What a difference a few weeks can make in West Asia! Established foreign policy positions, touted as fundamental principles, have been overturned, nascent relationships are being reviewed and restructured, and new alliances put in place, all in an attempt to cope with this new menace in the neighbourhood — the Islamic State (IS).
The drama unfolded in early August when the much-vaunted >Kurdish peshmerga abandoned Sinjar and other towns without a fight and retreated to defend their capital. With Arbil under threat and thousands of Yazidis displaced and facing genocide, the >United States returned to the Iraqi battleground and in a month conducted over a hundred air attacks on IS forces.
And then began the beheadings: IS placed on social media the killings of western hostages, commencing on August 19 with freelance journalist >James Foley , followed by >Steven Sotloff , another journalist, on September 2, and then British aid worker >David Haines on September 13. These grisly images swung U.S. opinion in favour of an expanded military role against IS, compelling the U.S. President Barack Obama to abandon his own principled stand against a U.S.-led war in West Asia. On September 10, >Mr. Obama announced his decision “to degrade and ultimately destroy” the terrorist group . The U.S. then embarked on a diplomatic initiative to once again build a coalition for war against a chimerical enemy in Iraq and Syria.
Jeddah and beyond The nations allied against the IS scourge met in Jeddah on September 11. The assembly consisted of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and the U.S. The participants (excluding Turkey) agreed to apportion responsibility thus: (i) the U.S. would undertake air raids against IS which would go on from a few months to up to three years; and, (ii) the GCC countries would fund the conflict, while providing their airbases and air space. The ground fighting would be done in two parts: in Iraq, the Iraqi Army will be rehabilitated, armed and trained by U.S. “advisers” and would fight IS forces in alliance with the Kurdish peshmerga and “moderate” Sunnis. In Syria, an armed opposition of “moderate” elements >would be trained in Saudi Arabia , Jordan and other Arab capitals.
Turkey said it would not participate in the air operations. It has two principal interests in Syria: regime change in Damascus and curbing the influence of Syrian Kurds who are affiliated with the PKK in Turkey. Both these interests are served by a strong IS and other Salafi militia with which it has had close ties during the Syrian insurgency. For similar reasons, the GCC countries would be reluctant to have a high profile ground combat role. Their concerns are of course more immediate in that attacks on IS would exacerbate their own exposure to home-grown jihadi elements.
There is widespread scepticism both about the rehabilitation of the Iraqi Army. Given that the Americans had spent over $25 billion in modernising the Iraqi Army, which had then collapsed before the IS attacks, it is hardly likely that an effective professional force can be built up in a few months time to combat IS.
Concerns relating to Syria are greater. Which are the “moderate” Syrian elements the GCC will be training? It cannot be the Free Syrian Army (FSA) which has hardly any territory under its control, has a reputation for corruption and ineptitude, and whose members frequently join jihadi militia. There are widespread concerns that the GCC countries may back the Salafi militia, funded by them for several years and consolidated into the formidable “Islamic Front” towards the end of 2013. Some western observers have suggested that the only effective non- jihadi group that can face the IS forces successfully is the Syrian Army; but, this would go against the GCC’s priority concern — regime change.
The military defeat of IS will be a daunting task. The distinguished commentator, Abdel Bari Atwan, has pooh-poohed the updated Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates of 31,500 jihadi fighters in IS, saying that they are over 1,00,000, and growing. These include 2,200 Europeans, and another 3,000 Turks. Air power against this powerful force will not be enough; but, with no U.S. boots on the ground and no other regional power willing to risk terrestrial encounters, this is not a feasible option for now.
Strategic realignments The U.S. military role in West Asia has overturned a number of strategic positions and alignments that were being shaped just a few months earlier, when IS had just emerged on the global scene. First, there had been strident voices demanding that the West review its policy of toppling the Syrian regime and instead make it a partner against IS. This has been firmly rejected by Saudi Arabia, which now has the U.S. as its partner in this endeavour.
Second, there are now serious doubts about Saudi-Iran ties moving in a positive direction. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Amir Abdollahian, had visited Riyadh on August 25, when he had discussed Gaza, Syria and IS with his interlocutors. Observers had then seen “a new awakening” in West Asia. Now, with Saudi Arabia giving priority to regime change in Syria, this thaw seems to be in some difficulty. In fact, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif have all questioned the efficacy of a coalition against regional terrorism that excludes Iran and Syria. However, there are reports of discussions between the U.S. and Iran to shape an Iranian role, with the latter said to be seeking concessions on the nuclear issue in return, so far a no-go area for the U.S.
Third, the Jeddah conference marks the renewal of ties between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. They had been estranged since early 2011 when Saudi Arabia blamed the U.S. for not preventing the fall of Mr. Hosni Mubarak, and later for the U.S.’s failure to bomb Syria to effect a regime change. Saudi fears were exacerbated by the bonhomie in U.S.-Iran ties in the context of the P5+1 talks on the nuclear issue. Now, Saudi Arabia has seized the opportunity to pull the U.S. away from the Iranian embrace and, as the U.S. prepares for one more battle in West Asia, assert the primacy of its own interests and regional perceptions.
Four, Egypt, though critically dependent on the GCC’s political and financial support, is reluctant to join the coalition, fearing that its principals have geopolitical interests on their agenda rather than a comprehensive war on terror. This has encouraged a nascent rapprochement between Iran and Egypt.
However, there can be no stability in West Asia without a Saudi-Iranian engagement, since Iran has to work with the Shia regimes in Syria and Iraq to shape accommodative and inclusive governments, while the Kingdom has to wean “moderate” Sunnis away from the IS coalition and make them part of the reformed polity. These daunting challenges are likely to be further complicated by the considerable support for IS among Gulf Arabs who see it as an effective force against Shia extremism and increasing Iranian influence across West Asia.
Root causes The political and military mobilisations against IS at the Jeddah conference have evoked scepticism and even scorn from regional commentators. The Saudi writer, Tareq al-Maeena, has referred to it as “the coalition of the unwilling”; Abdel Bari Atwan has called it “the coalition of the terrified,” while a Turkish paper has referred to it as “the coalition of the unwilling and the apathetic.” Most see the war on IS as a pretext “to reconsolidate U.S. hegemony” and note that regardless of the success or failure of the enterprise, there will only be “Arabs fighting and killing other Arabs and Muslims.”
There are also more immediate fears: U.S. attacks will exacerbate anti-West sentiment across the region, particularly among the youth, who could move towards IS and other jihadi groups in droves when the bombings decimate their families on the ground, as had occurred earlier in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Amid the prospects of more war and carnage, the region’s thinkers search for the “root causes” of their malaise and find them in the absence of social justice, a vigorous public political space and effective domestic security capabilities. As Rami Khouri has noted, misgovernance and corruption spawn extremism but do not provide the states with the resources to combat it when it grows and expands. Regardless of the enemies these emerging coalitions and external interventions confront, the roots of the Arab malaise lie at home.
(Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.)