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Nine Months After First 'It's Complicated,' Shifting Priorities In The Middle East

A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) waves an ISIL flag in the city of Mosul. The group has claimed wide swaths of territory in Iraq's north and west, including its second-largest city.

We first released our "Middle East Relationships: It's Complicated" interactive matrix in September 2013.

It was less than a month after a chemical-weapon attack in Syria blamed on the regime of Bashar al-Assad left 1,400 people dead and led to calls for U.S. air strikes to support moderate antigovernment fighters.

It was also just over two months after General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. The move was met with outrage by some (see Turkey) and relief by others (see Saudi Arabia).

Nine months later, Sisi is president -- winning 97 percent in a widely ridiculed presidential vote -- and Assad seems to have entrenched his position in power for the foreseeable future. The United States resisted air strikes and instead, in a deal first proposed by Moscow, agreed to an international plan to rid Damascus of its chemical-weapons arsenal.

In the interim, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which started as an Al-Qaeda in Iraq offshoot but came into its own as the leading extremist rebel group in Syria, has expanded into Iraq. The group has claimed wide swaths of territory in Iraq's north and west, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city.

ISIL leaders have said they hope to establish an Islamic caliphate on the territory of present-day Iraq and Syria. More likely, in the near future at least, is expanded conflict between Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government -- which has done much to alienate the country's Sunni minority -- and ISIL's backers.

Middle East Relationships II: It's Complicated

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the group "more extreme than even Al-Qaeda," and the possibility of it gaining a stable foothold in the region has caused a swift shifting of priorities.

Not long ago, U.S. President Barack Obama took the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as a signature achievement of his administration. And although he called for Assad to step down, he saw the chemical-weapons deal as a way to avoid further U.S. military action in the region.

Now he has sent 300 military advisers back into Iraq and has said he will consider targeted military strikes against ISIL militants. It's a rather abrupt twist. Assad and Washington now appear to have a new-found common enemy.

Assad, at times, seems an afterthought for Turkey, which appears to be more concerned now with instability approaching its border both from Iraq and Syria. Since the civil war began in Syria in 2011, militants joining the fighting have been able to cross freely the country's border with Turkey. But now Turkey is tightening those controls and in June declared the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front a terrorist organization (other Western states had long ago already done so).

Iran, too, which has spent vast resources working to win influence with a Shi'ite-dominated government in Iraq, is worried.

But are these worries large enough to prompt Iran to work with the United States -- still called the "Great Satan" by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? And would Washington be willing to work with Iran on quelling the insurgency even as it pressures Baghdad -- against Tehran's wishes -- to form a more inclusive government?

The closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, Israel, has warned against any cooperation with Iran -- including settlement on a final nuclear deal.

As has Iran's regional rival, Saudi Arabia, which is already outraged at what it sees as a lack of loyalty from the United States, its longtime ally. Although it has not directly funded ISIL, it has long been suspected that Riyadh's financial and military support to other rebel groups in Syria has made its way to more militant Islamist groups, including Al-Nusra and ISIL.

Nine months ago, Middle East relationships were complicated. Now, arguably, they're even more tangled than before.

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    Glenn Kates

    Glenn Kates is the former managing editor for digital at Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He now reports for RFE/RL as a freelancer.