As brutal Sunni ISIS fighters claim victory after victory in Iraq and make gains in Syria, Shiite-dominated Iran, a member of former US President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil,” has extended a tentative offer to coordinate with US forces. This unusual offer of cooperation comes as the US to moves a carrier group into the Persian Golf, the Syrian government runs rapid-fire airstrikes to hit the Sunni militants and the ISIS releases a series of gruesome photos depicting what look like mass executions of captured Shiite men and boys.
The ISIS, sometimes called the ISIL, is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, Levant being a flexible term for the Mediterranean Sea-bordering territories of the Middle East. This ambitious jihadist group seeks to create a shariah-law founded Islamic caliphate in the Middle East. Exploiting the power vacuum left by the departing US forces in Iraq, the chaos of the civil war in Syria and the weakness of the Iraqi military, the ISIS has swollen from an Al Qaeda-supported rebel distraction a full-scale religious mini-state holding extensive territory over which it maintains total military and civilian control.
Over the last week, a series of daring and ruthless attacks have given the ISIS control of Mosul and Fallujah and brought their forces to the doorstep of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. Meanwhile they expanded their control of parts of Syria, moving tanks and heavy weapons acquired from the crumbling Iraq military to battle in that divided state.
The ISIS is a Sunni Muslim group and the worst of their abuses have been targeted at captured Shiite combatants and civilians. Shiite-dominated Iran cannot help but be threatened by the rapid rise of such a power at their doorstep. As brittle as US-Iranian relations are, both powers see an enemy in the ISIS and may, in the face of that enemy, see each other as a friend.
Throughout the Shiite world clerics, leaders and recruiters have been putting out a call for new soldiers to join the fight to protect the Shiite victims of the ISIS expansion and to fight to end its rise. The Syrian military is coordinating with the Iraqi military to fly intensive airstrikes into ISIS territory. The US has moved the George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier closer to Iraq in order to be ready for Obama’s response.
Although the US is unlikely to send troops in on the ground, insisting that the US cannot solve this problem for Iraq, air strikes and missile bombardments seem inevitable. Yesterday, Iran offered to coordinate with the US, “if asked.” The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, said that Iran had no option except to confront this terrorism, adding that while no offer from the US has yet come, if one does Iran would be willing to help “within international law.”
While the US and Iran have never gone to war with one another, saber-rattling, threats and sanctions have characterized most interactions between the two states for the last few decades. If the two were to cooperate for military action against the ISIS in Iraq it might represent a huge step forward in relations between the two countries.
By Evan Prieskop