Middle East dispute not hurting ISIS fight — yet

Middle East dispute not hurting ISIS fight — yet
© Getty Images

A fiery sectarian dispute that has engulfed the Middle East in recent days has yet to hamper the international fight against Islamic extremists, according to a top U.S. envoy.

But it could soon.

“So far we have not seen any impact on the overall ISIL campaign,” Brett McGurk told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday, using another acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

“But obviously, it’s something that we’re concerned about, and that’s why the secretary has spent so much time on it.”

McGurk acknowledged that the lingering tensions between Iran and much of the Persian Gulf world threaten to undercut regional cooperation against ISIS, which has established a self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq. 

“As someone who works this every day, [I am] very concerned whenever you see this kind of potential for polarization,” he added, “because it enables extremists on both sides to take advantage of the situation, which is extremely dangerous and plays into the hands of someone like ISIL.”

McGurk was named as the new "czar" in charge of fighting the extremist group in October.

The regional tensions were sparked by Saudi Arabia’s execution of prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr over the weekend, which prompted Iranians to storm the Saudi embassy and a separate diplomatic facility in Iran. In response, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Sudan have cut off diplomatic ties with Tehran, and the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have both recalled their ambassadors.

The feud has roots in decades of animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have long battled for regional supremacy.

The weekend execution also highlighted the complicated relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The two are nominally close allies yet have often seen their interests diverge, particularly as President Obama has tried to reach a hand out to Iran in recent years.

The Obama administration has frantically urged both sides to stand down, wary that the deepening rift will upset the delicate balance necessary to confront ISIS and prolong the turmoil in Syria. 

On Sunday, Iraqi leaders blamed ISIS for attacks on two Sunni mosques, killing two people, which were seen as acts of retaliation for execution in Saudi Arabia.