Obama's geopolitics test tube: Iran is the only deal in town

MARTIN JAY @MartinRJay
Published 13.11.2014 23:15
Obama's geopolitics test tube: Iran is the only deal in town

Washington is pivoted on yet another deal breaker foreign policy initiative that might change the course of how the history books are written in the Middle East. As Western journalists bravely report on the battlefield of Kobani from a hill with a long lense, phoning their fixers in the town for hourly updates - which they then tweet as "news" - or for that matter grapple with the most pressing item in the region today - President Erdoğan's palace - some might ponder other important stories.

Iran is emerging from this rubric's cube as more than just a key player, but a winner. And it's all Obama's fault. As I write this, his own officials are getting a fast buck lesson in negotiation style tactics from the region, as they buckle under Rouhani's demands. America is backing down on its tougher demands about reducing centrifuges. If there was ever a time it needed a powerful buddy in the region, it was now.

It simply cannot rely on the Saudis as they and other Gulf States can be blamed for the creation of the "Islamic State" in the first place. Sure, they are providing air support to the bombing campaign but even third rate pundits know that the real fight is on the ground and there are only two possible countries that could provide foreign troops: Turkey and Iran.

For the moment, Turkey is not in the game but can be pulled in at any moment. For Ankara there are so many complicated long term policies to straddle and try and demystify - the future of the Kurds just being one - that Erdoğan is measuring every move.

While you were busy being distracted by sexed up stories about ISIS smuggling oil into Southern Turkey, you might have missed a firefly of news briefly flash and then die. Iran has upped the stakes on the ISIS battlefield in Iraq and may well do the same soon in Syria.

While Erdoğan pauses for reflection like an aging chess player, the Iranians have no time to lose.

Iran's ace general who is seldom out of the news, Ghasem Soleimani, is once again believed to be the architect of recent Iraq army battles against ISIS extremists - masterminding Shiite militias and Hezbollah fighters there on the front line.

Shiite militias have played a key role in driving the Islamic State group out of the so-called Baghdad Belt of Sunni villages ringing the capital. But the sectarian militias have long been implicated in brutality against the country's Sunnis, and while they have benefited from the U.S.-led airstrikes, their advance could undermine efforts to knit the troubled country together.

Militia commanders told the Associated Press that dozens of advisers from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Lebanese Hezbollah were on the front lines in Jurf al-Sakher, providing weapons training to some 7,000 troops and militia fighters, and coordinating with military commanders ahead of the operation.

Iraqi military officials declined to discuss Soleimani's presence in Jurf al-Sakher, or in previous victories where he is known to have played a commanding role, including in the besieged town of Amirli in August and in the Shiite holy city of Samarra in June.

But it's clear where Iran and Hezbollah are heading as they both have an ideological investment in keeping President Assad in power in Syria and defeating the rise of Sunni extremists - ISIS, Nusra Front or others.

And in case you missed the news which should have made your draw drop, the Americans are now helping Hezbollah with intelligence to help them fight ISIS in Syria. Yes, those same groups - Hezbollah and Assad's army - who the Americans have sponsored a war against until last week are now Washington's buddies. And if they're friends now, even in an awkward marriage of convenience, then you can bet your bottom dollar that Shiite militias in Iraq, under the Iranian General, are also receiving the nod from Obama's camp.

It's already being debated as to whether the Iranian killing machine should be sent to Kobani. It's a tricky equation though as the town was lost by Assad forces and the Syrian leader probably wouldn't want it returned to the same Kurdish groups, unless they pledge an allegiance to him. Defending the Kurds in Turkey is far more complicated that backing them in Iraq against ISIS brigades.

And how does President Erdoğan balance on the one hand defeating ISIS in Kobani while helping bolster the Kurds' power base - and for that matter playing into the hands of Assad?

Geopolitics just got incredibly complicated, no more so than for Turkey.

The Kobani idea has been floated recently in the Iranian media.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham warned on Oct. 7 of a humanitarian catastrophe in Kobani. She said, "Iran will soon send humanitarian aid for the residents and refugees in this area through the Syrian government."

One op-ed by conservative Iranian news website Khabar Online has asked Soleimani to help defend Kobani. As commander of the Quds Force, Soleimani has been heavily involved in advising the Iraqi forces and militias since ISIS took over large parts of western Iraq this summer. Pictures of him alongside Iraqi and Iraqi Kurdish forces in various Iraqi cities have become common as Iran has not hidden its presence there.

Naturally, the role of the Iranian general and Hezbollah commanders is being played down.

Iraqi officials have said that a handful of advisers from Hezbollah are offering front-line guidance to Iraqi Shiite militias fighting the Sunni extremists north of Baghdad. But it is not known if any Hezbollah men are actually fighting.

The U.S. and Iran have found themselves on the same side in the war against the Islamic State group, which rampaged across much of northern and western Iraq in June, seizing the country's second-largest city, Mosul. But while U.S. military advisers have been coordinating coalition airstrikes from within heavily fortified bases, Soleimani and his commanders are on the front lines and would assume a key role in the retaking of major cities.

But there might be blowback from Sunni groups in Iraq. That could prove a major impediment to addressing the grievances of Iraq's Sunni minority. The militias were implicated in the mass killing of Sunnis at the height of the country's sectarian carnage in 2006 and 2007 and have more recently been accused of brutalizing Sunni captives.

Amnesty International said last month that Shiite militias abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians with the tacit support of the government in retaliation for ISIS attacks.

One Amnesty official, writing for An Nahar also warned of an expected swathe of revenge attacks also by Kurd fighters against Sunni groups.

Yet it's the Shiite militias which Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has pledged to reign in, establishing a national guard to mobilize Sunnis against the extremists.

But it could take months to assemble such a force, and in the meantime Soleimani's militias are the best placed to aid Iraq's beleaguered military in regaining the initiative against ISIS. Soleimani's Quds Force, the special operations arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, has been involved for years in training and financing Iraq's Shiite militias. It has also long worked with Hezbollah in Lebanon and has been aiding Assad's forces.

In June, Revolutionary Guard advisers under Soleimani provided guidance for Shiite militiamen in shelling Sunni insurgent positions around Samarra, a Sunni-majority city north of Baghdad that is home to a revered Shiite shrine, local commanders said. Soleimani was also seen as playing a key role in relieving the Islamic State siege of the Shiite Turkmen town of Amirli. And a top Revolutionary Guard general said in September that Soleimani had even helped Kurdish fighters defend their regional capital, Irbil.

Militia commanders, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media, describe Soleimani as "fearless" - one pointing out that the Iranian general never wears a flak jacket, even on the front lines.

"Soleimani has taught us that death is the beginning of life, not the end of life," one militia commander said.

It's complicated for the Americans too. For decades they had relatively simple relations with Israel and oil producing Gulf States. But all that has been tossed in the air with Obama's multilateral approach to the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel both feel terribly let down by Washington and this is creating ripple effects in the region, felt in Jordan and, more prominently, Lebanon - the latter considered the Belgium of the Middle East, or, in other words, the pub car park where the superpowers come for a punch up but leave with their dignity in tact.

It's hard not to see a war building up between Israel and Lebanon - or at least Hezbollah as the threatening rhetoric builds and builds in each other's media. One can't help wondering if this is not a direct consequence of broken relations Washington now nurses with Netanyahu's fragile coalition whilst, for the first time, bringing Hezbollah in from the cold. The Americans need Iran and Hezbollah. This is how far Obama's weekly trip to the foreign policy experimentation laboratory has taken us. As he shakes up the test tubes and ponders the various colors emerging, new tribal allegiances emerge and old wounds are opened; as he lights up the Bunsen burner and turns the heat up, already Iran's militias are cleaning up Sunni groups on the ground- perhaps not worrying too much who is ISIS and who is not.

The problem is that the U.S. never learns from history. In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah both desperately wanted a war with each other, almost entirely for political reasons. And now exactly the same scenario is being played out. Hezbollah is anxious to reach out to other Muslims beyond its traditional Shiite perimeter and it has never had a great opportunity to do that now that hardcore Sunni extremists are holding around 30 soldiers and police hostage with at least already one decapitated. As one diplomat told me in Beirut, "The problem with ISIS is that it succeeds in making Hezbollah look like moderates."

And Netanyahu is struggling to justify his own leadership to a delicately woven coalition which is still asking itself what it gained by bombing the hell out of the Gaza strip costing taxpayers $3 billion. War and land grabbing seems to be the common denominator for Israeli leaders to buy a few more months in office. Netanyahu is merely following that tradition.

It's not that Netanyahu feels he is indestructible, more that he's run out of options. And all leaders, even South American dictators, invariably meander towards nationalism when it comes to staying in office at all costs. It is the hard liners in Israel that make up a small but important component of the coalition which will push him toward war with Hezbollah. And it will be the Americans getting into bed with the Iranians who will do their job as "pest control" in Iraq and perhaps Syria, which will make Hezbollah feel as though they cannot lose such a scrap on all levels, politically, militarily and in terms of longer geopolitics. Perhaps even Washington will back Hezbollah to teach the Israelis an invaluable lesson: don't bite the hand that feeds you.

For Turkey, this throws yet another spanner in the works as its own regional policy toward its neighbors is often like a series of Russian dolls. News this week of the International Criminal Court case being dropped against Israel for storming the flotilla will actually come as a bonus to the government who actually want to get relations with Israel back on an even keel - although many academics argue that the whole falling out was wildly exaggerated in the first place. But the decision by the ICC was deeply worrying as - yet again - Israel dodges war crimes charges, a decision for which we all might pay dearly as Netanyahu will feel that Israel's barbarism can never be questioned. As for the ICC's decision, they were just following tradition.

* The Middle East correspondent for Deutche Welle TV and often reports for the British weekly The Mail on Sunday, lives in Beirut @MartinRJay

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