Arab frustration comes into focus over US strategy on ISIL

Washington's approach has reinforced the long-simmering perception that there is a lack of commitment from the White House towards the Middle East, Taimur Khan writes.
Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade take part in a training exercise in Iraq's central city of Najaf on March 7, 2015, ahead of joining the military operation to retake Tikrit. Haidar Hamdani/AFP Photo
Fighters from the Iraqi Imam Ali Brigade take part in a training exercise in Iraq's central city of Najaf on March 7, 2015, ahead of joining the military operation to retake Tikrit. Haidar Hamdani/AFP Photo

NEW YORK // The operation to retake the city of Tikrit from ISIL has brought into focus the growing frustration among Washington’s Arab allies with the US’ broader strategy in the fight against extremists.

The push to clear Tikrit is being led by Iranian-backed Shiite militias, who make up about two thirds of the 30,000 troops involved, as well as Iraqi military forces. Perhaps most worrying for the Arab coalition members, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards officers are helping to direct the offensive.

Conspicuously absent have been the US-led coalition airstrikes that have backed up a mix of forces elsewhere in Iraq, with suggestions that Baghdad launched the Tikrit offensive last Monday without notifying US military commanders.

“I emphasise this is not [an] American-designed operation,” US secretary of state John Kerry said after meeting GCC officials in Riyadh on Thursday. “So we take it the way it is and we’ll hope for the best results and move from there.”

Iran’s role in Tikrit could be “a positive thing”, the top US military official, General Martin Dempsey, said on Tuesday. “Frankly, it will only be a problem if it results in sectarianism.”

The US has pressured Baghdad to rely less on the militias – perhaps conditioning air support on compliance with such requests – but the requests have been ignored. Iraqi officials say that while coalition airstrikes would accelerate the operation’s pace, Iran’s support on the ground is more than enough to succeed.

The insufficiency of Washington limiting its direct role to airstrikes while it coaxes Baghdad to take political steps to address Sunni grievances and integrate the remaining Sunni tribal forces willing to fight ISIL has never been more glaring, according to regional allies. 

The primacy of Iran and its proxies in ground operations against ISIL have raised deep fears among the Sunni-led coalition countries that even victory will be temporary if it plays into the extremists’ narrative of Sunni oppression and their rival Tehran is further entrenched in Iraq at their expense.

The US strategy has also reinforced the long-simmering perception that there is a lack of commitment from a White House that is still taking a minimalist approach to the Middle East, content to only react to events without considering its allies’ interests.

“The strategy as it stands, being limited to airstrikes, is not sufficient to eradicate ISIS,” said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, referring to ISIL by an alternative acronym. “If anything, it is making all countries that are part of the coalition, especially Arab countries neighbouring Iraq and Syria, more vulnerable.”

The formula of coalition airstrikes backing non-Sunni Arab forces on the ground in Iraq is playing into the extremists’ hands, she said.

As a result, concern among the regional allies about their own security is also growing.

ISIL is under pressure to demonstrate that it possesses the resilience to withstand the war against it, and one way would be by attacking coalition countries.

“Without a regional security strategy for Gulf countries to handle this backlash, and without a comprehensive political and military strategy to tackle ISIS, Gulf coalition allies are left exposed and angry about being pressured by the US to join the coalition without consideration of security implications,” Ms Khatib said.

Joining the US-led fight only to see Shiite militias brutalise Sunni civilians in areas retaken from ISIL could have domestic implications for the Arab allies as well. “It is very risky for the local leadership, very risky for their credibility,” said Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser at the Gulf Research Center, a privately funded think tank headquartered in Geneva.

Gulf officials say they do not expect a war-weary US to redeploy ground forces, and some have said privately that they would be willing to commit their own troops as well as money and training for Sunni tribal forces. Recent reports suggest Jordan and Turkey have been discussing creating a force to fight ISIL inside northern Iraq and Syria.

The US administration would likely welcome greater military involvement and burden-sharing by regional partners, but “whether they are willing to do it or not is a different issue”, said Faysal Itani, an analyst of US Middle East policy at the Atlantic Council. “They don’t want to shoulder that much of the burden – and they most certainly don’t want to do it as junior partners to Iran,” he added.

Some analysts doubt Sunni allies would commit their own forces in more than token numbers and only if the US were to commit significant ground troops.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey in particular are concerned that the US is focusing exclusively on Iraq, when the main fuel for ISIL’s rise has been the Syrian civil war and the policies of Bashar Al Assad.

“Saudi Arabia underscores the importance of this coalition in fighting ISIL both in Iraq and Syria,” Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said on Thursday, speaking next to Mr Kerry.

The hands-off approach to Syria and the reliance on militia ground forces in Iraq is feeding a perception among all the allies that the US is allowing Iran to dominate both countries at their expense.

Another hurdle is Iraqi sovereignty.

Relations with Gulf and neighbouring countries have improved somewhat since the departure of former prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, but diplomatic outreach has not been robust, and they are unlikely to be welcomed in a ground role. 

“Iraq will be highly sensitive to Arab troops entering Iraq in a trigger-pulling, visible role,” said Michael Knights, an expert on Iraqi and Gulf militaries.

The frustration on the part of Washington’s allies is understandable given their vulnerable positions and the slow pace of rolling back ISIL, say some observers who are critical of the allies’ position. But, they are losing sight of the extreme complexities involved and the legitimate US desire to coordinate military action with a sustainable political strategy that will avoid a repeat of Mr Al Maliki’s rule.

“It doesn’t do any good to move into western Iraq if you don’t have the elements of a political solution and an Iraqi government that can move towards some type of unity,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst of US-Gulf affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“There isn’t a magic solution,” said Mr Cordesman. “There’s no wand to wave here.”

Published: March 7, 2015 04:00 AM


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