The monster—the Sunni militias which, equipped by the Saudis with the active backing of the U.S, have been waging civil war in Syria for over three years—has risen against its benefactors. Unable to make headway against Syrian dictator Basher Assad, they have turned to the much softer target that once constituted Iraq but is now, thanks to George Bush Jr, no more than an awful mess. Doing so, they shed any “secular” and “liberal” character they may once had possessed. Instead they revealed their true colors as murderous bandits who wage war with a ferocity rare even among Arabs.
Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and home to one of the world’s most important oil fields, has already fallen to them. As resistance seems to be crumbling, the capital, Baghdad, may well be next in line. Should that happen then the way to Basra and the Gulf countries in the south will be open. The outcome could well be another Afghanistan threatening to export terrorism, and perhaps more than just terrorism, both to the Gulf States in the south and to Jordan in the west—not to mention what may happen to the world’s economy should one of its main oil-exporting countries be knocked out..
And the West? Following more than a decade of warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq, its armed forces are exhausted and urgently in need of recuperation. Many of them have also been made the subject of endless cuts. As a result, their strength has been reduced to a fraction of what it used to be even as recently as the early 2000s. For some of them, the American ones in particular, new threats are looming in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia. Perhaps most important of all, the politicians responsible for the wars in question have been largely discredited. Their successors, with President Barak Obama at their head, may engage in loose talk about the need to use force, as German President Joachim Gauk recently did. However, as President Obama has said, they will not spend any considerable resources to intervene in the ongoing struggle.
Nor, in truth, is there any reason to believe that, if Obama did respond to Iraqi Government pleas and did spend such resources, the outcome would be at all satisfactory. True, an American aircraft carrier, the appropriately named GWHH Bush, is now cruising in the Gulf along with its various escorts. However, the number of attack aircraft it can launch is limited while the distances they will have to cover (first in one direction, then back) to hit the Jihadists in their present location is measured in several hundred miles. That fact would impose strict limits on the number of sorties that can be flown—probably not much more than one per aircraft per day on the average. Since the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) fighters hardly do a regular army form, any eventual strikes will also be faced with a lack of targets.
The U.S armed forces might also resort to their favorite weapon, i.e. drones. Experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere has clearly shown that drones, which are relatively small, cheap and expendable, are better suited to combatting irregulars who do not have an air force of their own than manned aircraft are. But deploying any number of them in the theater and arranging suitable bases from which they can be operated, maintained and supplied will take time. Time that may not be available.
Under these circumstances, and barring some miracle, the only real hope of containing the ISIS rests with Iran. Compared with other interested countries, Iran enjoys the enormous advantage that it is right next door to the theater of war. Consequently, to intervene, it would not have to fly forces there from halfway across the world. It is also a Shi’ite country. Hopefully that gives it some interest in making sure the ISIS Sunnis do not gain the upper hand over their own coreligionists, who form the majority in Iraq; let alone unite Iraq with Syria so as to create, in time, a single powerful Arab state.
Clearly, though, Iran will not act as the West’s policeman in Iraq without extracting a price. Presumably that price will include a. the relaxation, if not complete abolition, of economic sanctions; and b. turning a blind eye to the continuation of Iran’s nuclear project. Is the price worth paying and the risk—whose existence cannot be denied—worth taking? In the opinion of this author, the answer is yes. Perhaps an agreement can be reached that will allow Iran to pursue the project but neither test a bomb nor open declare it. For this the kind of agreement, U.S diplomacy over the last few decades provides several precedents.
Taking a wider view, how capricious, how full of surprises and hairpin corners, does life turn out to be! During the days of the Shah (reigned 1953-78) the U.S considered Iran its strong arm in the Middle East, buying its oil and providing it with some of the most advanced weapons of the time. Following the Islamic Revolution Iran became part of the “axis of evil” whereas the Iranians on their part insisted that the US was “the big Satan” (the title, “little Satan” was reserved for Israel). Throughout the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88 the U.S did whatever it could to support Iran’s enemies, even condoning Saddam Husein’s use of chemical warfare.
Now the tables have been turned again. Iran is good. whereas the Iraqi Sunnis—who President George Bush Jr. and his team hoped might follow up on the defeat of Saddam Hussein by building a modern, enlightened, even democratic Arab country in the Middle East—have become blacker than black.
As the saying goes, there is no end to illusions. And politics do strange bedfellows make.