Flexible Policy – America and the Middle-East

On the 23rd September, the United States, together with its ‘partner nations’ of Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, began an aerial assault on Islamic State (IS) targets located within Syria. This appears to be the first step in a serious attempt to destroy what John Kerry calls one of the ‘most dangerous groups‘ he has ever seen.

The fact that the United States has managed to get the gulf states involved in this fight is a major step, but there are two nations who should also be a part of that list. The first is Turkey, and the second is Iran. Turkey has seemingly not wanted to directly confront Islamic State fighters, despite them being at Turkey’s borders. This is partly due to Turkey’s dislike of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and also the Mosul Hostage Crisis which involved 49 of its citizens. Now that the crisis has come to an end, Turkey will most likely alter its policy towards the Islamic State. Still, this has not stopped some from suspecting Turkey of colluding with IS in order to destroy the Kurdish militias located in Northern Syria.

Iran on the other hand, as the major Shia power, wants to be involved in the battle against Sunni extremism and IS. However, it isn’t yet officially involved in this campaign in Syria. The reasons for this are simple; Iran is allied with the current Syrian regime and the United States and its allies view them both as adversaries. Relations between the US and Iran have been strained for decades, particularly whilst Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was President.

What is currently taking place across Iraq and Syria is essentially a sectarian war between various strands of Islam, primarily Sunni and Shia. For centuries, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have been the site of battles between these two sects. Current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite, a religious group closely related to Shia Islam. The primarily Sunni Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, wish to see the current government in Syria fall and ideally replaced by a government led by Sunnis. This Sunni/Shia divide can also be seen in Iraq, where control of the nation is essentially now split between its Shia, Sunni and Kurdish regions. Here is a map which demonstrates this divide in religion throughout the region. Whilst the uprising in Syria may have begun as one against an unpopular regime, it has now descended into a sectarian conflict, much like its neighbour Iraq. 

The United States’ alliance with these Sunni powers against the major Shia powers in the Middle-East is a mistake. The US must try its hardest to not alienate one side or the other in this conflict. There are reasons behind these alliances of course, primarily ones relating to energy and military strategy, but Iran cannot simply be excluded for the foreseeable future. The two nations must collaborate at some point if the situations in Iraq and Syria ever want to be resolved.

One problem that stands in the way of this relationship is domestic opinion, in both countries. The United States government has long depicted Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil‘, and the more hawkish elements of its political system have advocated military action against Iran. Recently, John Kerry had to choose his words very carefully when he was questioned by Republicans over Iran’s hypothetical involvement in the Syrian conflict during a hearing of the Senate foreign relations committee. It is clear that in America, any public talk of collaborating with Iran is potentially very damaging politically.

The same is true in Iran. Recently, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he rejected overtures from the United States to join its anti-IS coalition. This was followed by a White House spokesperson denying that the United States had asked anything of Iran. It is clear that something must be going on between the two nations, but publicly both are more interested in saving face than being honest about any discussions which may have taken place.

In the long term, the United States will hopefully re-evaluate its relationships and alliances in the Middle East. If the USA wishes to remain in its position as the worlds largest and strongest advocate of democracy and freedom, then surely alliances with theocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will eventually become untenable. For now, making sure those countries take some responsibility for the situation that is taking place on their doorstep is a good start. In the longer term, America should pressure Saudi Arabia and Qatar to especially when it comes to citizens of those nations sponsoring terror in the Middle East and beyond. Flexibility will be key in the future of the Middle-East. Black and white distinctions between friend and foe will not help when it comes to maintaing the peace between such powers as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Overall, the United States must try and maintain an open dialogue with all the likes of Iran, despite what those at home and abroad may say. To confront and defeat an enemy like the Islamic State, cooperation from all of the major players in the Middle-East is essential.