At last week’s conference in Sydney on countering violent extremism, Tony Abbott claimed Islamic State was “terrorism with global ambitions”, and that “Daesh is coming, if it can, for every person and for every government with a simple message: submit or die.” Just last month, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop reiterated the doomsday narrative when she told a Sydney Institute audience that Islamic State and other jihadi groups represented “the most significant threat to the global, rules-based order to emerge in … 70 years”.
There are obvious domestic political reasons for senior political figures to express such views regarding the scale and scope of this threat. Unfortunately, the nation states in the region in which Daesh operates do not appear to share the concerns expressed by our leaders. How else to explain their complete absence from the battlefield in Iraq, and now Syria?
The United Arab Emirates was quick to advertise the presence of its first female fight pilot, Mariam al-Mansouri, in its contribution to the anti-Islamic State air campaign in Syria last September. And Riyadh made sure that photos of Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and also one of the fighter pilots taking part in missions, were prominently displayed.
Less well publicised has been the fact that the contribution to the anti-Islamic State coalition of the Gulf states has been withdrawn and relocated to Khamis Mushait, near the Saudi border with Yemen, so that Riyadh and its regional allies can prosecute an air campaign against Houthi rebels and those parts of the Yemeni security forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Riyadh sees regional security exclusively through an Iranian lens and has effectively relegated the fight against Islamic State to a second-order issue — despite the fact that Islamic State suicide bombers have attacked mosques, albeit Shia ones, in the kingdom’s Eastern Province and that an estimated 3000 Saudis have joined Islamic State’s crazed mission to establish its version of an Islamic political entity in Iraq and Syria.
The fact remains that the majority of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are from the region, yet the region seems happy to shift responsibility for fighting them on to the West. Jordan is allegedly the only Arab state continuing to prosecute the air campaign against Daesh, likely because of the horrific murder of its downed pilot at the beginning of the year.
While Washington may not share Canberra’s publicly stated view of an apocalyptic threat, the Obama administration clearly wants more effort to be made in combating the threat from within the region. In doing so, the US is coming up against significant resistance from countries in the Gulf that feel they have been abandoned by Washington, and which view President Barack Obama with increasingly open disdain.
Where Obama sees the region as needing to address its own problems, the region sees Washington as lacking commitment. Where Obama sees the Iranian nuclear deal as a significant counter-proliferation agreement, the region sees it as Washington acceding to Iranian suzerainty.
Relations between the region and Washington have been poisoned to such an extent that only a new administration will breathe new life into them. Most Arab capitals are waiting Obama out.
In some respects this attitude is reminiscent of that of a spoiled child who no longer receives the attention it feels it deserves. In May, when Gulf state leaders were invited to spend some time with Obama at Camp David, few took up the offer. But in the statement that followed the meeting, Washington reiterated its commitment to defending the territorial integrity of the Gulf states. The Obama administration obviously felt that this should have assuaged their concerns about Iranian expansionism, but it wasn’t enough. The Gulf Arabs wanted a security treaty to which Washington was never going to agree.
Obama has been reluctant to become decisively involved in either Syria or Iraq. In Syria, he has never felt that US-led military intervention could lead to a satisfactory, let alone neat, outcome. Nor has anybody else outlined a coherent strategy outside of a negotiated solution. Unfortunately, disputes over who should represent the opposition and who should represent the Assad regime have stymied such efforts to date.
And in Iraq, Obama has had to address a conflict that was a legacy of his predecessor. Here again, he has adopted a minimalist approach of trying to buttress the security of the Iraqi state without becoming its de facto army.
The responsibility for defeating Islamic State and regaining control over Iraqi territory is an Iraqi responsibility. And responsibility for setting the political and social conditions that ensure groups like it don’t find fertile ground again is also an Iraqi one. Hence Obama’s statement that the US didn’t yet have a complete strategy for dealing with Islamic State in Iraq.
Although commentators continue to take him to task for his statement, as though it reflected a poorly thought-through approach, they fail to note that the incompleteness Obama referred to was the need for a full commitment from the Iraqis themselves.
It is a sentiment also expressed by General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and someone well experienced in the region. Once again, President Obama was trying to ensure that regional states accepted responsibility for substantively addressing their own security issues rather than relying on Washington to do it for them, and blaming the US when they felt that their own narrow security agendas weren’t satisfied.
Washington’s strategy has had some interesting, if not entirely unforeseen, consequences. In Iraq it has meant that Iran has assumed the type of role that the US and, before it, European colonial powers had previously favoured — advisers and commanders leading groups of local levies (in this case, Shia militias) to protect a central government from defeat.
Tehran has committed blood and treasure to the cause because it legitimately sees Daesh as a direct security threat to its borders, and because it looks to the longer term when it may be able to use some of the elements it has developed in defence of Iranian interests in Syria or in Iraq.
In Syria, Obama’s attitude has meant that Washington has adopted a cautious approach while at the same time trying to block the shortsighted tactical approaches of neighbours and allies. Obama has continually rebuffed a no-fly zone advocated by Ankara that would come at enormous cost, would be open to abuses by ground forces of any denomination, and would simply serve Turkish goals. He has limited the supply of weapons and ammunition to groups because he couldn’t guarantee where they would end up. This policy was validated when the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra defeated the US-supported Harakat Hazm in November and made off with its US-supplied weapons. Nothing is straightforward in Iraq or Syria.
Unfortunately for Obama, Saudi Arabia’s competition with Tehran is a zero-sum game. Any action that is perceived to benefit Iranian interests, from the nuclear deal with Iran to propping up the government in Baghdad, either needs to be opposed or at least not supported. In keeping with their view of the regional security paradigm as a contest with Iran, the Saudis were quick to dispatch troops across the causeway to buttress the minority Sunni ruling monarchy in Bahrain in the face of popular political protests by the Shia majority.
It is also why Western forces are training and mentoring Iraqi troops, rather than Arabs such as the Emiratis, who fulfilled such roles in Afghanistan with professionalism.
It also explains why some regional states are not very choosy about which group they support, so long as it opposes Assad.
The Gulf states and others have seen their role in regional security largely in terms of basing support, but there is a growing sense they have become security “free riders” in the battle against Islamic State. They expect Washington and the West to address the Islamist problem with military force while they stand back and simply provide financial or logistical support, meanwhile railing against real or imagined Iranian influence as the real security threat.
But Western patience with this approach has worn thin.
The lesson for America’s allies, including Australia, is to step back and understand Washington’s desire to place as much responsibility as possible on regional states to address these issues.
Looking towards the West to solve security issues that are in large part caused by narrow political self-interest, societal intolerance and a poor education system simply won’t cut it any more.
An unwillingness to undertake meaningful political or social reforms and personal enmities between autocratic rulers of various hues are likely to perpetuate the type of security dilemmas we are currently seeing in the region.
That is not to say there is no role for the US and its allies. Washington remains security guarantor for the Gulf states against existential threats. More significantly, perhaps, it must remain as a moderating force to pressure regional states to look at the long-term effects of their often short-term security policies.
This past week has seen some commentators advocating greater involvement of Australian forces in the region.
Major-General Jim Molan said Australian soldiers should be accompanying Iraqi troops “outside the wire” because the coalition did not have the luxury of time, a sentiment echoed by Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
The reality is that time favours the coalition rather than Islamic State and there is no operational urgency that could justify exposing Western troops to unnecessary risk when regional states appear focused on other threats.
Rather, Australia could and should be more involved in engaging with regional countries and urging them to contribute forces to the contact battle against Daesh.
The public should be asking how it can be in Australia’s best interests to face Islamic State in battle when regional states patently don’t think it is in theirs.
Rodger Shanahan is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.