(excerpt) The growing peril that confronts the US is best understood by viewing the all-out civil war in Syria and the deepening crisis next door in Iraq as a single battlefield. That’s how al-Qaeda in Iraq views it: The group has even renamed itself as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to reflect its vision and growing ambitions.
In Syria, the Sunni militants of ISIS, estimated at more than 10,000, have emerged as the dominant force among the many rebel factions fighting the government of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. ISIS has captured broad swaths of territory in northern and eastern Syria, and US intelligence officials say it has already begun plotting to export sectarian violence to the wider region in the hopes of raising a Sunni caliphate out of the eventual ashes. That is a dream of Islamic jihadis stretching back well before Osama bin Laden.
Nowhere is that agenda on a faster track than in Iraq, where in recent weeks ISIS has boldly planted the black flag of al-Qaeda in the strategic Sunni crossroads cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, capitalising on seething Sunni resentment against the majority Shiite government of President Nouri al-Maliki. Al- Qaeda’s wanton murder of mostly Shiite Iraqis helped make 2013 by far the worst year of violence since al-Qaeda in Iraq almost plunged the country into an all-out sectarian civil war in 2006-2007. Then, there were more than 140,000 US troops to douse the flames. No such firebreak exists today.