Obama’s IS plan and its Middle East champions

While Obama’s broadcast went out to a US audience, it raised questions on how Obama’s Arab partners will fight IS.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal to begin talks on IS [Reuters].

In his speech on Wednesday, US President Barack Obama outlined the US-led efforts to coordinate a global response against the Islamic State group (IS), underlining the importance of an international coalition of willing partners: “American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” he said.

Exactly what role Arab partners are expected to play in a US-led coalition to combat IS is being debated. Bringing the disparate Arab states “in line with US foreign policy” is the core of the US Secretary of State’s mandate during his Middle East tour which began in Jordan on Tuesday and ended in Jeddah on Thursday with a meeting that brought together the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the six GCC countries.

“I don’t think the Gulf states will be involved militarily in this war,” at least not in the near future, said Khalid al-Dhakil, Saudi columnist and political sociology professor at King Saud University.

Despite an agreement outlined on Wednesday that Saudi Arabia will play host to training camps for moderate Syrian rebels, the US, nonetheless, is expected to play a leading role in responding to the lightning advances of IS through Syria and Iraq. “This war was initiated by the Americans. It’s their own making,” al-Dhakil said.

In 2003, the US launched a war in Iraq that led to the dismantling of state institutions under a process known as “debaathification”, in which members of the dominant Baath party under Saddam Hussein were barred from political participation. This has led some commentators to suggest that the vacuum left in the wake of the US-led invasion was a major factor in allowing the rapid spread of IS in the Iraq.

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Arab states, according to military analyst Mark Perry, will bestow legitimacy on the US-led war on IS. “Every US administration has been keen not to go it alone… [the Arab states] will stand and applaud,” he said. “It’s important [for the US] to get a broad base of support for what it views is a real extremist threat,” added Perry, author of Talking to Terrorists.

President Obama has pledged to limit the US-led mission to aerial attacks. Currently, over 1,100 American troops are in Iraq as ‘advisers’ to Iraq’s army.

Eventually, however, “you’re going to need boots on the ground,” said former US Assistant Secretary of Defence Lawrence Korb. Discussing the appropriate military response, Korb added that “the question becomes what you have [on the ground] in Syria.”

Though under a new prime minister, doubts remain over the capability of Haidar al-Abbadi’s government to forge alliances with a broad constituency and to act with unity. Korb told Al Jazeera that a more inclusive government means more support from Iraq’s tribes. For al-Dakhil, however, the reappearance of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the seat of vice-president means there “is no clear sign [this government] will be much different from the previous one.”

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Whether IS today poses a greater danger to US interests than it did three months ago is debatable. “I think it’s about opinion polls,” Perry told Al Jazeera. The turnaround in polling has been “stark”. Polls released on Monday show that 76% of Americans  favour additional airstrikes against IS. Last year, when Americans were asked if taking action against Syria’s government was in US interests, 21% responded favourably.  

The second factor, Perry added, was Obama’s need to respond to accusations of inaction.

“The spotlight is on IS and not on ‘terrorists’,” said al-Dakhil. “The war against al-Qaeda is now a war against IS: it’s a political war,” he added. If you want to fight terrorism then you have to go against the root cause and that’s sectarianism. The US and Iraqi governments “cannot hope to destroy IS and keep the other militias,” al-Dakhil said in reference to Shiite militias in Iraq.

Though designated as terrorist groups by the US, the new military operation will not directly target groups including Lebanese Hizbullah and the ‘League of the Righteous’, a paramiliary group operating in Syria and Iraq that has claimed responsibility for scores of deaths among Iraqi, American and coalition forces during the US occupation of Iraq.

Military analyst Perry told al-Jazeera that he expects the US administration to maintain a “very narrow target” in Iraq and Syria. “We’re going to make very clear distinctions between groups,” saying that the Obama administration hopes to avoid the “slippery slope” that would see it aiming at other “terrorist” groups.

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Given shifting regional alliances, however, doubts linger over the ability to coordinate a unified response to the group. Middle East foreign policy is divided into two camps; those states which support moderate political Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and others which oppose it.

However, a senior US State Department official told reporters travelling with Kerry in the Middle East that US initiatives include a crackdown on the alleged flow of money to IS from private donors across the GCC.

“I think Islamic State is different from other experiences that these states have dealt with before,” said al-Dhakhil. “My understanding is that all of the states are against IS and all feel threatened, especially Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two countries have the most fear.” Al-Dakhil added that the Saudi government sees IS as a threat because the group has appealed to some young Saudis.

While Iran continues its traditional alliance with Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria in the face of IS advances  while allegedly sending military reinforcements to Iraq, a charge which the Iranian government has denied.

Egypt’s possible willingness to play a role in the US-led coalition is motivated by different reasons, according to Omar Ashour, an expert on political Islam at the University of Exeter. Though moderate groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood are a greater threat to the Egyptian government because of their ability to mobilise an electoral constituency, Ashour told Al Jazeera that the “current regime [in Egypt] does not discriminate between moderates and radicals.”

Nonetheless, Ashour explained that IS is a threat to Arab countries to varying degrees. Jordan, which played host to Kerry on Tuesday, is nervous about the movement of IS fighters near its border with Iraq. Iran is concerned to maintain its regional alliance with the Assad regime. “Some of these countries want to manipulate the terrorist threat to further their own interests,” he said. 

For former Assistant Secretary of Defence Korb, US short-term goals are clear: “to stall the group and to undermine the narrative that IS is invincible”. The long-term effects of the latest US-led incursion, however, are less easy to determine.

Source: Al Jazeera