It is not the first time that a fight against a terrorist group is apparently being compromised by geopolitical calculations. Pakistan famously undercut US-led ISAF forces as they waged war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, while the West acquiesced with the distinction between ‘good Taliban’ and ‘bad Taliban’ while exploring a political settlement with the insurgents. A glimpse of such contrary pulls is evident in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), a terrorist group that is playing havoc in Iraq and Syria.
The international community led by the US has been countering ISIS by supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces through airstrikes and military training. The fight against ISIS took a surprising turn last week owing to the absence of US air support to Iraqi forces as they launched an assault to regain Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, some 130 km north of Baghdad. Washington and Baghdad differ on approaches to fighting ISIS; the US would like the Iraqi military to have a more inclusive character featuring minority Sunnis and it is conceivably not supporting the Tikrit operation on the grounds that excesses against Sunnis may occur, which it does not want to associate itself with. Washington is particularly concerned that Iraqi forces largely comprise Iranian-backed Shiite militias. Al-Quds elite force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards is playing a leading role in the operation, fanning anxiety in regional powers about Tehran’s increasing influence. Israel sees nuclear negotiations with Iran as threatening its security, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey are wary about Iraq coming fully under Iranian sway, which would make it the dominant power in the region, given that its allies include the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. King Salman of Saudi Arabia has held summit meetings with Egypt, Syria, Jordan and five Gulf states over the last two weeks in an effort to explore a Sunni alliance against Shia Iran.
Washington is caught between its implicit reliance on Tehran to counter ISIS in the short run while being alert to the impact of Tehran’s growing power in the region. The regional chessboard is at a tantalising stage.