How weird, weird, weird is the Iraq-Syria civil war? Well, consider this: not only is the United States increasingly involved in military support to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-sectarian government, but it finds itself in direct military alliance not only with Iran but with Syria, too.
Unlike the United States, which supports the Baghdad government against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Iraq but supports ISIS’ allies in the rebellion against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Iran strongly backs both Maliki and Assad. Now Syria, which is battling not only ISIS but other Islamist fanatics in Syria who have US and Saudi support, is intervening militarily in Iraq in support of Maliki! According to the Associated Press:
A US official says there are indications Syria launched airstrikes into western Iraq yesterday to slow the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency fighting both the Syrian and Iraqi governments.… The US official said the strikes appear to be the work of the Assad government but offered no other details.
Meanwhile, The New York Times today carries an extensive account of Iran’s military support for the government of Iraq, including massive arms shipments, surveillance drones and military advisers:
Iran is directing surveillance drones over Iraq from an airfield in Baghdad and is secretly supplying Iraq with tons of military equipment, supplies and other assistance, American officials said. Tehran has also deployed an intelligence unit there to intercept communications, the officials said.
Rather hilariously, the Times quotes that noted geopolitical strategist, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) saying, “The Iranians are playing in a big way in Iraq.” Well, duh, senator: Iran has been active in Iraqi politics, military affairs, economics and intelligence since long before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the United States topped Iran’s chief enemy and handed Iraq over to the control of Shiite groups closely affiliated with Iran since the 1980s.
Running the show in Iraq for Iran is General Qassem Soleimani, who leads the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, its foreign intelligence arm. Soleimani is the coordinator of Iranian support for both Syria and Iraq against ISIS as well as against other Sunni-led forces supported by Saudi Arabia. And, according to the Times, Soleimani is less willing than some of Iran’s political leaders to cooperate with the United States. Indeed, those who believe that the United States can work with Iran in Iraq while opposing Iran in Syria ought to have their heads examined. The Iraq-Syria crisis is now a single war, and one can’t end without the other. That means that Washington has to sit down with Tehran to discuss Iraq and Syria simultaneously. And since the United States isn’t part of the neighborhood, Iran’s interests in the region—in having a nonthreatening, Iran-leaning government in Iraq and an ally in Syria that can work with the pro-Iranian Hezbollah in Lebanon—are paramount. Long distance, there’s not a lot that the United States can do about any of this, other than to seek a diplomatic accord among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey that takes into account all three countries’ strategic needs.
Inside Iraq, a new political coalition could conceivably emerge to replace Maliki with a broader, more unifying government that could appeal to Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But it’s hard to see that happening until the various parties test the limits of what they can win on the ground. The ISIS forces are every day getting more support from Sunni tribal military councils and the Baath party, especially in the battle for control of Iraq’s main oil refinery/power plant complex, while Maliki is falling back on Iranian support and on uncontrollable Shiite militias, including forces led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Meanwhile, the greedy Kurds—taking advantage of Baghdad’s weakness—have seized control of Kirkuk and no doubt plan further expansionism on the way to their imagined, but impossible, “independent Kurdistan.” (It’s sad to see The Nation publishing outright Kurdish propaganda, too.)
As long as Iraqi factions believe that they can win by fighting, the war will go on. In the end, perhaps some accord can be reached by which Iraq holds together, but that will depend on serious outreach by Baghdad to Sunnis (including the Baath party) and Kurds.