In a turn of events that is odd even for the muddled Middle East, the United States finds itself in the awkward position of being allied with some of the very people it most opposes, while opposing one of the people it most strongly supported.
Determined to help Iraq stop the advance of jihadist forces from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Obama administration began last week flying armed drones over Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. In addition, U.S. officials say, F-18 fighter jets from the George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier positioned in the Persian Gulf have been flying as many as 30 to 35 surveillance flights a day over the length and width of the country.
They’re not alone. Also this past week, the Syrian air force, worried about ISIL’s reach in its country, has reportedly flown over and fired on ISIL positions on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of their joint border.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, leader of the largest Shia party in the country, said he had no problem with the Syrian bombardment – they were all fighting the same enemy.
U.S. officials, on the other hand, were distinctly uncomfortable being associated with the regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, a dictator it holds in contempt. The awkward situation was relieved somewhat when, on Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama asked Congress for half a billion dollars to provide military assistance to elements of the Syrian rebel forces fighting the Assad regime.
That assistance is being provided only to “moderate” rebel groups vetted by the U.S. government, such as the secular Free Syrian Army, and not to jihadist forces such as ISIL. It would be hard to justify arming in one country the very jihadist organization Washington is preparing to fight in another.
And the United States is preparing for a fight. There now are about 500 U.S. military personnel deployed to Iraq, officials say, including military advisers and trainers in special operations.
Iran is another country Washington views as hostile because of its controversial nuclear program as well as its support for the Assad regime in Syria and the militant Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. Yet Iran, too, is now entering the fray in Iraq on the same side as the United States.
Senior commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard are reportedly training some of the Shia militias being assembled in the south of Iraq to defend the Shia holy sites of Najaf and Karbala from the threat of ISIL.
As well, Iran has reportedly begun to fly its own drones over southern and eastern parts of the country.
To complicate the anti-ISIL forces even further, military trainers from Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia that battled Israel to a draw in 2006, are reported to be on their way to Iraq too, to give advanced classes to the militia of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr. The Sadr forces, which were a painful thorn in the side to U.S. troops when they occupied Iraq in the mid-2000s, will be training their sights this time on ISIL jihadists.
To take matters even further, Mr. al-Sadr, leader of the second-largest political movement in Iraq, now agrees with the United States that Mr. al-Maliki must either open up any government he forms to greater Sunni involvement or be voted out as prime minister. The country’s parliament is convening this week to choose the next prime minister and it is likely that the Shia parties will determine Mr. al-Maliki’s fate in advance of any vote.
The ill treatment of Sunnis by Mr. al-Maliki’s predominantly Shia administration is viewed as the biggest reason many of Iraq’s Sunnis welcomed the arrival of ISIL earlier this month.
Ironically, Mr. al-Maliki first came to office in 2006 because of backing from the United States. His predecessor, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, had been considered too friendly with the Sunnis, and Washington also considered him to be independent from Iran.
With the region twisted into a political pretzel, it’s little wonder that Israel also weighed in with an offer to assist what it called “moderate” Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, that may be threatened by confrontation with ISIL.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at a meeting in Paris that “the extremists currently operating in Iraq will try to challenge the stability in the entire Gulf region, first of all in Kuwait,” a statement from his office said.
“Israel could provide effective and reliable assistance to moderate Arab states who are dealing with extremists,” it added, without going into specific details.