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ISIS, the United States, and the GCC

Insufficient numbers of American analysts have recognized how the GCC role in fighting ISIS gives regional and local legitimacy to the battle

Dr. John Duke Anthony

Published: Updated:

It is no ordinary event for 26 countries' representatives to be meeting to discuss how best to confront the challenge of ISIS. What the so-called "Islamic State," or ISIS, or ISIL represents differs from one person to the next. To people immediately adjacent to lands in Iraq and Syria that ISIS has not yet conquered, the militant movement is a mortal threat. Whether Shiite, Sunni, Christian, Arab, Kurdish, or other in nature and orientation, polities that neighbor ISIS-controlled areas have seen their national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity threatened. Indeed, ISIS today may arguably be the greatest challenge facing the modern day nation state system in the Middle East.

The attributes of national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity are no ordinary phenomena. Together they have been and remain the most important criteria for admission into and membership in good standing within the United Nations.

Unfortunately, the United States in the course of its invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 had already smashed to smithereens each of these criteria. Simultaneously, the United States also blasted into nonexistence what exists in the American Constitution and was previously enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution as well, namely: provisions for domestic safety, external defense, enhancement of people's material wellbeing, and the effective administration of a civil system of justice.

In so doing, the United States contributed mightily to the formation and focus of ISIS. The poignancy of this reality must not be lost. It is but one among other inconvenient truths that plague America's predicament in seeking to navigate the shoals of the storm its shortsighted actions created.

ISIS' ideology and praxis also menaces others. To the peoples it has conquered and others that lie in wait within its crosshairs it portends ill towards everything they hold dear. Beyond worldly possessions, ISIS threatens the existential credibility of internal security and external defense.

Further, ISIS endangers people's material wellbeing – in the form of ransoms, hostage taking, and the physical confiscation of property. It also threatens the continued administration of what little remains of an effective system of civil justice. And in many instances, ISIS targets people's very lives. In the eyes of many among ISIS' actual and would-be victims to date, each of these threats also carries a "Made in America" label.

The Bush administration's decision to wage war against Iraq opened these floodgates, fueled further by the invasion and occupation occurring despite Iraq not having attacked the United States or posed any grave danger to American interests. Again, perspective is paramount. In the eyes of America's would-be friends, allies, and strategic partners in the fight against ISIS, Washington officialdom would do well to acknowledge the difficulty of achieving its objective given America's position among many Arabs and Muslims as the pariah of the Western world in light of what it did to Iraq, once the zenith of Arab and Islamic civilization.

No cost-free solution

America's perceived inability to counter and halt the spread of such U.S.-induced horrors – indeed, to stop them in their tracks – has consequences for friend and foe alike. These include the regimes, bureaucratic personnel, and popular support bases in Baghdad and Damascus, the two nearest polities that have yet to succumb to ISIS' militant onslaught. Also in ISIS' sights are the governments and peoples of its near neighbors once removed – Jordan and Turkey, and, to a lesser extent, Lebanon and Israel.

Insufficient numbers of American analysts have recognized how the GCC role in fighting ISIS gives regional and local legitimacy to the battle

Dr. John Duke Anthony

Importantly, and notwithstanding what in varying degrees are their relatively safer physical distances, the GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – have much to fear, too. While Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, adjoining Iraq, are the most threatened, few doubt that ISIS is having an intimidating effect upon all six GCC members.

The reason is clear: ISIS stands at one end of the political, security, governance, and ideological extreme. At the other end stand the GCC countries with their overwhelmingly Western-oriented foreign policies, international relations, economic orientations, and defense as well as higher education systems, together with the nature, scope, and focus of their overall modernization and development. It is in these contexts that the murder by burning of the American-trained Jordanian pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, skilled in flying a U.S.-manufactured aircraft – two Western symbols additionally facilitative of ISIS followers' recruitment, retention, and inspiration – has further galvanized Arab and GCC opinion regarding the moral necessity of defeating ISIS, its alternative system of governance, and practically everything else that it represents.

American grandstanding run amok

Ill-informed commentary by grandstanding Members of the U.S. Congress and television talk show pundits has largely missed these crucial contexts and prisms for perspective. In so doing, they have not only ignored causative factors that shed light on ISIS' rise and the roots of its anti-Western/anti-American ferocity. They have also downplayed the extent to which the GCC countries and Jordan have emerged as the strongest, most important, and most reliable local partners in the American-led coalition against ISIS. Jordan and fully half of the anti-ISIS coalition's GCC allies – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – are military partners, committing their state-of-the-art American weapons to the mission of degrading the militant movement's assets. Others are making logistical and operational contributions that are no less important.

What insufficient numbers of American analysts have recognized to date is how the GCC role in fighting ISIS gives regional and local legitimacy to the battle. In their positions and roles among the world's most prominent defenders and leaders of Sunni Islam, the GCC states perceive their forms of rule, representation, and responsiveness to citizens' justifiable needs, concerns, and interests as the time-honored Muslim antitheses to ISIS. As such, they have an obligation and interest in ridding Islam of the radical extremist movement.

Among other features of the GCC countries having risen to their responsibility in this instance is a matter of no small moment. They have shorn Tehran of any potential legitimacy from claiming that the Islamic Republic of Iran, and not the GCC, representing half a dozen countries, is the "hero" of Islam.

Forgotten among the attention on ISIS

Additionally, the alliance's zeroing-in on ISIS helps the non-radical Syrian opposition fight the armed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. Two GCC countries, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, together with Turkey, are also training Syrian opposition fighters that could arguably form the nucleus of a future Syrian national force. In so doing, GCC military efforts enhance the joint objective of the GCC countries and the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition alike.

A continuing GCC goal receiving little play in the American media is for the Obama Administration to be clear in its intentions regarding Assad. In the GCC country heads of state and ministerial-level meetings with their U.S. counterparts, there has been a constant reminder of the GCC position on Syria. It underlines where GCC leaders are coming from with regard to what for the member-states is one of their most frequently stated interests and key foreign policy objectives. Further, at the GCC Foreign Ministers' meeting with Secretary Kerry on February 6 to discuss ISIS, the ministers added to their reminders regarding Syria a list of parallel concerns about Iraq, Yemen, and the Iranian nuclear issue.

What therefore needs greater emphasis by U.S. officials anxious to strengthen and expand the GCC countries' essential assistance in fighting ISIS is clear. It is that the White House's anxiety regarding its Arab allies must not obviate the need for vigilance by the GCC and the United States alike regarding these additional issues. To be sure, the fight against ISIS is central to the U.S. strategic posture in the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic worlds. But so, too, is the simultaneous imperative of the American-led coalition's need to address these concerns of immense strategic significance to the GCC countries. After all, between friends and allies foreign policy objectives are not accomplished automatically or by accident or coincidence. They are usually achievable only if respect for the partners' valid requirements are acknowledged, implemented, and safeguarded.

GCC-U.S. cooperation moving forward

With the 2016 American elections heating up, it is tempting for Western Congressional and media commentators, together with would-be policy formulators, to search for catchy sound bites pertaining to what they contend ought to be done regarding ISIS. However, what is unhelpful is the cacophony of shrill statements – ranging from calls for "boots on the ground" to condemning the Obama Administration for refusing to "declare war on radical Islam" to unfairly and inaccurately criticizing Arab allies for their lack of participation in the anti-ISIS coalition – and other sensationalist rhetoric. They do little to illuminate the issues, interests, and involvement for the parties involved. And they contribute nothing to one's insight into and awareness as well as appreciation of GCC concerns regarding ISIS, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran's nuclear program.

Such insights, awareness, and appreciation are not only essential to an interested public's knowledge of what is in play. They are vital to an understanding of what is and is not possible regarding the anti-ISIS coalition's quest for regional security and stability, without which the goal of ultimate success in the campaign against violent extremism will remain in doubt.

At the end of the day, reality brooks no illusion. The prospects for eventual effectiveness in this campaign are twofold. They lie, on one hand, in addressing the Western- and especially American-centric regional roots of ISIS's emergence, inspiration, and staying power. On the other, they lie in greater coordination of U.S.-GCC efforts to do more than just unleash their military might in a bid to counter the threat posed by ISIS.

This article was first published by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.

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Dr. John Duke Anthony is the Founding President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, and currently serves on the United States Department of State Advisory Committee on International Economic Policy and its subcommittee on Sanctions. On June 22, 2000, on occasion of his first official state visit to the United States since succeeding his late father, H.M. King Muhammad VI of Morocco knighted Dr. Anthony, bestowing upon him the Medal of the Order of Ouissam Alaouite, the nation of Morocco’s highest award for excellence. Dr. Anthony is the only American to have been invited to each of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Ministerial and Heads of State Summits since the GCC’s inception in 1981. (The GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). In 2013, he chaired and was the core lecturer in the Council's Annual 10-Week University Student Summer Internship Program's yearly Academic Seminar on “Arabia and the Gulf.” For the past 39 years, he has been a consultant and regular lecturer on the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf for the Departments of Defense and State. He is former Chair, Near East and North Africa Program, Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State as well as former Chair of the Department’s Advanced Arabian Peninsula Studies Seminar – the U.S. government’s leading educational preparation programs for select American diplomatic and defense personal assigned to the Arab world.

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