MANAMA, Bahrain – Iraq’s top diplomat warned Saturday that the “toxic” proliferation of extremist groups among Syria’s rebels raises the prospect of a jihadist-ruled territory at the heart of the region.
The comments by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari reflect Iraq’s fears that the Syrian conflict is imperiling its fragile domestic security, as well as growing international alarm about the risk posed by waves of foreign fighters bolstering the ranks of armed groups fighting to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Zebari told attendees at a security conference in small Gulf island kingdom of Bahrain that the increase in radical fighters among the Syrian rebels is leading toward the creation of an ungovernable “Islamic emirate” that the world will have to deal with down the road.
“The most important danger coming out of the Syria conflict for Iraq ... and for the region is the mushrooming of terrorist groups and fronts in Syria,” Zebari said.
“These are armies of recruits,” he continued. “They’re not all Syrians. There are European nationals. Some of them have come as far as from Australia, from Canada, and from many other countries. This is really toxic.”
The 11 western European countries with the biggest contingents in Syria are estimated to have some 1,200-1,700 people among rebel forces, according to government and analyst figures compiled by The Associated Press. Many others are thought to come from Arab and other Muslim countries.
The Iraqi arm of al-Qaida has muscled into the Syrian conflict too, pushing into rebel-held parts of the north of the country. It earlier this year renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant in an effort to highlight its cross-border ambitions.
It has recruited significant numbers of foreign fighters and has repeatedly clashed with more moderate groups within the Syrian opposition.
The cross-border movement of fighters is believed to have contributed to a months-long spike in bloodshed in Iraq, blamed largely on al-Qaida’s local franchise, with more than 8,000 people killed in car bombings and other violent attacks since the start of the year.
Zebari warned that extremist groups could eventually consolidate areas under their control inside Syria.
“The day will come, God forbid, when they will have another Islamic emirate” outside the effective control of the government. “Then we have to deal with that threat later on. These are facts. We are not creating stories.”
Iraq is officially neutral in the Syrian civil war, and it has repeatedly called for a negotiated political settlement to the conflict. Its Shiite-led government has warm ties with Shiite powerhouse Iran, the main regional back of Assad.
Zebari sought to make clear that this should not be interpreted as Iraqi support for the Syrian leader.
“The Iraqi government is no fan of Bashar Assad. I will not shed any tears if the Syrian people” remove him from power, he said.
In addition to the extremist Sunni Muslims that have crossed into Syria to help the rebels, Iraqi Shiite militants have taken up arms on the side of Assad’s forces. Baghdad insists it has no official role in deploying fighters across the border.
Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck