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Kerry tasked with unifying Mideast allies against Islamic State

August 29, 2014 at 6:13 PM EDT

HARI SREENIVASAN: As the Obama administration considers further action with partners in the Middle East to contain an Islamic extremist group, tonight, we take a look at the shifting landscape of the region and the challenges it poses for the United States.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Any successful strategy needs strong regional partners.

JEFFREY BROWN: President Obama called for alliances yesterday in confronting the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m encouraged so far that countries in the region, countries that don’t always agree on many things, increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat.  I have asked Secretary Kerry to travel to the region to continue to build the coalition that’s needed to meet this threat.

JEFFREY BROWN: But when Kerry touches down in the Middle East, he will be stepping into a profoundly muddled situation that’s rife with risk.

Old regimes have fallen, starting with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and spreading across North Africa with the Arab spring.  In their wake, both Sunni and Shiite groups, from moderate rebels to the extreme Islamic State, now vie for power and look to like-minded states for help.

Illustrating the tangled web of new ties, the liberal blog ThinkProgress has charted the flow of money, weapons and aid between various factions and supporting nations.  In Syria, for example, regional powers Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have backed the Free Syrian Army against Bashar al-Assad’s government.

On the other side, Assad’s fighters have been helped by Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia allied with Iran.  Elsewhere, Egypt in recent days partnered with the United Arab Emirates for airstrikes on Islamist militias in Libya.  That country’s conflict has revealed a Sunni split, as Turkey and Qatar back the Islamists.

And Iranian officials were in Baghdad Sunday for talks aimed at stabilizing Iraq against the Islamic State’s gains, a rare intersection of interests with the United States.