US and Iran united by a common enemy yet divided

US and Iran united by a common enemy yet divided

Iran, the Kurds and the US-led coalition fought against ISIS in the Middle East but protect different interests in the region

Aziz Asmar, one of two Syrian painters who completed a mural on January 3, 2020 following the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qasem Soleimani poses next to his creation in the rebel-held Syrian town of Dana in the northwestern province of Idlib. (AFP Photo)

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011 and the Iraqi civil war in 2014, the political and operational alliances that were formed in the region have been confusing, multi-dimensional and steeped in religious and political history. However, one common enemy for Iran and the US in Syria and Iraq has been ISIS. 

The American-led combined joint task force’s mandate (CJTF) is to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The CJTF’s reason for fighting ISIS is multi-fold but the American operation began under the garb of counter-terrorism. 

Iranian Quds forces in Iraq began operations backing Shia militias and fought against ISIS. Their operations were led by Major-General Qasem Soleimani. Soleimani had been leading the Quds forces for over 15 years when their fight against ISIS began. 

In the Iraqi civil war, Iran, the US, and their several allies claimed victory when Iraqi and Kurdish forces took over ISIS-held territory. Iran and the US might seem like unlikely allies but that’s where their alliance ends. They might have been fighting a common enemy but they protected different objectives. Iran backs several local militias in Iraq and Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria whilst the US-led coalition were interested in protecting their security interests and counter-terrorism, condemning violent acts by Assad and striking several Shia militias in the region that are deemed threats to US security forces. Hence, even though the Iranians and Americans were not allies by choice, their common resentment for ISIS brought them together.

Iran has several state and non-state allies in Iraq and Syria. Some of the state allies include Russia, China and Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic. Some of Iran’s non-state allies include the Lebanese Hezbollah, Palestinian Hamas and the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) in Iraq. Protesters stormed the US embassy on December 31, 2019, at Baghdad in response to an American airstrike against the Kata’ib Hezbollah, a part of the PMF. "At the direction of the President, U.S. forces launched defensive strikes against KH forces in Iraq and Syria. These attacks were aimed at reducing KH's (Kata'ib Hezbollah) ability to launch additional attacks against U.S. personnel and to make it clear to Iran and Iranian-backed militias that the United States will not hesitate to defend our forces in the region," said a statement by US secretary of defence Mark Esper.

The two nations were not fighting to protect common interests or allies but had a common enemy, ISIS. Hence, they were operational allies trying to eliminate the same target.

Another important ally the US had in the fight against ISIS were the Kurds. The Kurdish forces are one of the better trained and organized militias in the region. The Kurds are widely known as the largest ethnic group in the world with no state. They have been fighting for their own country in the North of Iraq, along the Turkish and Syrian borders and in Southern Turkey. These allies who lost a much larger number of lives than the Americans were severely endangered when US President Donald Trump withdrew troops from the region and paved way for the Turks to invade Syria.

The Kurds that the Americans term allies in the region were not fighting to protect a common American and Kurdish interest. The Kurds were fighting for a separate state while the Americans were on the ground to neutralize the ISIS threat. 

Iran's retaliation to the killing of Soleimani could many forms but the most vulnerable to such attacks would be American allies in the gulf including Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia. Retaliatory strikes in the region are also expected to hit American bases in various parts of West Asia.

"The killing of Soleimani could also affect US ties with countries like Iraq which has already been jittery regarding it's presence. Most Iraqis would not want to risk being in a country where Iran and US are battling via proxies. As such, it is likely that the country will be under immense pressure to push US troops out further diminishing US presence in the Middle East." says Mohammed Sinan Siyech, a Research Analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.

He further added, "Such a move also threatens to undo all the advances against ISIS in the nation. Many observers have already pointed out at IS resurgence in many older strongholds including in Iraq. Having Shia militias and US forces battle out each other is likely good for ISIS since both groups were engaged in depriving ISIS of territory and resources so far."

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