“Blowback” is the decades-old term coined by CIA officers to describe what happens when a covert operation produces forces that return to harm those who set it in motion. The textbook example of “blowback” in living memory has been U.S. support for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, which eventually resulted in the emergence of both the Taliban and Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda.
Now, however, the textbook needs an update, because there is surely not in modern history a more perfect example of blowback than what is happening now in Syria, where Al Qaeda in Iraq’s operatives have turned to bite the hands that once fed them.
Working in Baghdad in 2007, when suicide bombings often occurred multiple times a day, exacting an especially terrible toll on Iraqi Shia civilians, I sometimes wondered how long it would take for this moment to come. The Al Qaeda documents captured in the northern Iraqi border district of Sinjar in September 2007 (the infamous “Sinjar Documents”) showed that the vast majority of the mujahedin who entered Iraq--more than 100 a month at that time--did so by way of the Damascus airport and a well-established network of safe houses and friendly Syrian officials that led across the Iraqi frontier into Anbar or Ninewa provinces. But if Iraq could be stabilized and made a hostile environment for Al Qaeda, I wondered, would not those Al Qaeda mujahedin turn back to the west, seeking easier targets in the homeland of Ibn Taymiyya, a country where supposedly heretical Alawites ruled a Sunni majority?
In a police state like Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the activity recorded in the Sinjar Documents could never have taken place without the full knowledge and approval of the regime. “Anyone who thinks otherwise,” a Syrian insider recently told me, “does not understand how our regime worked.” The conclusion is inescapable: for Bashar al-Assad and his regime, sponsorship of Al Qaeda’s jihad in Iraq was not a matter of negligence, but an official policy. Their role in killing many thousands of Iraqis was not incidental, but strategic.
This is the regime that now claims to be targeted by “armed gangs” and Salafi terrorists. Having terrorized the Iraqis for seven years, the Syrian regime now cynically seeks the world’s sympathy as terrorism’s victims.
Sadly, the Assad regime’s ploy is working among precisely those who should be the last to fall for it. Last August, exactly two years after demanding a UN tribunal to investigate Assad’s responsibility for bombings that killed and wounded more than 600 in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Maliki expediently changed his tune, criticizing the Syrian opposition against Assad and suggesting that Syrian citizens should seek to satisfy their grievances by “using the democratic process.” Today, having for years warned that Bashar al-Assad was stoking sectarian conflict in Iraq, Iraq’s government spokesmen warn that Assad’s fall could lead to…sectarian conflict. They are not alone in their short memory, of course: it is another irony that a Syrian regime that until 2011 behaved toward Iraq as a Sunni sectarian power now receives the protection of the rest of the region’s major Shia parties, with Iran’s Revolution Guards, Lebanese Hezballah, and the Iraqi Shia militias rushing to save it.
It remains an open question whether the rest of the world will have longer memories than the Shia powers have chosen to have. The discovery in recent days that Al Qaeda in Iraq is likely behind the spate of bombings in Aleppo and Damascus will no doubt generate some second thoughts about whether the world’s powers should continue to press for Assad’s removal. If he is Al Qaeda’s enemy, some will say, then should the world not refrain from toppling him, for fear of creating a vacuum Al Qaeda can exploit?
But this line of thinking should be discarded straightaway. The best counterterrorism strategy for Syria now would be Bashar al-Assad’s immediate departure, which alone can begin to dampen the sectarian fires he and his regime have stoked both outside and inside Syria. We should not compound the error the Maliki government is making by trying to insulate the Assad regime from the blowback it has created and continues to create. Having nurtured Al Qaeda in Iraq in the first place, Assad has forfeited the right to seek our rescue from it.
Joel Rayburn is a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and a senior military fellow at the National Defense University
This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Syria is provided by Charles Hill, Itamar Rabinovich, Habib Malik, Russell Berman, Nibras Kazimi, Abbas Milani, Joel Rayburn, Josh Teitelbaum, Reuel Gerecht, Asli Aydintasbas, Camille Pecastaing, and Fouad Ajami.