The Gulf’s fight against ISIS and its confrontations with Iran

Gulf leaders realize that ISIS is a power-hungry monster that has a nurturing environment ready for revenge

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The Gulf discussions about the challenges posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the alliances that will be forged to destroy it indicates that a striking disparity exists between the positions of official leaderships and the sentiment of the grassroots. There is a sense of schizophrenia surrounding what the Gulf parties want from the United States, as they quarrel over what Washington wants from them.

What is remarkable -- and certainly healthy -- is the sudden candor in expressing radical differences, for example between the fact that Gulf Arab governments have characterized the ISIS threat as an "existential" one, and the fact that a large segment of the public sympathizes with ISIS and its motives, and sees it as something necessary in the balance of power and the balance of terror. A segment in the Gulf says ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. Another segment sees it as the pure Islam that spoke about Christians in the language of "convert or be killed or exiled." Therefore, this segment of society in the Gulf does not perceive ISIS and its practices from the standpoint of terrorism -- and this is more common in Saudi society in comparison to other Gulf societies. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz made it clear that the priority should be to fight terrorism, whether it is practiced by ISIS or by similar organizations. On the other hand, there is a significant segment of Saudi society -- including within institutions -- that deny the charge of terrorism and sees ISIS as a necessary instrument to confront Iran and its regional ambitions, especially in the war in Syria, and as a way to avenge the Sunnis in Iraq who have been marginalized by the Shiites.

This race between these two principles and two paths is directly impacting President Barack Obama's assessment and objectives behind his declared war on ISIS.

Gulf leaders realize that ISIS is a power-hungry monster that has a nurturing environment ready for revenge

Raghida Dergham

Perhaps everyone in the Gulf region, the Middle East, and in the Western and Eastern capitals are biting their nails, fearing the ISIS threat in one form or another. ISIS's threats are wide ranging, while the governments of many countries pursue selective policies. Many decision makers are being stubborn or are gambling, amid radical political divisions. However, it will not be possible to wage a serious war against ISIS with military operations alone, because only the political tack is able to mobilize the necessary popular support against ISIS. This requires radically new policies from all countries concerned, from Washington to Moscow, to Beijing and Tehran, as well as the Gulf capitals, Iraq, and Syria.

Obduracy and one-upmanship continue to dominate not only the policies of Iran and Russia, which hold the keys to political solutions in Syria and also the responsibility for its total collapse. They also persist in Iraq, where some are using ISIS as leverage and asking for a price to abandon it.

Many Sunnis in Iraq and the Gulf consider ISIS a bullet in their rifles aimed at Shiite extremism, in their bid to restore their lost standing. They are not yet willing to denounce ISIS or join the battle against it, because they see it as the bullet that could help restore their lost rights. As long as these factions are not given guarantees toward restoring their status and putting an end to their exclusion, they will continue to petulantly pursue this course, risky as it may be.

Some among these factions know that the U.S.-led war on ISIS will definitely need them as soldiers on the ground, but they are unwilling to take part if the objectives of this war are vague, ambivalent, or lacking in a serious strategy. This segment of Sunnis purport that they had been betrayed before by the U.S. more than once, most recently after the Iraqi tribes in the Sahawat rose up against al-Qaeda, before they found themselves victims of marginalization, provocation, and humiliation at the hands of the Iranian-baked and U.S.-blessed government of Nouri al-Maliki. Treachery and betrayal have left a bitter taste with this segment, which is apprehensive about the usual U.S. policy and legacy of abandoning partners after they serve their purpose.

This week, an exceptional conference was held in Riyadh, and was characterized by forthrightness where challenges were discussed transparently. The conference was organized by the Institute of Diplomatic Studies of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was chaired by Dr Abdulkarim bin Hamoud al-Dakhil and the chairman of the Gulf Research Center Dr. Abdulaziz bin Saqr. A group of leading political and academic figures spoke at the conference, which included private, candid sessions that highlighted the disparity in Gulf attitudes regarding the alliance being created against ISIS and the U.S. role in it.

One Saudi participant said during a private session that this was yet another U.S. battle in favor of the Shiites, calling on the U.S. president not to use Sunnis as fodder in the war. Addressing Obama, he said, "Take your alliance and leave, and don't claim that the war against ISIS is for our sake...Leave."

"The Sunnis cannot offer their blood for free," declared secretary general of the Iraqi National Future Society and MP Dr. Zafer bin Nazim al-Ani, "only to entrench a new sectarian government." He also spoke about "sectarian humiliation," "uprooting Sunnis," and said that the "Iranian Revolutionary Guards are no less worse than ISIS."

At the same time, he spoke about "tangible hope" through the government of Haider al-Abadi, after the removal of Nouri al-Maliki, and said, "Defeating terrorism is important to us, but for the sake of whom?" He also stressed the need for Sunni Arabs to have a sense of citizenship, saying that Sunni Arabs must be shown that change has already started, if they are to participate in the international war on terror, which can only be won by winning over locals on the ground. He said, "The real fighters who would defeat terrorism are the Sunni Arabs."

Ani carried a message from Abadi to the conference in Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia in particular, calling on Saudi to turn the page on the past. Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Abdul Latif Rashid Al Zayani said that "a formula must be found to manage relations with Iran" -- meaning Iraq specifically. He said that the responsibility is "collective"; that it is important to have a comprehensive strategy involving all parties, all areas, and all structures equally, both immediate and subsequent; and that coordination and communication between everyone was a must.

The leaders, then, are attempting to contain and head off extremist sentiment. They are stressing the need to find ways for mutual understanding, rather than confrontation through the ISIS bullet some want to use to restore their stations.

A power-hungry monster

Gulf leaders realize that ISIS is a power-hungry monster that has a nurturing environment ready for revenge. ISIS wants to destroy existing states to establish its own state that crosses existing borders. This is well known to the Gulf governments, which have decided that the time has come for them to take this threat seriously, and to make the fight against terrorism a priority at the expense of the priority of revenge for the sake of restoring lost standings.

Everyone knows and admits that ISIS has changed the equations with Iran on the ground in Iraq, and that ISIS is the other side in the balance of terror in Syria, answering brutality with brutality, and altering the balance of power on the ground. Some, however, realize that ISIS will backfire on everyone. ISIS constitutes the greatest threat to Iran in the sectarian Sunni-Shiite equilibrium, but even if it destroys the Iranian ambitions of regional domination and incursion into Arab lands, the Arab future will not be fine in ISIS's shadow, because ISIS is exclusionary, destructive, sectarian, and barbaric.

Minister of State for Foreign Affairs in the UAE, Dr. Anwar Mohammed Gargash, said, "Extremist political Islam is a major challenge that is paralyzing the region's march towards progress." He spoke about the centrality and priority for "moderation and centrism," and for adopting a comprehensive strategy to protect Arab countries against ISIS's terrorism. He also said that the alliance declared by the United States was a positive step, but that it "we must also be leading it," because the "experience in Afghanistan could be repeated" with terrorists returning from the conflict zones to the Gulf countries. These terrorists, he said, were a "time bomb," explaining that no Arab country can say it is immune to terrorism.

The former Kuwaiti Minister of Information Saad bin Mohammed bin Tefla, addressed the "culture of terrorism" and ISIS. He said, "Let us not say that these people have nothing to do with Islam." He then asked, "Do ISIS, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood represent political Islam or not? The answer is yes. These groups rely in all their behavior on the fatwas of political Islam, and it is time for us to look inwards and assess the values in the educational philosophy and curricula we have, because they helped in the growth of religious ideology and religious states, from ISIS to Hezbollah."

For his part, Saeb Erekat, chief Palestinian negotiator, said, "Forts are being destroyed from within," adding that ISIS must be "the 803rd" group to emerge since the start of political Islam. He then compared the beheadings of ISIS and Jewish extremists who burned a Palestinian child alive. He also addressed the exclusion of citizens in the Arab region from participation in power as one of the reasons for the extremism that calls for toppling the state. However, Erekat also criticized the Obama doctrine, which rushes to fight the terrorism of ISIS and its ilk but ignores Israel's "state terrorism."

The vision for the war on terror in Yemen differs from that in Syria, which in turn differs from that in Iraq, for good reasons. In Yemen today, for instance, the priority is for the Houthi showdown with the government in Sana'a, rather than for U.S. drone strikes on al-Qaeda positions in the country.

The vision the Syrian opposition has for the anti-ISIS international alliance is "cautiously welcoming," according to the representative of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) in Washington Najib al-Ghadban. Ghadban believes that Bashar al-Assad's departure is the key to success in the war on terror, saying that Iran was not far removed from ISIS leaders. Ghadban said, "ISIS did not declare war on the Syrian regime except recently." The SNC representative argued that ISIS's rise was the result of the regime's "brutal oppression," as well as the international abandonment of Syria and the evolution of the conflict there into a regional and international conflict. But now that the alliance has decided to put the moderate armed Syrian opposition in "the mouth of the cannon," the opposition's conditions are for there to be a real targeting of ISIS in Syria, as part of a comprehensive strategy that would deal with both the Assad regime and as well as all foreign fighters in Syria, as Ghadban said.

Next week, at the Security Council, President Barack Obama will chair a session focused in part on the foreign fighters in Syria. Ostensibly, and as a first step, the volunteers in the ranks of ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and similar groups will be in the crosshairs, with great attention given to Western fighters in the ranks of Sunni terrorists in Syria.

However, in the mind of the U.S. administration, according to the Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson who spoke before the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Hezbollah fighters are also classed as foreign fighters. It is not unlikely that the designation also includes members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards operating in Syria.

Fighting their war

President Obama will not be able to get a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing him to carry out strikes against ISIS in Syria, because Russia and China want Bashar al-Assad and Iran to be part of the anti-ISIS alliance. Russia and China are arguing that without authorization from the Syrian government, any action would be a violation of sovereignty. They have both deployed vetoes repeatedly, and are willing to do so again.

China's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Li Cheng Wen, stuck to the principle of sovereignty above all else, even if excluding Assad from the anti-ISIS alliance means not directing any strikes against ISIS and other groups that China fear might expand to the Muslims in China, who number 20 million.

What will Barack Obama do? This is the question posed by everyone. What will he do in Iraq? What will he do in Syria? How does he intend to address Russian-Iranian opposition? How will he wage a war that requires Sunnis in Iraq to be ground soldiers, when they are asking for clarity "before" and not "after" military action? How will he reassure his partners in the alliance that he is truly serious on Syria?

The U.S. president may decide in the end that this is not his war, and that it is best to return to his country to fortify it against terrorism, and let ISIS unleash itself on everyone until it commits suicide or until it is slayed eventually. This is perhaps the course he might choose if it appears to him that all those who want him to fight their wars on their behalf will meet his war with ingratitude and petulance.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Sept. 19, 2014 and was translated by Karim Traboulsi.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women’s Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University’s Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham

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