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ISIS rallies odd bedfellows on Iraq crisis

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pushes across Iraq, how is the world reacting?

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

Published: Updated:

From the prism of the realist school of thought in political science, whenever a conflict erupts in a country, governments react in two distinct ways. Some countries will view the conflict and instability from the perspectives of political opportunism. As a result, they will intervene directly or indirectly through financial, military, advisory, intelligence, or political support to shift the balance of power and lead the conflict to their own geopolitical, strategic and geo-economic interests.

Yet, some countries will solely attempt to prevent the spillover of the conflict into their own states.

As the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) pushes across Iraq, the intriguing phenomenon has emerged through the rally and extraordinary confluence and convergence of interests on the ground of political opportunism among the 21st-century global instigators and strange bedfellows: Russia, Syria, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the United States.

Currently, the U.S. is finding herself hiding behind the Islamic Republic, Syria and Russia

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

According to the New York Times, Russia is currently sending 12 warplanes to the Iraqi government as well as advisory assistance by its military experts. In addition, the United States is contributing with American F-16s and attack helicopters, as well as 300 American advisors and some U.S. drones.

The Islamic Republic is also intervening with its home-made drones and troops on the ground from the elite Iranian unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force (a section of IRGC), is apparently running the show in Iraq.

Moreover, the Syrian government has joined the Islamic Republic in backing the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to fight Sunni insurgents. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bashar al-Assad’s government has utilized its warplanes to carry out airstrikes in the western part of Iraq.

Confluence and convergence of interests: Moscow, Tehran, Damascus, and U.S. contradictions

Russia, the Islamic Republic, Syria, and the United States’ direct or indirect intervention in Iraq comes for a variety of reasons. For Moscow, four crucial foreign policy objectives have led to their indirect intervention through advisory and military assistance to the Iraqi government.

The first objective is rebuking American influence in the region by delivering arms rapidly.

Several Iraqi politicians have long complained that the timetable which the United States uses to deliver weapons and aircrafts is far too slow. For Moscow, this is a clear opportunity and opening. While Washington appears to be indecisive in taking action, Moscow has projected its power and the assertiveness of its foreign policies toward the Middle East.

The second Russian objective is a tilt toward the Shiite powers in the region.

Although Russia supports both secular Sunni governments and Shiite groups in the Middle East, its foreign policies have favored Shiite powers due to their public resistance towards the United States and other Western powers.

The third reason is the threat of Sunni extremism over Shiite radicalism.

Historically speaking, when it comes to religious extremism, Russia has always been more threatened by Sunni insurgents in contrast to Shiite fundamentalism.

And finally, Russia is motivated by the stability and flow of oil in the market as it is a crucial factor for Moscow

For Iranian leaders, on the other hand, their intervention in Iraq comes from different objectives which include maintaining Tehran’s geopolitical and economic influence over Iraq, ensuring a Shiite-dominated state in Iraq, ideologically speaking, strengthening the Shiite Crescent across the region, shifting the regional balance of power in Tehran’s favor and eliminating the threat and rise of Sunni insurgent groups.

On the other hand, the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad mostly pursues the foreign policy agenda and objectives of the Islamic Republic when it comes to addressing the Iraqi conflict. In addition, the major objective for Damascus is thwarting the rising power of ISIS which can threaten the hold on power of the Syrian regime in the long-term.

What about U.S. objectives in Iraq? The underlying root of the crisis

Unlike Russia, Syria and the Islamic Republic who hold assertive, conclusive and clear foreign policies when it comes to their interests in the region, the Obama administration has never articulated a clear foreign policy agenda towards the crisis in Iraq or Syria.

The best approach to characterize the Obama administration's foreign policy is to label it “wait and see” foreign policy, or not taking responsibility, pointing fingers and hiding behind other regional or global powers.

In addition, the underlying root of the Iraq crisis and rise of ISIS should not be analyzed without considering Syria. The U.S. was not capable of taking an assertive position when it came to the crisis in Syria. American indecision towards Syria and the Obama administration’s hesitation to support the moderate Syrian opposition at the beginning of the Syrian conflict led to the increasing coordination, organization, and power of ISIS. The Obama administration’s support to the Free Syrian Army or other groups was always hesitant and insufficient.

The failure of U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East, and particularly Syria, led to the Iraq crisis. Unfortunately, the U.S. has not yet learned a lesson from its failures. Washington still avoids taking any responsibility or holding an assertive position in the region.

We can also argue that the lack of U.S. decisiveness and clarity in its Middle East foreign policy is contributing to the destabilization of the whole region.

It goes without saying that American objectives are to serve its national, geopolitical and strategic interests by assuring the flow of oil from the region, backing up its strategic allies (mainly Israel), maintaining its military power and influence in the region and preventing destabilization by the rise of extremists groups. However, the policies carried out by the Obama administration have never been clearly articulated.

Currently, the U.S. is finding herself hiding behind the Islamic Republic, Syria and Russia and hoping that these countries will resolve the crisis in Iraq and Syria.

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Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian-American scholar, author and U.S. foreign policy specialist. Rafizadeh is the president of the International American Council. He serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and Harvard International Relations Council. He is a member of the Gulf 2000 Project at Columbia University, School of International and Public Affairs. Previously he served as ambassador to the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC.

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