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Whither the Mideast after ISIS Defeat?



By Mohammed Fahad A-Harthi

24 September 2014

There was drama aplenty at the Arabian Gulf and Regional Challenges Conference in Riyadh last week with officials at each other's throats over the current state of the Middle East, including the approach taken to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The tension was palpable between government officials, analysts and journalists as they gathered in the hall in Riyadh to tackle the main topic — ISIS and terrorism.

Naturally, the viewpoints and analyses of various speakers were based on their nationality, political position of their countries, and access to independent research.

Nathalie Goulet, a French senator, launched a vicious attack on the United States, holding it responsible for the current deplorable state of affairs in the Middle East. When she spoke, she looked directly at the American ambassador posted in Riyadh, Joseph W. Westphal, and accused the US and Europe of helping to create cross-border terrorist groups by showing weak leadership. Westphal responded diplomatically by saying that the US was committed to security and stability in the region.

Sitting in the front row, Chief Palestinian Negotiator Saeb Erekat kept shouting out that the international community was focusing too much on ISIS and forgetting that the core unresolved issue in the region remained the situation of the Palestinians.

Like the US, China came in for some harsh criticism and had to face a barrage of pointed questions on the Syrian issue. The Chinese ambassador in the Kingdom, in a quiet demeanour, said that his country was seeking political solutions to regional conflicts.

All the bluster and posturing could not deflect attention away from the critical questions facing everyone in the room. It is clear that ISIS will be defeated militarily. But what would the ramifications of this success be, would it simply mean that other extremist groups step seamlessly into the consequent void created by the US-led coalition forces?

The situation requires decisive action, lest we see Arab states collapse in front of our eyes. However, successfully lobbying Western nations for boots on the ground is increasingly unlikely considering the manner in which they handled the Syrian crisis, which led to this current complexity in the first place.

In Iraq, blame can be laid at the door of the Nuri Al-Maliki government for fostering sectarianism with its exclusionary policies. That regime's focus on survival at all costs had created the ideal breeding ground for terrorist groups.

A coalition is the sum of its parts. While there has been strong international support for the fight against ISIS, there should be interrogation of the role played by Turkey. It is perhaps fitting that one speaker described Turkey's borders as porous as Swiss cheese, meaning that terrorists were crossing its borders into Syria and Iraq.

Under these circumstances, it is important to consider how to deal with other radical groups in the region. In a move to undermine the credibility of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the so-called Ahl Al-Haq groups, Hezbollah and the Houthis, Saudi Arabia's Council of Senior Scholars made it clear this week that these organizations are responsible for an assortment of terrorist acts and must be outlawed.

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah has stated that the Houthis are a clear threat to the Yemeni state, is disrupting the political process and development in that country, and is a danger to the region. For Saudi Arabia, the Houthis are no less dangerous than ISIS.

The delicate situation in the Middle East requires a detailed plan for the future. The stakeholders here cannot look at tackling one group in isolation, as if this is the only endgame in town. A multifaceted approach is required to effectively counter terrorism.

The current measures under way inspire little confidence in a happy ending. It reminds one of the joke about a clueless pilot trying to fly using a manual while up in the air. When he comes to the last page, he reads: “The instructions on landing follow in the next edition of the book.”