The Washington Post reports on the reemergence of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). According to Bruce Reidel, a former CIA counterterrorism expert now with the Brookings Institution, “what we’re now seeing is al Qaeda in Iraq’s revival, not only as a movement in that country but as a regional movement.” Reidel notes that from its base in the Sunni provinces west of Baghdad, AQI is building networks in Syria and Jordan “at an alarming rate.”
Recently, AQI’s new-found regional reach manifested itself in a well-developed plot to create mayhem in Amman, Jordan. The plan was to terrorize the city through attacks on malls, car bombings, etc., and then, in the ensuing chaos, attack the U.S. embassy. The Jordanians foiled the plan, and in doing so discovered the key role of AQI.
But the bigger threat posed by the AQI revival is in Syria, where many of those involved in the plot against Jordan had been fighting. Unlike in Jordan, a power vacuum exists in Syria. Bruce Hoffman, a former counterintelligence scholar-in-residence at the CIA, told the Post that Syria has become a base for training and a launching ground for AQI terrorism.
The jihadists in Syria need arms, of course, and according to the New York Times, Iran serves as a major supplier (though not, presumably, for AQI). Iran flies arms into Syria over Iraqi airspace. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had promised the Obama administration that he would inspect aircraft overflying his country, but to no one’s surprise (not even Obama’s, one assumes), he has not met that commitment.
These developments are part of what Max Boot calls “the steep price of American disengagement” from Iraq. Boot points out that if a Status of Forces Agreement had been negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq, Iraqi airspace would now be patrolled by the U.S. Air Force, and the Iranian Quds Force would lose a main route for arming its Syrian allies. But Obama sent Joe Biden to negotiate that Agreement and Talkin’ Joe came back empty handed.
Absent our total disengagement, moreover, it’s quite possible that AQI would not have reemerged so strongly the Sunni provinces of Iraq. For example, as Boot argues, the Obama administration should have been more engaged after the 2010 Iraqi election in pushing to form a government led by Ayad Allawi. By virtue of his status as a secular Shiite with heavy Sunni backing, Allawi, the top vote-getter in that election, might well have maintained the anti-AQI sentiment in Sunni provinces that helped defeat AQI a few years earlier during the surge. In any case, Allawi would not have cooperated with the Iranians to prop up Assad the way Maliki has. Unfortunately, the administration took a hands-off approach that allowed the Iranians to assemble what Boot describes as “a pliant coalition led by Maliki.”
Finally, if Obama had acted quickly to facilitate the toppling of Assad, and to identify and work with non-jihadist rebel forces, it’s quite possible (though hardly certain) that Syria would not be turning into a bastion of al Qaeda terrorism. Again, however, Obama decided to lead from behind — so far behind that the U.S. is nowhere to be seen.
The same cannot be said for AQI and, of course, Iran. AQI is now major force in Iraq, a growing force in Syria, and a threat to Jordan. That’s parat of the steep price being paid for Obama’s disengagement.