'Frenemies' in war

America and Iran appear poised to co-operate in order to stymie the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from taking over war torn Iraq and establishing a Sunni Caliphate which stretches across the border into Syria. It is a complicated mess. 

Is the enemy of my enemy my friend in 21st century war? 

Well possibly ‘frenemy’ would be more accurate, and yes, it does look as if the United States and Iran can talk Iraq alongside what is acceptable in terms of an Iranian nuclear programme.

Washington has said all options are on the table in what has now become a pressing urgency to prevent the break up of Iraq by the militant Islamist group ISIS - the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL - the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. 

ISIS began marauding its way through Iraq with seemingly little opposition from the Iraqi military or police force.

To be fair ISIS - a brutal band of Sunni Muslim extremists, has made its greatest territorial gains in the Sunni dominated north-west of Iraq. It has pledged to storm Baghdad, and thousands of Iraqi civilians have heeded the call from Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani to voluntarily reinforce the army in order to stop that.

As with most issues involving religion, politics and war, things are not always as they seem.

The US and Iran upgrading to frenemy status is not out of love for Iraq. Far from it.

The Shia dominant Iran has been very happy to have a Shia government in charge next door in Iraq.

Post Saddam Hussein’s ousted Sunni administration, Iran and Iraq have had the best relations ever, probably because Iraq’s President Nuri al-Maliki is inept, corrupt and certainly one of the reasons there is now a sectarian mess in Iraq.

However it is not solely Maliki’s refusal to try a little Mandela approach and reach out to his former Sunni oppressors and coalesce with them in the interests of national unity.

The United States also has both obligation and reason to be involved in stopping Iraq from splitting along sectarian lines. 

It led the invasion which broke Iraq. It should be there to clean up this mess which, no matter how adamant Tony Blair is to the contrary, was not around pre-2003.

Sure Iraq was ruled by a brutal dictator and there were Sunni and Shiite allegiences but the cost in lives, dollars and infrastructure of toppling Hussein also includes the rise of sectarianism and an inability to control the country’s borders.

That’s what happens when you go to war on false pretenses with absolutely no idea of what will follow, let alone bothering to understand the culture you are about to invade.  

Blair injected himself back into the Iraq debate to defend himself, George W. Bush and a ‘coalition of the willing‘ for invading Iraq, essentially saying this mess would have happened anyway.

Blair says “we have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t...the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region and not outside it”.

The best response to Blair’s latest attempt to rewrite history came from London mayor Boris Johnson who told Blair to “put a sock in it...and a paper bag”.

Even Blair’s former Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer says Blair can’t absolve himself and, in Iraq, ‘we are reaping what we sowed’.

President Obama, who won two elections on the promise of getting out of Iraq and staying out, clearly knows there is an obligation to help.

He’s adamant there will be no American boots on the ground, but he has moved an aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf. An indication that airstrikes could be launched against ISIS from there. 

Don’t forget Obama is also the Drone King, and Secretary of State John Kerry has confirmed drones aimed at ISIS are a possibility.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch the bizarre world of US politics is able to target Obama as being responsible for Iraq’s current crisis because he failed to arm insurgents in Syria, and hence has allowed the emergence of ISIS.

Republican Senator John McCain and his ilk see invasion and war as the only ways to control the world in a manner which suits their obsession with American supremacy. Oh and of course it protects their oil which just happens to be under Middle Eastern sands.

This is why they are squirming at the possibility that Iran and the US may collaborate in preventing the disintegration of Iraq into separate Sunni, Shia and Kurdish regions.

The concept of diplomacy - where you negotiate with your enemies - is indeed a foreign concept in Republican land.

As is any consideration of the role of the various proxy wars and hegemonic desires of the countries in the immediate vicinity.

Take the Saudis (America’s friends) who are Sunni and vying with Iran (Shiite and not a US ally) for dominance in the Middle East. Each plays out its desires by financing opposite sides in the Syrian war - the Saudis support the Sunni militants and the Iranians support the Shiite Hizbollah.

The Saudis don’t want a Shiite administration in Iraq that is friendly to Iran. Iran wants a Shiite administration in Iraq, but preferably a weakish one which it can control or manipulate.

The Saudis want Syria’s Bashar al-Assad gone. The Iranians want him to stay, given his Alawite sect is a branch of Shia Islam...and on and on it goes.

Reports from Iran indicate it is ready to get its hands dirty if ISIS so much as looks like fulfilling its threat to destroy Shiite holy sites in Najaf and Karbala.

As the situation stands now ISIS is winning a propaganda war with respect to instilling fear within the Iraqi population. Bragging of executions and other brutalities, backed up by film and photos tends to do that. 

This development in Iraq has moved quickly. 

Everyone seems to have been caught flat footed on the surge by ISIS - even the US with its biggest embassy in the world, tucked away for safety in Iraq's green zone.

Surprise gave ISIS the opportunity to complete a spectacular looting of banks and military equipment and take control of a few cities before anyone seemed to know what was happening.

ISIS is inferior in number but clearly proficient in guerrilla warfare.

Iraq, with assistance from Iran and the US should be able to deliver the conventional war strategy that will stop ISIS from entering Baghdad.

The interim winner will be Iran, but ISIS will not dissolve quickly, if at all.

Any long term solution rests with the entire region.

If Iran and the US can find the ‘frenemy’ within, then so too must the rest of the Middle East and the Gulf states.

If they do not, then the resulting upheaval in the region may make the Crusades seem like a picnic.