups like the Islamic Army of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, or many smaller tribal militias: a mid-ranking former officer with close ties to the urban middle classes. Despite names that often sounded religious and some ties to organizations like the Muslim Brothers, these Iraqi groups did not have a particularly Islamic agenda, they had little apparent interest in radical Salafist theologies, and their commanders were drawn from the secular Saddam-era elites.

Col. Ughaidy's rival for the loyalties of the fighters in his part of Syria is Abdel Aziz Salama, a former honey merchant who leads the Islamist wing of the local rebel movement. Socially, if not necessarily ideologically, he resembles Iraqi al-Qaida commanders like Ahmed al-Dabash, a small-time preacher in a Baghdad slum blamed for carrying out the 2004 Ashura bombings in Karbala, or Omar Hadid, a former petty criminal who found religion and ended up leading the Islamists in Fallujah.

The two groups do not trust each other. As did their counterparts in Iraq, Col. Ughaidy's movement sneers at the Islamists for their low levels of education and excesses like the shooting of prisoners. In both countries, meanwhile, the Islamists sneer at the ex-officers for not fighting as hard as they do.

Levinson rightfully notes about the Syrians that, "how these differences shake out in coming days could determine which side prevails in the 18-month conflict and lay the groundwork for either cooperation or fresh rounds of internecine bloodletting." It's worth taking a look at how these differences played out in Iraq.

In Iraq, the two branches of the insurgency cooperated for several years before falling out and fighting their own small series of mini-civil wars, with the nationalist, officer-led branch ultimately allying with the Americans to become the anti-al-Qaida Sahwa or Awakening movement. The particular dynamic that pushed the cultural gap between mainstream insurgents and Islamists into violent conflict however is peculiar to the Iraqi civil war. It is linked to the Americans' overwhelming superiority in firepower and to the presence of a Shia majority -- neither of which are present in Syria -- as well as to an influx of foreign Islamist volunteers, which is present in Syria but seemingly on a smaller scale. (This article from Aleppo suggests large numbers of foreign volunteers but I would caution that hospitals in Aleppo might be an unusual sample. Foreign volunteers tend to go directly to the front lines to fight).

The officer-led branch of the Iraqi insurgency, as we learned when they became the Sahwa movement, was amenable to compromise. The ex-colonels were fighting to protect a privileged position in Iraqi society, and, when they realized that the Americans were not simply going to go and turn over the reins of government to an ex-Baathist "Saddam lite," they grudgingly decided to make their peace with the new Shia-led order as best they could. The Islamists in Iraq came from the lower rungso of society and thus never had a privileged position to defend. Jihad and resistance catapulted them from obscurity to local leadership, and for them it was victory or death.

Tribal clientalism ultimately pushed this division of war aims into outright conflict. The colonels were often allied with tribal sheikhs who played both sides of the fence -- they cooperated to some degree with the local insurgents, but they owed their social status under Saddam to their ability to get their poorer cousins jobs and they continued to provide this service under the Americans. The Americans' overwhelming firepower meant that there was almost always some sort of Iraqi government or contractor presence inside an Iraqi town. The Islamists, who took a dim view towards any collaboration and who despised Saddam-era corruption and patronage, began to assassinate sheikhs and set off bombs amid the crowds of desperate young men lining up for a chance at a police or army job. The Islamists turned on other Sunni Arab "collaborators" in part because of their own ideological rigidity, but there was another reason why they felt they needed to sever, as much as they could, any local ties with the Americans: US satellite guided bombs made a tremendous impression on the insurgents, and they were terrified of informants whom, they believed, could easily kill insurgents simply by passing along to a US soldier where they were sleeping that night.

Attacks on sheikhs and other violent attempts by Islamists to discourage collaboration led to a series of small tribe-vs-al-Qaida conflicts as early as 2004 and 2005 in towns like al-Qaim or Samarra. The Islamists usually dominated these conflicts. They did so, it appears, in part because their supply of foreign volunteers gave them a mobile reserve that they could use to drive opponents like the Albu Mahal tribe of al-Qaim out of town. But the al-Qaida branch of under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also had a smarter PR strategy than did the ex-colonels, and thus, in the all-important competition to stir the imaginations of the 20ish males who made up the bulk of insurgent manpower, had a key advantage.

The ex-colonels tended to stay anonymous, shuffling their names of their groups and revealing little about themselves in attempt to frustrate American intelligence analysts. Zarqawi and company personalized themselves with names and published biographies. They fought hopeless but high-profile battles like the siege of Fallujah, the publicity from which ensured them a steady source of volunteers to make up their losses.

Ultimately, al-Qaida was made overconfident by its success and pushed too far. They antagonized other insurgents by trying to force them to federate into an Islamist State of Iraq. They terrorized local communities with executions of collaborators and attempts to enforce Islamic puritanism. Also, their attacks on the Shia prompted reprisals that, the ex-colonels ultimately realized, were building towards a civil war that the Sunnis could not win. The ex-officers allied with the Americans and became Sahwa commanders. The intelligence they provided the U.S. military, backed by American combat power, was easily sufficient to break al-Qaida's hold over Sunni communities and establishing the violent but relatively stable status quo that still persists in Iraq until this day.

Syria is unlikely to follow this particular course. To begin with, the war there is much more of a conventional conflict over territory. The regime is not trying to locate and identify insurgents within an area it controls, as were the Americans and the Iraqi government. Rather, it is fighting to have any sort of presence at all inside much of the country. Its tools are not satellite-guided bombs delivered onto a single house in an attempt to kill an identified suspect, rather, but a barrage of shells onto a neighborhood to intimidate en masse. Consequently, a Syrian rebel commander need not live in mortal fear, as the Iraqis appeared to have done, that a rival could eliminate him quietly and with impunity by passing his coordinates to the Americans. Rather, rival rebels in any neighborhood have a joint interest in standing together to keep the government at bay altogether.

Also, the colonels have not conceded the edge to the Islamists in the PR contest. The Free Syrian Army, not the Islamists, first established itself as the rebellion's premier "brand name," and backed that up with operations like the Damascus bombing that killed three top regime leaders. Levinson's article suggests that the FSA has an advantage over the Islamists in its conduits to the outside world, receiving funds and weapons from Syrian and other Arab supporters.

Libya offers an alternative model for how disputes between insurgent groups may resolve themselves. As Gadhafi's regime collapsed, different branches of the rebels clashed over turf and over perceived injustices in the distribution of resources controlled by the rebel political leadership, or because one group was perceived to have insulted another. (Islamist vs non-Islamist disputes were less important that regional divisions, but they was there.) The killing of Ambassador Stevens and three others is a symptom of the resulting security vacuum.


However, it's worth noting that the Benghazi attack appears to be the work of a small, heavily armed group who may well have planned their assault long in advance. Radical Islamists are marginalized politically -- liberals and centrists dominated the country's parliamentary elections -- and overall, the clashes between local militias tend to de-escalate as political pressure is brought to bear upon them. Libyan rebel groups tended not to see each other as a mortal threat. There is no relentless logic pushing the country towards a second civil war. Syria's conflict of course will take its own unpredictable course: the rise of the Islamists and the resulting rift in the insurgency is a cause for concern, but does not necessarily mean that the radicals will take over.