On Monday, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the leader of the Syrian jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra, issued an ultimatum to the other main jihadist group in Syria, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Jawlani told ISIS that it would be driven from Syria and fought even in Iraq if it did not submit to arbitration by clerics within five days. The ultimatum noticeably delineated the two groups’ boundaries within their respective nation states. It also represents the latest episode in the escalating conflict between the two groups since Nusra rejected the forced merger with ISIS in the spring of last year.
Observers are reading the Nusra-ISIS fight through the prism of the supposed metamorphosis of Al-Qaeda from a presumably centralized, global outfit, to a series of local splinter organizations. However, it is more useful to read the conflict within the context of historical Syrian-Iraqi relations. It is not really about the future of Al-Qaeda, but rather it is the latest manifestation of an Arab political phenomenon of the Levant. What has changed is the nature of the protagonists, for the role secular nationalist movements once played is now reenacted by the Salafist jihadist movements.
Syrian-Iraqi relations have been marked by bitter competition for primacy. The rivalry between Damascus and Baghdad as the seats of Muslim power goes back to the Ummayads and Abbasids, and it persisted into the modern period. In the decade after the two states gained independence, Syria was a contested space and Iraq played a direct role in Syrian political life. The Syrians who opposed it, mainly Damascenes, aligned with Cairo to counter Baghdad. By the mid-1950s, with Syria plagued by a series of coups, Iraq was positioning itself to take advantage of the chaos and assert its influence. The Damascene elite sought protection through union with Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt.
The rise of the Baath party to power in Iraq and Syria in 1963, although ostensibly sharing the same ideology preaching Arab unity, did nothing to bring harmony between the two states. The Baathist era was marked by attempts by both sides to sabotage one another, and the era of the Baath offers perhaps the most suitable precedent to the vicious conflict poised to escalate between ISIS and Nusra.
Of direct relevance is the fact that a unifying transnational ideology meant nothing in the face of the drive for raw power and the structural patterns that have dominated the relationship between the two countries. By the time Hafez al-Assad assumed office in 1970, the Baath party had already been split into Syrian and Iraqi factions. Relations between Syria and Iraq continued to deteriorate steadily. In 1979, Saddam Hussein formally assumed the reins of power in Iraq, and his first order of business was a purge of party members suspected of plotting a coup sponsored by Assad. In turn, Saddam would go on to support acts violence against the regime, which was then facing an uprising spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood.
The war between the two continued throughout the 1980s. It played out in a series of mutual assassinations and car bombs, mostly in Lebanon, where local proxies of the Syrian and Iraqi Baaths existed, and where Assad and his allies decimated the pro-Iraqi Baath faction. It’s not difficult to draw parallels to ISIS’s campaign of assassinations and car bombs against its Syrian rivals, and one wonders if and when Lebanon might witness pro-Nusra and pro-ISIS factions begin to take shape and start going after each other in the jihadist version of the Baathist war of the 1980s.
But Jawlani’s threat to take the fight to ISIS in Iraq, where Iraqi allies are allegedly ready to support Nusra in its battle, says something about the options facing Nusra. Jawlani’s turn to Ayman al-Zawahiri to fend off the forced merger by ISIS’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – reminiscent of the Syrian appeal to Abdel Nasser in 1958 – did little to deter the ISIS emir. The appeal to the clerical authorities of the jihadist movement likewise did not matter. The killing of Abu Khaled al-Souri, who had tried to heal the breach between ISIS and Nusra and the Syrian Salafist scene more broadly, only underscored Zawahiri’s weakness, if not outright irrelevance. Baghdadi is intent on bringing Syria into his domain, and Zawahiri is no Nasser to keep him in check. Baghdadi controls fighters, territory, and resources, and has declared that Al-Qaeda is history in Iraq. In contrast, what Zawahiri actually controls is questionable, and it’s unclear what he can do for Nusra. Most probably, it is he who needs Nusra (and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) to remain relevant.
What Baghdadi’s actions show is that, much as with the Baath in the previous era, ideology takes a back seat to raw power. Baghdadi cares little that major ideologues of the jihadist movement have sided with Nusra against him: he is making his bid for primacy. The Syrian jihadists’ only option is to try and block him with violence of their own. The end result is likely to harden the line between the Iraqi and Syrian Salafist factions, with smaller allies on both sides of the divide, much as with the Baathist wars in Lebanon.
If these power games sound familiar, recalling the jostling of Arab revolutionary parties and states, it’s because they are. It is therefore more useful to place the war between the Syrian and Iraqi Salafist jihadist organizations in the context of the historically antagonistic relationship between Damascus and Baghdad and of the structural patterns that have governed their ties. The ISIS-Nusra rivalry is but the latest manifestation of a longstanding Arab political phenomenon in the Levant.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.