What Arab partners will get in return for strikes on Syria

By Lars Berger

The decision by President Obama to launch missile and air strikes against Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaeda affiliate “Khorasan” in Syria draws the United States ever closer to yet another prolonged military confrontation in the region.

But there’s a difference this time: the participation of a coalition of Arab states, variously offering diplomatic, intelligence and military support. So far, the partner states have been named as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Jordan.

From Washington’s perspective, the importance of Arab participation is obvious: a synchronised display of high-level multinational cooperation is clearly meant to head off the usual criticism of the often unilateral nature of US foreign policies.

This is of particular importance for President Obama, who has invested considerable capital over the years in distancing himself from the Bush administration’s war in Iraq.

As he put it in his brief statement announcing the strikes: “The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone.”

The White House clearly hopes that the participation of Arab partners will undermine that radical Islamist narrative of “the West versus Islam”, and instead reframe the conflict as another chapter in the decades-old struggle between the vast moderate Muslim majority and a tiny minority of radicals.

But aside from these explicit American goals, Obama’s new Arab partners have interests of their own.

Regional rivals: Saudi and Qatar

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia can hope to shift attention away from the criticism for their attitude to Islamist extremism. Over the years, they have been charged not only with supporting radical Islamists in Syria, but also with allowing their religious elites to propagate a version of Islam that is open to easy manipulation at the hands of radical jihadist recruiters.

Both countries will also hope that weakening the radical Islamists of IS will help moderate elements of the Syrian opposition regain the initiative against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Some among the elites of Riyadh and Doha might even be hoping Washington will realise the threat of IS will never be extinguished while Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains in place – and that Obama will see the job is finished.

Finally, Saudi Arabia in particular clearly has to be concerned with preventing the success of an organisation which aims to establish the perfect “Islamic state”.

IS’s claim to ultimate leadership of the world’s Muslim community as put forward by its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is a direct challenge to the Saudi claim for global religious leadership based on King Abdullah’s role as “custodian of the two holy places” in Mecca and Medina.

Saudi authorities are fully aware that al-Baghdadi’s radical Islamist fringe project has attracted followers from Saudi Arabia, with recent estimates putting the number at up to one thousand.

As Nawaf Obaid and Saud al-Sarhan have pointed out, Saudi Arabia is the ultimate target for any “serious” radical Islamist organisation, whether IS now or al-Qaeda in years past.

Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (which consists not just of Yemeni Islamists, but also Saudi Islamists), driven out by Saudi counterterrorism measures over the last decade, is now beginning to mutter words of approval and support toward IS, and Riyadh will be deeply concerned about the spectre of being engulfed in an arc of Islamist instability to its south and north.

Trouble at home: Bahrain and the UAE

Like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain can also use their involvement in the campaign against IS to demonstrate their value as strategic assets to the United States.

Often belittled as “security importers” for relying on American protection to counter the threat posed by Iran, governments in these countries can now prove that they can make their own contributions to regional security.

But their involvement in the anti-IS coalition feeds into a broader narrative of tackling a general Islamist threat – one that has long threatened to destabilise them at home.

For their part, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been very outspoken critics of what they saw as a lack of US stamina in supporting authoritarian allies such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt during the early days Arab Spring. They have also both raised the alarm over the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they see a direct threat to their own domestic integrity.

Irrespective of the exact nature of the ideological linkages between moderate and radical Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood’s politicised version of Islam sees the Gulf monarchies as antithetical to the notion of a just Islamic society.

By joining forces against IS, then, the ruling families in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Dubai are clearly hoping to drive home their vision of a monolithic Islamist threat to both protective Western governments and their own restive populations.

Don’t forget us: Jordan

Meanwhile, often-overlooked Jordan can use its participation in the anti-IS alliance to once again prove its relevance as a strategic regional partner for the US.

Jordanians are not just dealing with a refugee crisis created by the meltdown in Syria and Iraq; they also have first-hand experience of the disastrous human costs of the radical ideology which drives IS: in late 2005, supporters of Abu Musab az-Zarqawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq (a splinter from which later formed the backbone of IS), attacked a number of hotels in Jordan’s capital Amman, killing 60.

Just recently, Jordanian authorities arrested a number of individuals suspected of involvement with IS. The Jordanian security services also enjoy one of the best track records of any regional intelligence agency in infiltrating radical Islamist groups, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This expertise, plus the training facilities where Western special forces can train members of the moderate Syrian opposition, might well prove crucial for international efforts to deal with both IS and the Assad regime.


In the end, the Arab partners in general will still expect concrete returns for offering their Western allies not just diplomatic cover, but also serious military and intelligence support.

Most pressingly, it’s very likely that these governments will expect Washington to take their views on board when it negotiates a more permanent deal with Tehran over Iran’s nuclear programme. Ever since the announcement of a preliminary deal between the two sides, the Gulf monarchies have made clear their displeasure at the US’s apparent eagerness to bring Iran back in from the cold without sufficient heed to Arab concerns.

Washington’s Arab allies will hope that the Arab states’ participation in strikes against IS will make Western audiences more willing to tolerate or even support “wars on terror” at home in the Middle East – in which, all too often, moderate Islamists and secular liberals get caught up.

But the endurance of authoritarian rule is a major root cause of the Middle East’s chronic instability. It it would be all too easy for the West to let it continue unmolested in return for help with the crisis at hand – however badly that help is needed. Washington must not fall into that trap.

The Conversation

Lars Berger does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Related video added by Juan Cole

Reuters: “U.S., backed by Arab allies, launches first strikes on Islamic State fighters in Syria”

8 Responses

  1. Most of this analysis sounds plausible.

    I do think the conclusion that authoritarian states will expect payback for their contribution is gratuitous cold water thrown on the coalition. Obama can not resolve all the problems of the Middle East in one master stroke. A tactical partnership with Sunni states is certainly a positive development. In the long run, Iran’s interests will also have to be accounted for in a negotiated resolution, and that is no endorsement of Iran’s authoritarian government.

  2. Only at the article’s end does the author get to the root of the problem: “[T]he endurance of authoritarian rule is a major root cause of the Middle East’s chronic instability. It it would be all too easy for the West to let it continue unmolested in return for help with the crisis at hand…Washington must not fall into that trap.” However, the author provides no policy analysis to avoid the “trap”; rather, he provides reinforcement for the trap.
    A good start for the US is to heed the advice of Patrick Cockburn: “[I]t is one of the most extraordinary aspects of the turmoil in the Middle East that the Saudi backing for extreme Sunni organizations, for jihadi organizations, isn’t opposed by the U.S. more vigorously. If you would look at the official 9/11 Commission report, it said the main backers for…al-Qaeda are private Saudi donors and donors in the other [Sunni] Gulf states…[WikiLeaks] released a memorandum from Hillary Clinton…many years later [that said exactly] the same thing. The main backers for al-Qaeda-type organizations, of Sunni-organized fanatical jihadi groups is Saudi private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf….So I think there’s a whole series of Frankenstein monsters both in Syria and in northern Iraq that have been created and supported and aided by private citizens and at times the state in Saudi Arabia, but the U.S. has refused to do anything about this.” link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com
    Furthermore, it cannot be stated enough that the US has provided extensive support to Islamist groups over the years. The US’s support of Islamic fundamentalist groups “stems largely from the Cold War era. Back then America saw the world in rather simple terms: on one side the Soviet Union and Third World nationalism, which America regarded as a Soviet tool; on the other side Western nations and militant political Islam, which America considered an ally in the struggle against the Soviet Union….The CIA used the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as a barrier both to Soviet expansion and to the spread of Marxist ideology among the Arab masses. The United States also openly supported the Sarekat Islam against Sukarno in Indonesia and the Jamaat-e-Islami against Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in Pakistan. Last but certainly not least there is Al-Qaeda….Former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook admitted that ‘Al-Qaeda…was originally the computer file of the thousands of Mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.’…Depending on whether a terrorist group in a given region furthers American interests or not, the State Department either funds or aggressively targets that terrorist group, typically with drones.” (Likewise Israel, for over two decades after the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, supported the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoot Hamas in Gaza as a counterweight to the nationalist PLO.)
    link to detailedpoliticalquizzes.wordpress.com

    • Even as Obama was keeping the US out of the Syria mess until recently, the Administration either looked the other way or actively encourages the Gulf States to arm whoever they picked to be their proxies. Not getting involved? Who is kidding who? In August 2011, the Local Coordinating Committees issue a statement opposing all foreign intervention and arming of civilians. They saw the writing on the wall. At the time, the body count was 2200 (about as many in the recent Gaza war). It was too late.

      And this is another long term problem. The US has been selling advanced weapons to MiddleEast countries, exp. the Gulf States. Remember Obama’s $60 billion arms sale to the Saudis a few years ago? And now he is calling for them to take up their own defense. I always wondered what those states would use all those weapons for. I figured domestic suppression. But now it’s clear, those weapons will be used for the Middle Eastern states to settle the scores against each other. In Syria, Obama gave them permission to do that.

    • “The main backers for al-Qaeda-type organizations…… is Saudi private donors in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf…”

      The U.S. has 10 trillion dollars in Saudi investment in real estate, publicly-traded stock in Fortune 500 companies and other high-profile financial holdings that have served to prop up the American economy for the last four decades. If this money were withdrawn back to Saudi Arabia or invested in other foreign countries, it would cause a devastating effect on the U.S. economy. As a result of this vast economic power of the Saudis, the U.S. government has been extremely reluctant to oppose the government of Saudi Arabia on any issue.

      The evidence of Saudi nationals’ complicity in both the actual 9/11 hijackings and extensive financial and political support of al-Qaeda in general is overwhelming. Despite this evidence, very little corrective action was taken that could be perceived as offensive to the Saudi government.

      The Saudis have financed Pakistani nuclear research programs that resulted in the development of atomic weaponry for that nation. There is speculation that this research has led to Saudi possession of such nuclear weapons. The Saudi government in December of last year, it was reported, embarked on an 80 billion-dollar plan to construct nuclear reactor facilities to generate its energy needs in the coming decades. Yet there is no outcry over such conduct as there has been with Iran’s nuclear energy programs.

      Saudi Arabia, like the State of Israel, gets a “free pass” from the U.S. State Department on issues such as human rights violations, complicity in terror activity, plus research and development of unsupervised nuclear energy and weapons programs.

    • As for authoritarian rule–its exists somewhere in all forms of government. A sort of shell game as to where you hide the ultimate say. Hobbes was indifferent about which form but ultimately preferred monarchy because it was so much more efficient.

      What country including the USA is free of corruption, excessive deployment of police power, and cronyism?

      Who is not ruled by their very own tyrant within?

      So I can agree with some details but the spin on princes and monarchs is petty.

  3. Strengthening the “moderate” laugh out loud rebellion against the regime of Bashar Al Assad will not work. First, these bandits are Islamist extremists themselves, hiding under sheep’s clothing. Second, their numbers will never equate Assad’s army of 250,000 active personnel, not counting the military reserves, and not including Assad’s firepower amply furnished by Russia and China. Everyone in the Middle-East and starting with the USA, seems to brush this important point aside as just a passing annoyance. For peace to reign in this part of the world, Iran and Bashar’s Syria need to be actively enrolled. Of course it is not in Saudi Arabia or Qatar’s interest to see Bashar Al Assad’s regime kept in place. It is a threat to their theocracy. It is a threat to their continued IS ideology and their nurturing of it. Their current collaboration with the US in the fight against ISIS is just lip service for untold quid pro quo that the article utterly fails to clarify.

  4. Won’t the support of Western military operations, which will necessarily kill many innocents, further undermine the credibility of the leaders of this “coalition of the God willing.”

  5. Our allies are all monarchs or princes. It might be best to leave them alone. None of the kingdoms or emirates have been overwhelmed by the recent turmoil in the region. All of the countries that have been plagued by war discarded monarchy long ago. After the removal of Sadam, Mubarrak, and Gaddafi, and the ongoing rebellion against Assad, do you really want to wave the banner of freedom in the monarchies?

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