Common enemies draw Washington and Tehran closer

January 8, 2014

As al-Qaida-linked groups hijack the anti-government insurgencies in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Washington is finding itself making common cause with its old enemy, Iran, and exciting the anger of its traditional ally, Saudi Arabia.

This tectonic shift in Middle Eastern alliances stems from two decisions made by the administration of President Barack Obama in the closing months of last year.

Washington is now finding itself in the previously unthinkable position of leaning more towards the Shiite factions of Islam, led by Iran, and turning away from the purist Sunni factions led by Saudi Arabia.

The first of Obama’s decisions that propelled this shift was his response after United Nations investigators claimed the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran whose followers belong to the Shiite Alawite sect, had used chemical weapons against rebel insurgents and civilians.

Obama had previously said the use of such weapons by the Assad regime was a “red line,” which, once crossed would trigger United States-led military intervention, perhaps the imposition of a no-fly zone for the Damascus air force as happened in Libya.

But in the event, Obama backed down when it became clear that Congress, in part taking its cue from a no-war vote in the British House of Commons, would not support intervention.

Obama’s retreat severely undermined the stature on the ground of the Western-backed political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition and its military wing, the Free Syrian Army.

These groups received a further blow to their legitimacy in September when Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the help of Iran, persuaded Assad to give up his stocks of chemical weapons. This process is now underway

Al-Qaida-affiliated groups, especially Jabhat al-Nursra, which is designated a terrorist organization by Washington, were already operating among the insurgents in Syria.

However, the failure to confront Assad and the growing indications that his regime would not collapse drew support to the radical Islamic groups and away from the more moderate rebels. It boosted al-Nursra and the even more puritanical al-Qaida-linked group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), led by Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi whose intention is to re-establish the ancient Sunni religious Caliphate throughout the Middle East.

ISIS grabbed control of large areas of northern Syria, including Raqqa, the largest city ever controlled by an al-Qaida group. More moderate Syrian rebel groups attacked ISIS last week and on Monday took control of Raqqa, but no one believes this is the end of ISIS, which also controls significant territory in western Syria.

The second decisive move by Obama was also in September when, during the course of the annual General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, he talked by telephone with Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani. The 15-minute chat followed months of behind-the-scenes contacts between U.S. and Iranian officials.

It was the first significant contact between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. It led swiftly in November to what the two governments portrayed as a breakthrough in the major contentious issue between them: Iran’s nuclear development program.

Rouhani’s government agreed to freeze its nuclear program in return for a step-by-step relaxing of American-led economic sanctions. This agreement has many critics, especially in Israel, whose government says Iran is just buying time until it has acquired the capacity to make a nuclear a weapon.

The agreement has also added to Saudi Arabia’s anger at the Obama administration. Saudi Arabia is feeling abandoned and taking the view that Washington is increasingly seeing Iran rather than Riyadh as an essential partner for American interests in the Middle East.

As a result, Riyadh is channelling streams of its enormous oil wealth toward more radical insurgency groups not only in Syria, but also in Iraq and Lebanon. So far as is known, Saudi Arabia has not sent funds or arms directly to al-Qaida affiliates, but everywhere where Riyadh is funding Sunni groups in opposition to Shiites, al-Qaida-inspired fighters are also operating.

As well as in Syria and Iraq, al-Qaida-linked groups are now operating in Lebanon, Yemen, and in Afghanistan as the U.S. prepares to take out its remaining troops.

Al-Qaida-inspired militias are already operating in parts of Egypt. The recent outlawing by the military government in Cairo of the Muslim Brotherhood, the historic theological inspiration for al-Qaida, is likely to broaden that battlefield.

Washington also finds itself making common cause with the Shiite government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq as he finds himself facing a major uprising in the predominantly Sunni western state of Anbar bordering Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the weekend said American troops, who left Iraq in 2011, would not return, but Washington will give assistance to the Maliki government in its fight with al-Qaida’s ISIS wing. Tehran then offered to join with Washington in sending aid to Baghdad.

The situation in Anbar province is largely of Maliki’s making. He has shown no finesse when dealing with either the country’s Sunni or Kurdish minorities.

Until late December Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar had restrained the growth of ultra-militant groups in the province, especially ISIS, which operates both there and across the border in Syria.

However, after ISIS assassinated a senior government official in Anbar on December 21, Maliki overreacted and ordered the arrest of tribal leaders in the city of Fallujah and the dispersal of a long-running protest in Ramadi, the provincial capital.

Tribal leaders abandoned their always-tentative alliance with Maliki and took up arms, but when the smoke cleared ISIS had taken control both of Ramadi and Fallujah.

Maliki, who faces elections this year, is always prone to reach for guns before diplomacy when faced with opposition, even from his Shiite brethren. On Tuesday he ordered his air force to attack the ISIS rebels in Ramadi, and an Iraqi military spokesman said 25 fighters were killed in the raid.

Meanwhile fighting continues around Fallujah where Maliki’s heavy-handed response is encouraging moderate tribal leaders to set aside their own personal rivalries and to join with ISIS in defence of their home territory.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2013