Here’s how quickly things can change in the volatile Middle East: Less than one year ago, President Barack Obama considered airstrikes against military targets held by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after a chemical weapons attack killed as many as 1,400 people in the capital.
Now, the Obama administration is reportedly considering entering a de facto alliance with the Assad regime amid another pressing crisis in the region.
The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reported last week that some in the Obama administration are pushing to move it away from its stated goal of regime change in Syria. The administration would do this in favour of working with the Assad regime in the Middle East to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and other Sunni extremists, who have caused the crisis in Iraq to bubble over in recent weeks.
“Anyone calling for regime change in Syria is frankly blind to the past decade; and the collapse of eastern Syria, and growth of Jihadistan, leading to 30 to 50 suicide attacks a month in Iraq,” one senior Obama administration official who works on Iraq policy told Rogin.
In fact, in Iraq, the United States could soon find itself working on the same side as four normally unfriendly foes: the Assad regime; Iran, Assad’s primary backer and the world’s most active state sponsor of terrorism; Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy group; and Russia, with whom the U.S. is sparring over its continued stirring of unrest in Ukraine.
Basically, nine months after a Russian-brokered chemical weapons deal in September re-legitimized Assad as an international partner, the Iraq crisis is building an Iran-Assad-Russia-U.S. alignment that no one would have thought possible.
“In Iraq, that’s certainly true,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer told Business Insider. “But it doesn’t change the Obama administration’s position on Syria. There’s great scepticism of working broadly with Iran, and nobody wants to distract from the nuclear deal on that front.”
The current situation is especially complicated as U.S. and other world powers are negotiating a deal aimed at controlling Iran’s nuclear program by a July 20 deadline; the Syrian civil war, now more than three and half years old, is still getting worse; and Moscow continues to facilitate Russian fighters and weapons entering East Ukraine.
The complexity is personified by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a sectarian-minded Shiite who the U.S. blames for much of the deterioration in the country. Nevertheless, Washington is currently helping Maliki, who is backed by Iran, by sending at least 500 U.S. armed forces and through other methods like intelligence gathering.
In short, everything in the region is blending together. And the new, awkward alignments may be a reflection of the Obama administration’s pursuit of relative non-involvement in Middle East affairs.
“The more important driver of policy is the general opposition to taking a leadership role on these crises — the risk aversion,” Bremmer noted.
‘Obama supports Iran’
Other experts believe that the U.S. has not only stepped back from the region, but has also actively sided with Iran in the process.
Mike Doran, a senior fellow of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, describes the mayhem engulfing the Middle East as “a struggle over the regional order” among three sides: “Shiite Iran and its proxies; ISIS and likeminded Sunni extremists; and the traditional allies of the United States: Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel.”
The key question is where the White House stands in regards to the conflict. And the answer is startling to America’s old friends.
“Obama supports Iran,” Doran wrote. “One can argue about whether this pro-Iran tilt is accidental or intentional, but one cannot deny its existence.”
Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, has been calling Washington’s alignment with Iran and Hezbollah “an open secret” since January. Fast forward to June, and the Obama administration finds itself trying to sell a policy that seemingly disregards the concerns of Sunni regional powers.
The result is that Washington appears to be acting on the Shite side of an increasingly sectarian war that will continue for the foreseeable future.
“This outcome bodes ill for the United States,” Doran concluded. “But it will be especially dangerous for those countries that the U.S. used to call allies: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, to name just three. Israel is in particular peril. American policy is partitioning Syria between Iran and the global jihadis — the two worst enemies of the Jewish state, now digging in right across its northern border. There can be no happy ending to this story.”
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