Imagine a sectarian conflagration, fueled by Al Qaeda, raging across the Fertile Crescent.
In the days of the Ottoman Empire, British diplomats referred to the Arabic-speaking territories of the empire as “Turkish Arabia.” It was these Arabic-speaking lands that Britain and France, in the aftermath of the First World War, divided into the modern Arab states we know today: Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Those arbitrary colonial boundaries have endured for the better part of a century, but the people within them have never fully acknowledged the legitimacy of the lines that British and French officials drew for them.
Tribal confederations that span the borders, adjacent river towns, minority co-religionist communities—in these places, people have continued to live as they had done for centuries, intermarrying, trading, fighting, and migrating with light regard for the political borders of the states in which, by an accident of history, they happened to be residing. It is for this reason that political and social developments in one part of the former “Turkish Arabia” can spread so quickly to another, as they have done at key points in modern Arab history such as the revolutionary year of 1958.
Photo credit: Austen Hufford
Today, Turkish Arabia is at another such point in its history, as political forces unleashed in one region are spreading to others. The revolt that began in Syria in early 2011—itself inspired by events elsewhere in the Arab world—is on the verge of becoming a sectarian war spanning the entirety of Turkish Arabia. The most powerful of the Syrian revolutionary forces, the Nusrah Front, has been formed around a core of what we have previously known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent and terrorist organization once led by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In its battle against the Iraqi government and the U.S. military from 2004 to 2011, Al Qaeda in Iraq relied on a deep support network of fixers, safe houses, financiers, and radical religious figures in Syria, who helped to push thousands of jihadists in Iraq to kill and maim tens of thousands of Iraqis.*
Al Qaeda Takes Root in Syria
More: The Coming War in the Middle East