Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The limits of holy war

It's a common assumption that Islamist militants are always in search of the next battlefield struggle that can be labelled jihad. Indeed, this assumption formed the flypaper rationale for the US invasion of Iraq i.e. the claim that even if extremists weren't in Iraq under Saddam, they would come to fight the invasion so that we could fight them there so we don't have to fight them over here etc. It was dodgy at the best of times and now we have a test case: Syria --

BAGHDAD, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Two Islamist militant groups in Iraq have rejected a call by al Qaeda to aid Syrian rebels in their revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, saying sending weapons and fighters across the border would only worsen the conflict.

Sunni Islamist al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri has backed an increasingly violent revolt against Assad, who is from an offshoot of Sh'ite Islam, and is fighting to maintain his grip on 12 years of autocratic rule in mostly Sunni Syria.

The Islamic Army in Iraq, composed of Sunni Arabs and former Iraqi army officers, whose aim was to end U.S. military presence and influence in Iraq, said it would support the Syrians morally in their fight against Assad, but would not dispatch fighters.

"We are against sending fighters, money and weapons to Syria ... we are waiting for the Syrian people to decide their fate but we are supporting their aspirations morally," a senior leader, who declined to be named, told Reuters on Wednesday ... The Islamic Army leader accused al Qaeda of trying to "steal the revolution" and said if armed fighters were sent, Assad, who blames foreign-backed terrorists for the nearly year-old unrest, would use it as a pretext for his crackdown.

"We do not want to interfere so as not to allow anyone to steal their revolution as al Qaeda has done. We don't want to give the regime a pretext that can be used against the rebels," he said ... Sheikh Khalid al-Ansari, a senior leader with the Islamist militant al-Rashideen Army, said his group supported the fall of Assad but warned that arming Syria's opposition would create an increasingly sectarian conflict.

"We support the Syrian revolution 100 percent and the fall of the Assad regime," Ansari told Reuters. "But we do not accept sending weapons, money and fighters to Syria because this will lead to the creation of a sectarian war that will target innocent people similar to what happened in Iraq and we do not want to repeat the same experiment."

Yes these are militant groups. But they calculate their odds, anticipate how their participation will affect the overall situation, and they learn. That's not the usual portrait of these groups.

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