President Obama has maneuvered himself into a situation in which he must choose between normalizing relations with Iran and “destroying” the Islamic State. He cannot achieve both.
It should be remembered that American President Barack Obama set the goal of destroying the Islamic State eight months ago. Sixty nations have joined the alliance against the Islamic State group, but they have achieved little so far. The black-clad fighters of the Islamic State group have suffered some defeats; in Syria they were repelled at Kobani and they were expelled from Tikrit in Iraq. The Islamic State group has surrendered when the military pressure was too great, but it has engaged in areas where it has encountered little resistance. Today, eight months after Obama’s proclamation, the Islamic State group rules over half of Syria and more than half of the region in Iraq inhabited by Arab Sunnis.
The well-organized, forbidding army of the Islamic State group has not been defeated; rather it is on the advance. In recent weeks, it has conquered two strategically important cities. From Ramadi it has laid siege to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, and with Palmyra it has conquered a bridgehead from which it can advance toward the Syrian capital of Damascus. Attacks on both capitals may not be imminent, but what is more likely is an Islamic State group conquest of Damascus at the least, and there is no power in sight that can stop the advance.
Iran on the Defensive
The regime of Bashar al-Assad is showing signs of fatigue, such that its army, which has been pushed to the defensive, is giving up parts of the country which cannot be held any longer, and in an act of desperation, is resorting to barrel bombs and carpet bombing. For months it has been forgoing attacks outside of areas that are vital to the survival of the regime. The Lebanese Hezbollah is concentrating on defending the Lebanese-Syrian hill country, and Iran is no longer deploying all of its military might. The leadership in Tehran is clearly not prepared to make big sacrifices in the fight against the Islamic State group if Western countries are not even prepared to make small sacrifices. Furthermore, Iran is on the defensive. In Yemen, Saudi and Emirate fighter jets are bombarding Iran’s allies, the Houthis, and in Palmyra in Syria, one of the most important military airports for supplying the Assad regime with weapons was destroyed. Iran’s only priority is protecting its own borders against assault from the Islamic State group.
Important players are dropping out. The end of the Assad regime has not (yet) been heralded, but it no longer has strength. In Iraq, Baghdad’s army, which is prepared to die for its project of a “caliphate,” has no chance against Islamic State group fighters because its soldiers are not Iraqi nationalists. Western countries have no desire for more military deployments in the Middle East after the disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are paralyzed because they want Assad to fall, but they do not want the vacuum that this would cause. It would be filled by the Islamic State group or the Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaida.
On the other hand, more and more Sunni Arabs are openly complaining that with its support for the Kurds in Syria, and Iraq’s against the Islamic State group, the West is openly placing itself against Sunni Arab interests and is ultimately using Assad. In this growing sympathy of Sunni Muslims for the Islamic State group, there is a big danger because they are seeing the militarily successful Islamic State group as the most effective weapon in Iraq and Syria against Shiite Muslims and thus, Iran.
Obama is thus paying a high price for his staunchly defended policy of concluding a nuclear deal with Iran and normalizing relations. This is because for Sunni Muslims from Saudi Arabia to Iraq and Turkey, containing Iranian hegemony has a higher priority than containing the territorial expansion of the Islamic State group. Hence, Washington has maneuvered itself into a situation in which it must choose between normalizing relations with Iran and “destroying” the Islamic State group. Obama cannot achieve both. Sooner or later, Sunni states, which are acting passively toward the Islamic State group today, will have to pay an equally high price because terror will not stop at their borders or at the vulnerably small states of Lebanon and Jordan. “Destroying” the Islamic State group is more distant today than it was eight months ago.
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