Monday, December 14, 2015

What the West Doesn’t Get About ISIS

Back on November 12th, my Ugly Allies blog pointed out how little regional allies in the Sunni world were doing in the fight against ISIS. I noted that even Sunnis living under the brutal ISIS boot were not particularly anxious to be “rescued” by the most likely local forces to come to their aid, Shiite troops from Iraq and Iran. With lots of assistance from the destabilization created by the U.S.-led removal of Sunni (a 20% minority in Iraq) Saddam Hussein, replaced by a Shiite-dominated government (Shiites constitute 60% of Iraq), regional Muslims were forced to pick sides against those whose Muslim faith was different from theirs. Thus, Persian-created Shiites (who hold the Qur’an is a mystical book to be interpreted solely by the highest prelate in the land) faced off against regional Sunnis (who believe that the Qur’an is to be read literally). They are powerful enemies.
Saudi Arabia – defined by an extremely fundamentalist Wahabbi Sunni practice – has always engaged in “containment” of its most severe enemy, Iran (95% Shiite). They supported the Taliban on Iran’s eastern flank, maintained their own vigilance on Iran’s southern region and served as the region’s Sunni-counter to Iran’s expansionist efforts all over the Middle East. Saudi and Emirates money funded opposition to Iran’s de facto foreign legion – Hezbollah – wherever necessary. And as Iranian-backed Houthis began a civil war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners prioritized crushing this Shiite rebellion beyond its southern border. As between fellow Sunnis (ISIS) and Shiites, to Saudis and virtually all regional Sunni Arab nations, Shiites (aligned with Iran) were the real threat.
Indeed, with Hezbollah heavily installed in tiny Lebanon and mostly Sunni (80%) Syria led by a brutal Shiite dictator (the Shiite faction in Syria is only 10% of the population, but it rules), Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies have unabashedly prioritized surrogate wars against Iran over all other regional threats. They’d rather extinguish the Houthis flame in Yemen than waste precious military resources on what the West believes is the bigger threat of ISIS.
Not that ISIS has endorsed the Saudi monarchy. The Royal family in Saudi Arabia and the political systems in most of their own region are squarely in their sights. The ISIS ‘caliphate’ would envelop all of these governments with their own brutal rule. But they are Sunnis, there are lots of Saudi “foreign fighters” within ISIS itself, and frankly by not being too active in what is perceived as a “Western” battle against ISIS, perhaps these Arab states can minimize “retribution” from internal terrorist sleeper cells well-established within their own nations, replete with lots of local support for these extreme Sunni practices.
So although it is ultimately going to take Sunni “boots on the ground” to dislodge ISIS, a rather significant Sunni participation in the anti-ISIS efforts, we are a very, very long way from anything approaching that level of Sunni activity against the Islamic State. “Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are down to about one mission against ISIS targets each month, a U.S. official told CNN on [December 7th]. Bahrain stopped in the autumn, the official says, and Jordan stopped in August. CNN contacted all of these countries for comment and is yet to receive a response.
“Why aren't Arab countries more involved in the fight against ISIS?... [When] Iranian-backed rebels seized Sana'a, the Yemeni capital, last year, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states (including Egypt, Jordan and the UAE) was launched to try to defeat them.
“‘The critical shift was the coalition in Yemen,’ says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the London School of Economics. ‘You're talking about a major 24/7 war. The Saudis and the Emiratis -- the two countries with the most capacity in terms of air power -- are flying fighter jets over the skies of Yemen, so that's why you really have to prioritize the fight in Yemen over the fight against ISIS.’…
“‘The Arab states, including Jordan -- after the incident with the pilot [burned to death by ISIS when his plane crashed in Syria] -- are laying low,’ Gerges says. ‘ISIS doesn't just exist in Syria and Iraq -- it has major constituency supporters in almost all Arab countries, including Saudi, Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan. So they want to really minimize the risks.’
“‘Also, remember that one of the largest contingencies within ISIS are the Saudis. They're not just fighters, they play leadership roles -- and ISIS has carried out major attacks in Saudi, both against Shiite mosques and against (other) Saudi targets.’”, December 10th. ISIS has declared that apostate Shiites are their number one enemy, even above Israel and the West. And Iraq and Iran are Shiite-majority countries with Syria being led by Shiites.
So the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” doctrine gives Sunni nations yet one more reason not to get too involved in the war against ISIS. To these Sunni nations, ISIS is Iran’s problem, not theirs. At least not yet. “The governments under the most immediate threat from ISIS -- those of Syria and Iraq -- are both key Iranian allies, so why can't the Iranians handle it?
“That's been the prevailing logic amongst the Sunni Arab states, according to regional experts. They say Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are also less inclined to carry out strikes against ISIS targets if doing so helps Iran's allies in Damascus and Baghdad.” ISIS has to play its regional cards carefully, however, because sooner or later, the conflict will place ISIS directly against these regional Sunni powers as well.
When ISIS mounts more efforts against fellow Sunnis, the tide has to turn… and the regional Sunni powers are already looking over their shoulders at this inevitability. So when under-informed presidential candidates call for an instantaneous solution to the war against ISIS, catering to the fear-mongering that is stirring up a U.S. consensus for more immediate efforts against this jihadist terror, they are unaware that a U.S. ground war in the region is (a) ISIS fondest wish and (b) it will take pressure off the inevitable realization by local Sunni powers to face-off against ISIS and delay their own full-scale entry into this struggle. Patience and prudence need to be an important part of our overall strategy… at least if we want to crush ISIS and its ilk.
Americans read the news on December 15th that Saudi Arabia announced a 34-state Islamic coalition against terrorism and assumed that finally, locals are finally going to deploy their forces against ISIS. Maybe someday, but Shiite Iran, an enemy of Sunni Saudi Arabia, was not part of that coalition. In fact, the Shiite surrogates, Hezbollah and the Houthis along with Iran, were the very terrorists that were the new coalition’s priority. Just read how 30-year-old crown prince and Defense Minister Mohammed couched that coalition vis-à-vis the Islamic State: "There will be international coordination with major powers and international organizations ... in terms of operations in Syria and Iraq. We can't undertake these operations without coordinating with legitimacy in this place and the international community.” Yeah, whatever that means. Fight ISIS? Don’t expect anything soon.
What makes our position so much weaker in our regional efforts against ISIS, where our efforts to get local Sunni nations to help defeat ISIS is getting thwarted, settles on a general perception that the United States itself can no longer be viewed as a friend to a beleaguered Muslim world. Aside from the obvious benefit to ISIS’ recruiting efforts from loud anti-Muslim statements from leading American presidential candidates, the local U.S. furor over a trickle of Syrian migrants to the U.S., the polls showing overall suspicion by too many Americans (and Westerners in general) against Muslims and too much anti-Islamic rhetoric from all over the West are further deterrents to Sunni participation in a war that is so associated with U.S. and Western priorities. Until the fight against ISIS becomes a local priority among Sunni nations, ISIS is unlikely to be stopped.  We just need to be smart instead of being played like puppets on a string by ISIS strategists.
I’m Peter Dekom, and does it surprise and sadden you that if you are a regular reader of my blogs, you probably know more about Middle Eastern realities than all the GOP candidates and most of the Democratic presidential candidates… combined?


Anonymous said...

A thoughtful and informative piece. I would like to see the West sanction Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Wish they'd done that in the mid-70's when the oil embargo happened.

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