The ferocious charge across much of Iraq by militants now calling themselves the Islamic State has created something almost unheard of in the highly divisive Middle East: international consensus.
The U.S. and its allies, as well as some American rivals, including Russia and Iran, are all opposed to the Sunni group formerly known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, noted Rachel Bronson, a Mideast expert with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“Here you have this case where ISIS is so violent and it’s now moved across borders, so it’s not a Syria problem or an Iraq war but it’s a regional problem that is driving everybody into it to try and figure out how to contain and expel them,” she said.
Consider the complications: The militants are a common enemy of Washington and the Syrian government. Iran, another U.S. adversary, is also against ISIS. And then there’s Saudi Arabia and Iran — polar opposites ideologically, but both with an interest in stopping the Sunni extremists.
Bronson said the crisis creates a vacuum in the region that everyone is trying to fill.
“I think we can expect everyone to intervene, meddle, whatever term you use, because it’s in everyone’s self-interest to make sure … that they’re in the game to shape whatever the outcome and that their own regional adversaries don’t dominate the political landscape,” she said.
Bronson said instead of presenting a united front to combat the Islamic State militants, countries are acting unilaterally, vying for influence in Iraq. The U.S. is pushing a political solution, but is also sending in hundreds of military advisers and using surveillance drones, and has kept open the option of airstrikes.
Saudi Arabia is donating $500 million toward humanitarian assistance.
Syria has launched airstrikes against the militants.
Iran has sent in advisers and is reportedly using its own drones over Iraq. At a recent conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., Lukman Faily, said Iran has also offered military assistance.
“We have always tried to resist that. However, the situation on the ground may push us to acquire more support from our neighbor,” Faily said. “We are aware there are international norms and there are international rules against purchases or dealing with Iran in the military way, and we have not.”
But Iraq did accept the first five of a dozen Russian fighter jets that Baghdad had ordered. Faily said Iraq would have preferred American-made F16s and Apache attack helicopters but that the the U.S. was too slow in delivering them.
“I think the formula we have declared is simple: We have a need; there is a void,” the ambassador said. “If the U.S. can’t fill that void, whomever is available, including Russia, then they will come to fill that void.”
Paul Salem, with the Middle East Institute in Washington, said this offers President Vladimir Putin the chance to increase Russia’s position.
“Putin, wherever there is a Sunni radical threat, he immediately takes a position against it,” Salem said. “He’s waded into the Middle East big time in Syria. The wading into Iraq is an easy one, and indeed he is extending his footprint in the Middle East.”
Salem says a lack of coordination stems from the Sunni-Shiite fault line that runs through the region. He says unless a political deal is reached, all sides involved in Iraq will likely continue to work against each other.