American relations with the Middle East in general and with Syria in particular are in the process of taking some peculiar turns, reflecting the delicate policy nature of the region.
The earlier U.S. policy of trying to replace the regime of President Bashar Assad with a more sympathetic one failed, first through the durability of Mr. Assad’s regime and second due to sharp divisions among the rebels against him, which included Islamist extremist elements opposed by the United States. On Thursday, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $500 million to train and arm moderate opposition members.
Yet there came out of the Syrian debacle a U.S. foreign policy success. Through the instrument of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the help of Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin, Syria relinquished all of its chemical weapons, the removal of which was completed this month.
But now comes the crazy part. Following the adage that says the enemy of my enemy is my friend, the United States and Mr. Assad’s Syria are united in opposing the advancement of the forces of the extreme Islamist State of Iraq and Syria against the Shiite regime of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki in Iraq. ISIS is also the enemy of Mr. Assad in Syria, and the Syrian air force has carried out strikes on ISIS forces near the Iraq-Syria border.
In another twist, Iran is now providing intelligence, drones, a dozen advisers and other military support to Mr. Maliki’s regime. Mr. Obama is also sending intelligence and other support, including 300 Special Forces reportedly accompanied by 1,000 private security consultants to protect them, to aid Mr. Maliki in keeping power in the face of ISIS forces drawing near to Baghdad, the capital, where he and 5,000 Americans are still located.
Washington has considered Iran to be an enemy since the ayatollahs’ takeover in 1979, a status reinforced by President George W. Bush who in 2002 deemed it part of the “Axis of Evil.” Even Mr. Obama has been tardy and tentative in the dialogue with Tehran that he promised as a candidate.
So, at the moment, the United States, the Assad government in Syria, Iran and the Maliki regime in Iraq are allies in opposing ISIS. The muddle is harder to understand than the soccer group competitions in Brazil. Americans can only hope that Washington understands what is going on and what U.S. policy should be.