Barack Obama’s Anti-IS Partners Have Dubious Track Records in Combating Jihadists
By Sreeram Sundar Chaulia
September 12, 2014
US President Barack Obama’s latest decision to expand a campaign of airstrikes and ground-based attacks against the Islamic State (IS) relies on a multinational team of partners to jointly “degrade and ultimately destroy” the radical Islamist movement.
But deep-seated sectarian and regional power rivalries in the Middle East present myriad stumbling blocks in the monumental new endeavour that Obama expects to last beyond his own tenure, which ends in 2016.
US secretary of state John Kerry has predicted that Obama’s strategy “will succeed because doing it with allies and partners isn’t just smart, it’s strong”. But as was the case with the US-led ‘global war on terrorism’ against al-Qaida from 2001 to 2008, success in forging a robust coalition against IS is far from assured due to the treacherous minefield involving major regional actors in the neighbourhood. Expecting all key stakeholders who can help blunt IS to fall in line with American urging, cajoling and pressuring would be over-optimistic.
The lynchpin of American efforts to mount a challenge to IS, which occupies vast chunks of land in Syria and Iraq, is Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has agreed to host training bases for vetted Syrian rebels who oppose the IS. But until the US decided to up the ante against IS after the barbaric videotaped beheadings of American journalists, the Saudis had shown no compunctions in aiding hardcore Sunni Islamist rebels in Syria against the Shiite president Bashar al-Assad.
It may be true that IS (previously known as ISIS), in particular, was not a beneficiary of the official largesse of the Saudi government, but private sheikhs related to the Saudi royal family have been instrumental in raising funds for jihadists of all hues in Syria and Iraq since 2012. Hatred for Shiite rulers like Assad and former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki is deeply ingrained in the Wahhabi faith enunciated by the Saudi government. Suppression of Shiites as apostates is central to the official Saudi theocratic doctrine.
After Saudi Arabia harshly oppressed its own Shiite minorities and deployed it’s military to crush Shiite uprisings in Bahrain and Yemen, believing that Riyadh is now going to assist the US in its mission to wipe out Sunni Jihadism in the region would be naive. Even if the Saudis help obliterate IS, they are already knee-deep in nurturing non-al-Qaida and non-IS Sunni jihadists in Syria and Iraq who detest Shiites.
Reports that Riyadh will pump millions of dollars to raise a fresh Sunni outfit called Jaish-al-Islam with Pakistani assistance do not bode well for the sectarian harmony and unity that is required if IS and its ilk are to be truly vanquished. The House of Saud may go along with the US to diminish IS to score brownie points in Washington, but it is sure to retain other jihadist levers in Syria and Iraq to keep its regional bugbear, Shiite Iran, under check. And Tehran would reciprocate Saudi shenanigans by stoking Shiite fundamentalism as a counterbalancing factor.
The other critical ally that Obama needs to trounce IS is Turkey. It too has a dubious track record of financing, arming and transporting jihadist rebels across its border into Syria. Although Turkey is constitutionally a secular democracy, its ruling AKP party has deep solidarity for Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. Its policy of enabling Islamist fighters to operate freely on its territory is now coming under the scanner due to America’s war on IS. But old habits die hard and Turkey’s Islamist regime is unlikely to contribute to any outcome that would entrench the Shiite dictatorship of Assad in Syria.
Apart from an inbred Sunni bias in its foreign policy, Turkey is wary of upsetting IS which has kidnapped nearly 50 of its diplomats from Mosul. Turkey is also most fearful that strengthening Kurdish minorities who are on the frontline battles against IS may boomerang on Ankara by resurrecting Kurdish secessionism within Turkey.
As to other Sunni states that the US hopes to assemble in a grand coalition against IS, they too have been hunting with the hounds and running with the hares. Qatar is a prime culprit that has supplied billions of dollars of aid to a panoply of jihadists, including al-Qaida branches, in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Kuwait and the UAE are known hubs for ‘private fundraising’ on behalf of IS and their hardened jihadist rivals belonging to the al-Nusra front.
With all the media and governmental attention focussed on eliminating IS, there is a real danger of other varieties of Sunni jihadists slipping through the gaps and gaining ground in Syria and Iraq through covert support of neighbouring countries with vested interests. Just as IS has today replaced al-Qaida after the latter was subjected to an intensified multinational crackdown, another diabolical successor to IS cannot be ruled out in the years to come.
The misguided and rigid alliance system that the US has constructed with devious and authoritarian Sunni states in the Middle East is the core deficiency bedevilling peace and security in the region. IS could gradually wither after a coordinated assault, but as long as the sectarian zealotry it represents thrives via the patronage of Arab rulers, new monsters will periodically pop up and embroil the region in permanent crisis. Saudi Arabia and company are part of the problem, not the solution.
Sreeram Sundar Chaulia is dean, Jindal School of International Affairs