Iraq and Syria: From bad to worse
The West’s Syria policy could be best summarized in Sarah Palin’s words: “Let God sort it out.” That the U.S. forwarded the issue to God has not only helped Bashar al-Assad, but also the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to enhance their sphere of influence. As a result, the West has found itself in a nightmare scenario it couldn’t have even imagined: Becoming engaged with Syria, which it has tried to ignore since the beginning of the war, and with Iraq, which it had just withdrawn from. What is even worse is it has found itself on the same front with Iran and al-Assad.
I wrote last week: “The West, Turkey, [Nouri] al-Maliki, the Kurds, Iran and al-Assad will have to cooperate against ISIL. Al-Assad is aware of the fact that ISIL can target him at any time and his closest regional allies Iran and al-Maliki will certainly ask him for help. This is why he will have to side with them against ISIL soon.”
Three developments this week have concretized these prospects. First, al-Assad bombed the ISIL’s locations in western Iraq and eastern Syria. Then, Iraqi press reported that al-Maliki asked al-Assad to help to patrol their borders. Al-Assad might also have taken into account the voices in Washington saying: “If we are going to bomb ISIL in Syria, then why not also bomb al-Assad?”
Another development has occurred in Iran. Tehran sent surveillance drones to Baghdad and provided the Iraqi army with military equipment and advice. Iran is expected to play the command role for the Iraqi army and the Shiite militia.
As a twist of fate, the U.S. and Iran have found themselves on the very same front, even though Washington denies any direct cooperation with Iran. This is because the U.S. is at the same time trying to control Iran’s rising influence. It is also cautious about the fact that Iran’s intervention could further trigger the Sunni rebellion.
The third development this week is from Syria. Al-Nusra, which had been fighting against ISIL for 2 years, declared that it merged with ISIL. This not only means the rise of ISIL, but also that al-Assad will remain in power. Radicals gaining ground in his country will portray him as the only element of security and stability in Syria.
And things are going from bad to worse in Iraq. After having seized Iraq’s biggest oil refinery, ISIL has now taken control of Iraq’s largest airfield. In addition, the leaders of Shiite tribes in Iraq have announced their surrender to ISIL. And in spite of all of these developments, al-Maliki still does not offer any exit. To the contrary, he doesn’t show either the intent, or the gifts to found a new inclusive government.
On top of all these, the pressure on President Barack Obama to bomb ISIL is rising. The U.S. has already sent 300 military advisers to Iraq, which might be to investigate the field. However, the Obama administration seems to have specified two red lines for an airstrike. One of them is that ISIL gets out of the Sunni region and targets the Shiite region. This would immediately ignite a civil war and pull Hezbollah into the equation. The second red line is that al-Maliki refuses to step down. That he rejects the U.S. calls to form a “salvation government” doesn’t give much hope.
Turkey has to revisit its policies regarding these radical changes in the region. Its only advantage is that the West doesn’t let God sort it out anymore.