By Rodger Shanahan
September 3, 2014
Given that the greatest security threat now facing the Middle East arises from the actions of an increasingly aggressive and violent group of radical Sunni Arab fighters, the apparent reluctance of Sunni Arab states to confront them says much about the nature of the regional Arab security system and even more about Arab leadership.
There is a belief among many in the West that many Gulf States and Saudi Arabia in particular, act as security "free riders". Operating under the umbrella of US security guarantees, they are big on offering financial or basing support but short on being in the front line of military commitments. Under the regional leadership of Saudi Arabia, they understand that their strategic importance lies in the energy supplies that they control and believe that this, in concert with their pro-Western security alliances, excuses them from committing themselves heavily.
To be fair, many of the states in question have small military forces, but they nevertheless appear reluctant to commit what niche capabilities they have. Qatar and the UAE did provide aircraft to the NATO-led Libyan air campaign, but Muammar Gaddafi was friendless by this stage. The UAE also had a long-standing commitment to providing Special Forces to the NATO-led campaign in Afghanistan. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia and the UAE were also very willing to send military forces across the causeway to assist the minority Sunni monarchy suppress the Shi'a-led political reformist movement.
The rise of the Islamic State poses a direct threat to many Arab states, but it poses an even more perplexing strategic and ideological problem for them. On the one hand, they recognise the threat emanating from Syria and Iraq, but to attack it militarily is to risk strengthening the hand of Iran and its interests. Of course, statesmen and grand strategic thinkers should be able to see beyond such narrow worldviews to attack an ideological threat that threatens Sunni and Shi'a alike. But the Arab world is bereft of statesmen, so policies tend to be reactionary rather than proactive, with short-term rather than strategic goals in mind.
With the exception of Kuwait, many of the Gulf States have never really come to terms with the loss of the role that Saddam Hussein's Sunni buffer state represented. It upset the natural order of things by handing power to the majority Shi'a in that country. And in the Gulf states, and many Arab minds, Shi'a political expression is simply a cover for Iranian political influence. This view is simplistic but informs much of what passes for strategic thinking in the Gulf.
This is what we see in play today in the reluctance of Arab states to assist either the US or the Iraqi government in dealing with the threat from the Islamic State. The case for providing assistance is compelling. Radical Islamists have taken over large tracts of land in Syria and Iraq, including the second largest city in Iraq and declared an aspirational caliphate that encompasses areas of both countries. They have implemented strict interpretations of Islamic rule in areas they have taken over, have displayed incredible savagery against their opponents and have every intention of trying to expand areas under their control.
Despite this, and the obvious desire of the US to put together an international coalition to stop the advances of the forces of radical Islam, the Arab states most affected by this security threat appear to be the least committed to providing relief for the minorities in northern Iraq or for joining the US in taking military action against their co-religionists. US Secretary of State John Kerry has been assigned the role of building the coalition, but if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's remarks in Saudi media in the last few days are anything to go by, he will have his work cut out. The king was quick to bypass the threat to the kingdom and to assert that the West would be the next target of the Islamic state unless there was rapid action taken against it.
Many of the Gulf States' forces are small and would make little to no practical difference to any air campaign against the Islamic State. But their presence would be material evidence that Sunni Arab states take the threat of radical Islamists as seriously as the West. Many of the Gulf States have significant aerial transport assets that could be used to support the humanitarian operation being conducted. And rather than waiting for a visit from Kerry to try to corral a reluctant Arab world to take action in their own backyard, the Arab League or even the Gulf Co-operation Council could have convened and publicly pledged military support to any international campaign targeted against the Islamic State.
Some states have already provided basing support and there is no doubt that some behind-the-scenes support is being provided. But the Islamic State is a threat to the region made by the region. A Western military coalition can halt and degrade this enemy, but it will only be defeated by a concerted regional effort that will entail a public and long-term commitment to marginalising its ideology, stopping its sources of funding and foreign fighter pipeline, isolating it from Sunni tribal support and providing a counter-narrative to its hate-filled agenda. To begin with though, Sunni Arab military support must not only be provided but be seen to be provided without the urging of the West.
Dr Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy