I’ve set out the evidence at length that President Obama’s apparently haphazard and hesitant policy in the Middle East is in fact driven by one, conscious, overriding intention: rapprochement with Clerical Iran. Yesterday, I pointed out that the Syrian rebellion was being left to fight alone in its struggle with al-Qaeda because the administration never had any intention of seriously supporting a moderate opposition that could be a credible alternative to the Assad regime (Iran) and the Salafi-jihadists; in Obama’s New Middle East, Syria would be an Iranian sphere of influence.
Those points rather sharpened a few hours after yesterday’s post went up.
First, it was revealed that the United States had launched airstrikes against Ahrar a-Sham, the largest Syrian rebel formation and the most sternly Salafist one. It is true that Ahrar has fought closely with Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, and that Ahrar has among its leadership members who are or were connected to al-Qaeda. For all that, before its leadership was decapitated in early September, Ahrar had been trending away from the Qaeda-type forces and into the more mainstream Salafi-nationalist camp.
More to the point, at this stage most of the Syrian rebellion has taken on religious iconography, even if only as a “marketing strategy,” because while copious funds are available from Salafi donors on the Gulf, the nationalists have received no proper support from secular sources in the West, and almost every group has fought alongside Nusra at some point. Thus, almost any group could be said to have a second- or third-hand link with extremists. The fear that the U.S. will broaden its definition of terrorism is likely to forestall further volunteers for the U.S.’s policy in Syria.
U.S. strikes on the Islamic State were accepted by everybody because the group had gotten so out of control it was even attacking al-Qaeda. U.S. strikes on Nusra were not popular, but they are al-Qaeda—or at least their leaders, who are largely foreign, are—so there was a grudging acceptance of the ways of the world. But Ahrar, whatever its faults—and it has been attacking nationalist rebels recently too—is a Syrian-led rebel group that wants to bring down the regime and has no ambitions outside Syria’s borders. This nationalist/trans-nationalist division in the armed units is a bright red line, and the U.S. just crossed it; the ramifications will be stark.
Syria analyst Aron Lund suggested—and CENTCOM’s statement focussing exclusively on the “Khorasan Group” gives some weight to the idea—that Ahrar had either been struck by mistake, or that certain individual Ahrar members had been targeted because they were sheltering international terrorists. Ahrar’s decision to play-down the event, and some kind of U.S. contrition, even if delivered in private, might ameliorate tensions for now and avoid an open collapse of the U.S.’s influence over the Syrian rebellion i.e. stop the nationalist rebels publicly taking their distance from America. But the two trends that reached their apogee in the strikes—the decline of the nationalists within the insurgency and the U.S.’s de facto alliance with Assad/Iran—are still very much present, and will not be able to be denied forever.
Second, the Wall Street Journal revealed that President Obama has four times written to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the last time in October, stressing that America and Iran have “a shared interest in fighting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria“. Obama had received no reply. The President had “stressed … that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive [nuclear] agreement … by a Nov. 24 diplomatic deadline.” Again, it should have been obvious by now that the nuclear negotiations are essentially the opening gambit, a way of drawing Iran into the “concert of powers” that Obama hopes to erect so he can quit the region, leaving a “balance” between America’s allies and Iran.
Speaking of allies,
“[T]he White House didn’t tell its Middle East allies—including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—about Mr. Obama’s October letter to Mr. Khamenei“.
This should not be a surprise. In the run-up to the “interim” nuclear agreement in November 2013, Obama had been conducting secret negotiations with the Iranians. America’s allies knew, of course—they have intelligence services, too—but they were only officially told in September 2013. As one Israeli official put it, “we felt like we were being stabbed in the back.” But this is a trifling price to pay for a Presidential legacy that includes ending the thirty-year cold war with the Iranian theocracy.
The Journal piece was also notable for this line: “U.S. officials have stressed that they are not coordinating with Tehran on the fight against Islamic State.” A Journal piece from last week that is part of the administration’s preparation for its imminent “coming out” about its Iran policy made a similar claim: “Obama administration officials stressed they’re not directly coordinating their regional policies or the war against Islamic State with Iran.” It’s rather touching that even at this late stage the Obama administration feels the need to formally say it is not co-operating with Iran.
The thing it reminds me of most is a scene from Yes Minister. The Minister and his Permanent Secretary, Sir Humphrey, are meeting with the BBC’s policy director to try to get the BBC to drop the transmission of an interview in which the Minister says some things that could be construed as attacking the Prime Minister. The BBC’s staunch position is: “The BBC cannot give in to government pressure.” After several silkily made threats—to let ITV televise Parliament, to withdraw subsidies, to expose corruption at the BBC—the conversation continues:
BBC: The BBC cannot give in to government pressure.
Humphrey: No of course not, we wouldn’t want them to. … But you see the Minister’s interview … did contain some factual errors.
BBC: Factual errors? Ah, now that’s different. As you know the BBC couldn’t give in to government pressure, but we do set great store by factual accuracy.
Humphrey: And some of the information might well be out of date by the time of transmission.
BBC: Out of date? Ah, well now that’s serious. I mean obviously the BBC, as you know, couldn’t possibly give in to government pressure, but we do not want to transmit out-of-date material.
Minister: And since the recording, I realised that I made … slips that might have security implications. …
BBC: I mean obviously the BBC couldn’t give in to government pressure, but security? Well, you can’t be too careful. … If there are inaccuracies and security worries, well the BBC wouldn’t want to put the interview out. That puts a completely different complexion on it. … But I must make one thing absolutely clear: There can be absolutely no question of the BBC ever giving in to government pressure!
In the same way, the Obama administration rhetorically holds up the “We Will Not Cooperate With Iran” line like an amulet, while on the ground the evidence to the contrary mounts up. To take just one example, the U.S. provided air support to Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) in the reconquest of the Iraqi town of Amerli in August. AAH was created and is controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). It might also be noted that the lack of American response to thousands of AAH fighters being flooded into Syria to support the Bashar al-Assad regime is further evidence of the pro-Iran tilt. AAH is a global terrorist organisation, but unlike the handful of al-Qaeda veterans (the “Khorasan Group”), who allegedly have their gaze fixed on American interests outside Syria, AAH has occasioned no American airstrikes.
By the evening the White House had just come right out with it. Dan Pfeiffer, a senior adviser, told CNN: “We work very closely with the Iraqis and the Iraqis have a relationship with the Iranians.” I have worried since June that engaging militarily in Iraq against the Islamic State—while doing nothing inside Syria against Assad—was a disaster in the making because it would involve supporting an Iraqi government that was a virtual cut-out for the IRGC, and Iran’s sectarian, autocratic allies were the problem to begin with.
As I never tire of pointing out, Iran and its proxy regime in Damascus have deliberately made the Islamic terrorism problem in Syria worse to discredit the rebellion and garner international support for the suppression of the insurgency against Assad. And so far from desiring stability, Iran thrives on chaos: it hinders its enemies but more importantly it keeps Iran’s allies like the Iraqi government off-balance and pliable. With a Takfiri Caliphate in their midst, anyone in Baghdad or Damascus with doubts about Iran’s Empire is keeping those doubts very much to themselves. The principle grounds of Obama’s desired détente with Iran, then—opposition to Sunni jihadism and regional order—are illusory.
But that is an argument for another day. For now it would do to admit that Obama actually does desire détente with Iran; then the debate about its merit can begin properly.