But today, the Iraqi Sunnis that rejected Al Qaeda are turning against the government in great numbers, enraged by their perception that Nuri Maliki and his allies mean to turn Sunnis into a permanent underclass in a Shia-dominated country. The tens of thousands of Sunnis marching in the streets of Iraq’s Sunni cities in recent weeks have shouted the same slogans that Syrians shouted in Deraa and Hama in early 2011 (“The people want the fall of the regime”) and waved the flags of the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, the deadly clashes between Sunni protesters and government troops in Fallujah recently have had the distinct feel of the early days of the Syrian rebellion.
The Sunnis of Iraq and Syria also share an angry perception that Iraq’s Shia parties are intervening in the Syrian conflict. Indeed, reports from Syria tell us that Iraqi Shia militants are arriving in increasing numbers to “defend” the Shia shrine of Zaynab (daughter of the Imam Ali) by fighting alongside the Assad regime against Sunni rebels. In this polarized atmosphere, Al Qaeda in Iraq and its Nusrah branch will have a wide open window of opportunity to step up attacks against the Iraqi government—and the Iraqi Shia community, for that matter—from the bases that Nusrah is establishing inside Syria. When they do, they will likely find a high level of popular support in an Iraqi Sunni community that is moving ever closer to revolt against the Maliki government.
We can envision, then, a sectarian war raging across the whole of the Fertile Crescent, drawing in all the former territories of Turkish Arabia. The prospect will be a frightening one for the region’s major powers. Both Turkey and Saudi Arabia could one day find chaos rather than functioning states on their permeable borders. If Al Qaeda/Nusrah can establish a base in Jordan, Saudi Arabia will find itself threatened by Al Qaeda franchises on both north and south that will be well-positioned to resume the pursuit of Al Qaeda’s core goal of toppling the Saudi monarchy and “liberating” the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.