By John D. Stempel
As President Barack Obama moves toward action to curtail and hopefully destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, it is very difficult for Americans to know which folks in the Middle East are on which side.
ISIS seems to have no friends, but little organized opposition among the Sunni peoples in Iraq, who have been under the heavy hand of a Shiite regime in Baghdad. Yet the Shiites in Iraq, with substantial help from Iran, are attempting to build up a force to repel the Sunni invaders.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces are also helping the Syrian government to fight ISIS, aided by Iranian-trained Lebanese Hezbollah fighters. The extent of Iranian involvement is underscored by the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite force commander, Gen. Qassim Suleimani, at a recent military action near the Syrian town of Ameril, which broke the ISIS siege of that city.
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The U.S. has held back from this struggle both because it opposes the brutality of Syrian dictator Basher-al Assad, and because it has had no current role in Iraq, basically having departed about four years ago when the Shiite Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki refused to agree to more than token Americans remaining in the country.
As ISIS successes mounted, U.S. advisors in Iraq have helped the local forces counter these attacks, but there are too few (about 1,100) and they have not worked directly with Iranians.
Communications between all parties is conducted by messenger from one group to another. The U.S. and Iran work together without formal arrangements — the Iraqi army does the coordinating,
This strange alliance has developed because of the ISIS penchant for slaughtering Shiite members of the Iraqi armed forces since it considers them apostates — i.e. not Sunnis.
Saudi Arabia, which has no love for Syrian President Assad, would rather help his forces than have the barbarian ISIS take over the whole region.
Obama has for some time wanted Assad to depart, but is even more opposed to ISIS. Russia has no interest in helping the US, but has sent a dozen SU-25 ground attack jet fighters, along with military trainers to Iraq, to keep their hand in the game.
Because of America's dislike of Syria and Iran, Obama has wisely limited U.S. action to air combat. Putting a large number of U.S. ground forces in Iraq would be neither desired by Americans nor welcomed by Iraqis except in extreme circumstances — and this would put the US squarely in the middle of serious sectarian conflict.
Iran does not share this reluctance — and firmly, but discreetly, helps its sectarian friends.
The savageness of ISIS has, for now, brought strange bedfellows together on the same side. Ultimately if Iran and the US work together — a "good" experience — this might convince even the harder-core Iranians that the nuclear treaty with the U. S. now under negotiation could and should be pursued.
Tumultuous events have a way of bringing a new slant to old issues, and in this case that could be a most welcome outcome for everybody connected with the Middle East. When everyone's a little nervous, all are more careful.