By Paul McGeough
September 3, 2014
It's entirely sensible, but is it too much to ask for the Arab and Muslim worlds to speak loudly and clearly, and to act, as they should against the obscene acts of violence being perpetrated in the names of 75 per cent or more of the world's Muslims?
The news on Tuesday that Islamic State has beheaded a second American journalist will create even louder demands for greater counter-measures by the Western governments, including Australia. But a western-led counteroffensive is doomed to failure – or at best, to only limited and short-term gains.
This has to be an Arab and Muslim-led operation. It's their fight.
My Fairfax media colleague Daniel Flitton was on the right track last week, in suggesting a more valuable contribution than delivering weapons to the Kurdish forces in Iraq, would have been for Tony Abbott to get on the phone to his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts, to urge them to commit the military muscle of their Muslim-majority nations to the fight.
Barack Obama was assailed last week for clumsily stating that he did not have a strategy to deal with IS – the US President erred in not adding the word "yet". But Obama has alluded to the very real challenge for Washington and other Western capitals in this confrontation.
Drawing the faintest contours of what might constitute a successful strategy, the President called for strong regional partners, adding: "I'm encouraged so far that countries in the region, countries that don't always agree on many things, increasingly recognise the primacy of the threat that ISIL [as IS is also known] poses to all of them."
Obama was being generous. Regional leaders have been dragging their feet, and in some cases their reluctance to be more forceful – and purposeful – in their criticism of IS has been read as tacit endorsement, if not outright encouragement, for their people to support them.
The problem here is that old adage "mine enemy's enemy is my friend" in the context of historic and for a long time dormant differences between the two biggest sects in Islam. The cognoscenti call it the Sunni-Shiite schism.
The US-led invasion of Iraq ripped scabs from historic sores in a country in which the Sunni minority dominated the Shiite majority. And the subsequent Shiite takeover in Baghdad rekindled Sunni fears of what King Abdullah II, of Sunni Jordan, described as a "Shiite crescent", which would be dominated by Shiite Iran and stretch from Lebanon, on the Mediterranean, through Syria and Iraq to Iran and on to parts of Afghanistan.
IS is Sunni and as it pursues its so-called caliphate in a swathe of territory that straddles the Syria-Iraq border, its targets have been the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, whose minority regime is aligned with Iran, and the new Shiite-led government in Baghdad. It also has a professed hatred for all Shiites and Christians.
Many Sunnis were happy to remain spectators before IS showed its true colours. They were happy to see Damascus and Baghdad under pressure and they took further delight from the thought that, because those two were allies of Tehran, the Shiite leadership in Iran was also under the hammer.
Obama acknowledged the discomfort of the region's Sunni leaders – in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf statelets – by not naming any of them individually. But he was pointed enough, saying that "all the Sunni states in the region . . . have to be just as invested in defeating [IS] as we are".
He would not have been over-egging it if he had said that the Sunni regimes ought to be more invested. It's their corner of the world that is ablaze – and in past crises in which they have appealed to the US to protect them, their credibility has suffered hugely.
If they now believe that it's time to man up, the pace of their conversion is painfully slow. To varying degrees, their rhetoric sounds right – but getting them to commit men and machines to a fight in which they are targets is a snail's-pace process.
A meeting of regional foreign ministers in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah last week discussed "challenges, including the rise of terrorist extremist ideology". According to a Washington Post report, they agreed on "the need to seriously work to deal with these crises and challenges to preserve security and stability in Arab countries".
Which, if you deconstruct it, sounded more like a gulp of fear for the longevity of their thrones than it did a declaration to send men and machines to stand in the way of the IS militias.
In the same vein, a meeting in the weekend of the Gulf Co-operation Council declared itself ready to fight "terrorist ideology which is contrary to Islam". But they're not rushing to war either – they're waiting for a visit in the coming days by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
There has been an important breakthrough, however. After years of barely concealed hatred, the Saudis and Iranians have started talking again. The topic: "The growing threat the extremists in Syria and Iraq pose to regional security and the importance of Saudi-Iranian cooperation to confront terrorism and extremism in the region."
Goodness me! After years of bickering about Tehran's nuclear program, it seems that both capitals see a more immediate threat in IS – and therefore can actually take to each other. What was that line? Ah yes, mine enemy's enemy is my friend.