US attacks on the Sunni Islamic State in Iraq and its cooperation and arming of the ruling Shi’ite government there is the latest signal that the West is moving toward an arrangement with the Shi’ite Iranian axis, which includes Hezbollah, Iraq and Syria.
Such an alignment has been feared by the Sunni world and Israel for some time.
For example, the Obama administration has allowed Iran to drag out negotiations over the country’s nuclear program and reportedly indirectly shared intelligence with Hezbollah to counter Sunni jihadists in Lebanon.
Seeing the wind blowing its way in the region, Iran has jumped at the chance to use the crisis with the Islamic State in order to gain Western concessions on nuclear talks.
“If we agree to do something in Iraq, the other side in the negotiations will need to do something in return,” Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif said in remarks late on Wednesday carried by state news agency IRNA.
“All the sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear activities should be lifted in return for its help in Iraq,” he said.
Eyal Zisser, a Middle East expert from the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that “the West is helpless and does not know what to do against the Islamic State.”
“I am afraid that at the end of the day, the West will come to the conclusion that it has no choice but to collaborate with Iran and Syria on this issue,” he said.
Currently, Zisser noted, the West, led by the US, is seeking to establish an Iraqi government and aid the Kurds so that they both can deal with the threat posed by the Islamic State.
“When this does not help, then the West, no doubt, will go to the Iranians, hoping that they will stop the Islamic State,” he said.
“In the long-term this might help [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s legitimacy in the eyes of the West,” he asserted, adding that even though the terrorist group is pressing him of late, “the overall tactical situation has not changed.”
Assad likely feels more confident now than he has over the past few years of civil war.
Not only did US President Barack Obama call off an attack on the country at the last minute, but now the West is concentrating on countering radical Sunni groups that are also his enemy.
This, along with United Nations sanctions targeting the Sunni terrorists in Syria and Iraq, has strengthened Assad’s belief that the United States and Europe are coming around to his way of viewing the conflict, according to sources familiar with Syrian government thinking.
The Damascus government, already heartened by visits from European intelligence agencies reported by Syrian officials earlier this year, sees the war on Islamic State as opening up new possibilities for engagement.
“The regime recognizes that the Western opening will be in secret, and via security channels and not diplomacy.
The political-diplomatic opening needs longer,” said Salem Zahran, a Lebanese journalist with close ties to the Syrian government. “But the regime believes that the whole world will come to coordinate with it under the slogan ‘fighting terrorism.’” Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum who closely follows Islamist opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, told the Post that US and Western countries’ actions are less an alliance with the Shi’ite axis than the realization of the fact that there is no alternative.
“I think that the Western powers still have strong reservations about the Syrian regime’s brutal tactics, like barrel bombings of urban areas, but also there is recognition that the regime does not have sufficient manpower to roll back the Islamic State,” he said.
Asked about the Gulf states walking a fine line by condemning and arresting some financiers of Islamist groups while at the same time opposing the Iran axis, Tamimi responded that he estimates that Gulf money does not play a major role for financing the Islamic State, “perhaps around 5 to 10 percent.”
Of course, “Gulf states, and particularly Kuwait, could do much more to stop private financing of jihadists, as well as work to counteract the ideology that gives rise to these groups in the first place,” he said.
Tamimi did mention that Turkey “has turned a blind eye to large inflows of foreign fighters who were joining the Islamic State because it sought to bog down Kurdish fighters.”
Regarding Assad, Tamimi does not view his position as more stable as a result of US attacks against Islamic State, since it still faces opposition in various places.
“A much more extensive confrontation between Islamic State and the regime is inevitable in Aleppo province – and it won’t be pretty for the regime,” predicted Tamimi.
Reuters contributed to this report.