Iraq Crisis Pushing Obama Toward Alliance With Syria and Iran

Does Washington have the will and wherewithal to forsake the 'moderate opposition' in favor of new dialogue with the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian regimes?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Shi'ite volunteers run while securing the area from the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), south of Baghdad, June 28, 2014.
Shi'ite volunteers run while securing the area from the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), south of Baghdad, June 28, 2014. Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

U.S. President Barack Obama made clear his lack of policy on Syria recently in an interview with CBS News in the United States.

"The notion that [the Syrian opposition was] in a position to overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy,” he said,

It seems Obama was right: sending “a few arms” to the “moderate opposition” wouldn’t have helped, but that wasn’t what the opposition requested.

Meanwhile, a war is raging in the region; not the one the U.S. administration feared, but possibly one that is no less dangerous. Iraq, not Syria, is now seen as the strategic threat, due to the speed with which the combined forces of Sunni tribes and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria have overrun Sunni regions in western Iraq.

The Syrian opposition demanded high-quality weapons, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. Two and a half years ago, it requested military intervention, or at the very least the establishment of no-fly zones to protect refugees and the areas it had conquered. It only asked that Obama follow through on his threat to attack the regime in Damascus if it were determined that President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons.

These demands rolled off the glass walls of UN headquarters in New York, which was firmly in the hands of Russia and China. They bumped up against the walls of the White House, where a heated argument developed between the State Department, which was for military intervention, and the Pentagon, which was against it; between those who feared a regional war that might include Iran as an active participant, and those who were more upset by the horrific genocide that has already claimed more than 160,000 lives and turned more than three million people into displaced persons and refugees.

A few weeks ago Washington was trying to determine which of around two dozen militias in Syria constituted “the moderate opposition” with which it could business, but the vetting process is now meaningless; the options are steadily shrinking.

In the case of Syria, the choice is between wholesale support for Assad and shrugging one’s shoulders. In Iraq, it’s between applying futile pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a unity government that will give the Sunnis a proper share in the regime, and issuing hollow pronouncements against ISIS. The Syrian Air Force strike in Iraq on Wednesday, which killed 57 civilians, was a clear indication of Assad’s intentions. He wants to prove to the West, and especially to the United States, that he is the only leader who can take action against the extremists. Unlike the West, he is not bound by political restrictions, since Iran and Iraq hope to crush ISIS, and unlike Assad, they do not want to get into, or cause, an ethnic war. Iran sent several small units into Iraq, but will avoid a head-on war against the Sunni population. The Iraqi army, which has already proved its weakness, will in the next stage settle for defending Baghdad and the Shi’ite districts in the south

Maliki said Thursday that while his government did not coordinate with Syria on the air strike against ISIS the previous day, it welcomed it. Assad, then, is providing an acceptable solution, even from Washington’s perspective. It’s a way for the United States to cooperate unofficially with Iran without having to announce a policy shift.

A frightening situation seems to be developing on the ground, in which ISIS appears to be conquering Arab countries and laying the foundations for a borderless state. That’s not entirely accurate.

In Syria, ISIS controls some eastern districts, and last week it completed its takeover of the Iraq-Syria border crossings, with the seizure of the post near the city of al-Bukamal. In Syria, unlike in Iraq, ISIS is cooperating with the regime and even selling Damascus oil from the fields near Deir al-Zour. In Syria, ISIS is fighting with opposition Islamist militias such as the “official” Al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front.

Until late last month, ISIS waged hard battle against the Nusra Front, and all efforts to reconcile the organizations failed. Last week it was reported that a Nusra Front offshoot in al-Bukamal swore allegiance to ISIS there and the groups resolved that ISIS would control the Iraqi side of the border and Nusra would control the Syrian side. But there is no evidence that this cooperation extends along the entire front, since both groups are still fighting in Syrian territory.

This is just one example of the chaos in the Islamist militias, some of which are cooperating with the Free Syrian Army, which has become established on several fronts, but has not been able to break through to new territory. So it is no surprise that the United States failed to identify a single militia it could back in order to remove Assad.

These matters are exhausting the political opposition operating outside Syria, and approaching an explosion among the members. Ahmad al-Jarba, head of the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is slated to step down at the end of the month. The internal succession conflicts have led to mutual finger-pointing between members of the groups making up the coalition.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, a major component, is upset with Jarba for congratulating Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who has declared war on his own country’s Muslim Brotherhood, on winning the Egyptian presidential election. Meanwhile, as Jarba continues to try to persuade Washington to send over serious weapons, his predecessor as coalition head, Moaz al-Khatib, announced that sending arms to the rebels would only increase the bloodshed and not lead to a solution.

Some Washington figures are calling for a diplomatic coalition of the United States, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Russia against ISIS. According to some reports, there is already intelligence cooperation between Tehran and Washington, even though Iran opposes military intervention in Iraq. At the same time, the warfare in Syria is beginning to look less dangerous than the fighting in Iraq, where the heads of several Sunni tribes have said they were willing to fight ISIS in the event a new government were formed there.

Late last week, the fighting was heating up between tribal fighters and ISIS combatants in Iraq’s northern Anbar Province, and according to reports the former killed the ISIS commander in the region.

Their fight against ISIS is the hope on which the United States is building its diplomatic efforts to bring Maliki into line before his government is formed in early July. Maliki has rejected the pressure so far, but it is likely that with pressure from Iran, he will give in.

The question is whether Washington will have the will and the wherewithal to shift its strategy, and will pivot from pinning its hopes on Syria’s “moderate opposition” to initiating a new dialogue with the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian regimes.

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