Originally Published in Foreign Policy Association Blogs
Today, the world is witness to increasing instability in the Middle East that is fueled by crumbling security structures and violent sectarianism. In the absence of an effective and compelling American leadership in the Middle East, regional states use their military influence in the form of brutal proxy wars and push for sectarian policies that shape the geopolitics of the region. An intensifying Sunni-Shia proxy war has been the defining feature of this growing regional instability while in Palestine Israel remains unfazed by worldwide criticism of its invasion of Gaza, confident that the strategic outlook in the Arab world is against Hamas. So what kind of policies have Arab states put in place in the face of current regional instability? Karen Elliot House, Bessma Momani, Kamran Bokhari and Ayham Kamel joined Reza Akhlaghi of the Foreign Policy Association to discuss the growing regional instability, Arab policy, and the breakdown of security structure in Iraq and Syria.
Karen Elliott House is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who spent three decades writing about Saudi Arabia as diplomatic correspondent and foreign editor at The Wall Street Journal. Later she served as President of Dow Jones International and then publisher of The Wall Street Journal. A former board member of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Ms. House is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and the Chair of the RAND Corporation. She is also the author, most recently, of On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines – and Future.
Bessma Momani is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation (CIGI) and an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo and theBalsillie School of International Affairs in Canada. Dr. Momani is a distinguished expert on International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, petrodollars, regional trade agreements and economic liberalization in the Middle East.
Kamran Bokhari is Vice President of Middle Eastern and South Asian Affairs at Stratfor, one of the world’s leading geopolitical and intelligence consulting firms based in Austin, Texas, where he has played a fundamental role in shaping Stratfor’s knowledge base for the region. Mr. Bokhari has given briefings to the U.S. and Canadian governments on important geopolitical issues in the Islamic world. He is the author, most recently, along with Farid Senzai, of Political Islam in the Age of Democratization
Ayham Kamel is Director of the Middle East and North Africa at theEurasia Group, world’s largest political risk consultancy firm based in New York. Mr. Kamel’s focus is on Iraq, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and the Levant area (Syria, Jordan and Lebanon). His expertise includes the financial industry, banking, hospitality, infrastructure, and oil and gas.
With the Syrian crisis morphing into a regional security issue involving two key Arab states, there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort or a coordinated policy by regional Arab states on how to deal with this crisis. What is your take on Arab states’ approach to this crisis?
Karen Elliott House: Given that the historic divisions among Arab states have widened since the Arab Spring and especially since the collapse of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government and the civil war in Syria, their disunity on what to do about ISIS in Syria and Iraq isn’t surprising. In sum, the impotence of the Arab League is equaled only by that of the United Nations.—or these days by American Mideast policy.
Bessma Momani: Arab states have not been united on how to handle their general distaste for Assad and Maliki, with the recognition that the only fighting forces capable of undermining these two governments are those with an Islamist bent like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamic State. The latter two are also strategic threats to the autocratic and military regimes in the rest of the region. I think this explains the overall lack of a coordinated policy. There are deep domestic concerns in each Arab country that also prevent the type of concerted action we had seen in the past. Take the case of Egypt, which is riding on the wave of hypernationalism where any cooperation with the West, especially the United States, presents bad optics for the regime. These are among the reasons we see a divided region in a time of universal threats.
Kamran Bokhari: There has hardly ever been a coordinated policy by Arab states to deal with any crisis. Since their emergence in the aftermath of the two world wars there have been competing policies towards regional crises. This is especially the case with the Syrian crisis given that the Levantine country is located at the heart of the geo-sectarian fault line running through the region. The meltdown of states triggered by the Arab Spring, which is currently in progress, leaves very few Arab states with the ability to try and manage the Syrian crisis. These are Saudi Arabia and Qatar who share the need to back the rebels in order to weaken Iranian influence in the region, but are also competing among themselves for regional influence. Egypt is in no position to play a role in the Syrian crisis, given its financial dependence on the Khaleeji Arab states. Jordan represents a staging ground for Saudi efforts to effect regime-change in Damascus while Lebanon and Iraq are dominated by pro-Assad Shia forces aligned with Iran. To the degree that there is any semblance of an Arab coordinated policy towards Syria is a function of Saudi Arabia’s ability to lead the region, which is severely constrained.
Ayham Kamel: A common Arab vision regarding regional security and political developments either in Syria or Iraq is nonexistent. Most Arab regimes, much like their Iranian and Turkish counterparts, are exploiting domestic contradictions in individual states to further advance their regional position. These conflicts are increasingly viewed through a Sunni-Shia sectarian prism, which probably narrows the room for political compromises. Riyadh, Ankara, and Doha do not necessarily view instability in Shia aligned Iraq and Syria or the erosion of central government authority as detrimental to their national security interests. At this point, there is no Arab consensus on ending the conflicts or re-establishing stability.
The Arab League’s failure to deliver on a unified strategy is inherently a reflection of governments in the region and their inability to develop an institutional framework capable of applying international norms on regional security and economic affairs. I don’t think the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) presents a viable alternative route or mechanism to address emerging instability mainly because of rifts among these countries and their respective interests. The Egyptian government under Abdulfatah el Sisi could invent more robust diplomatic initiatives, but Sisi will probably adopt a piecemeal approach where he incrementally rebuilds Egypt’s regional influence.
What is your take on the declaration of an Islamic caliphate by the ISIS and subsequent declarations about the structure of the caliphate? How serious such announcements by the ISIS should be taken and for how much longer can the public opinion afford to drink the Kool Aid offered by the ISIS on a daily basis?
Karen Elliott House: ISIS declaration of a caliphate on June 29, the beginning of Ramadan, a holy month of fasting and prayer for Muslims, was a clever public relations ploy by its leader, Abu Bakr Baghdadi to appeal to the emotions of young, religious and rootless Muslim men to come help build a glorious new Islamic caliphate where justice under Allah would reign, rather than continue to live in corrupt earthly societies that all too often offer no jobs, no justice, and no sense of purpose. This announcement is of a piece with the sophisticated and emotional You Tube recruitment videos that have made ISIS THE place to be for Islamist militants.
But young jihadis and the Western press who read these declarations and view the emotionally appealing videos should be cautious about assuming the ISIS new caliphate is much more than a public relations play. Indeed, the declaration could be the beginning of the end of ISIS’ influence as it clearly has unleashed alarm among Sunni regimes with its declaration that henceforth all Sunni Muslims worldwide are subject to the rule of the caliphate and its new caliph, or successor to the Prophet Mohammad — namely Abu Bakr Baghdadi. “The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and arrival of its troops to their areas,” declared the recording announcing the creation of the caliphate.
ISIS success in seizing control of a large swath of Iraq and neighboring Syria is in large part the result of many different Sunni groups temporarily cooperating with ISIS out of hatred for the discriminatory policies of Iraq’s incompetent Shiite regime encouraged by Iran. Whether this cooperation holds, if ISIS begins to make demands of its own on Iraqi Sunnis, many of whom are moderates, is a big question only compounded now by the incentive ISIS has given Sunni regimes in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, to fear its expansion. It is one thing to declare a caliphate and quite another to be able to control and govern such a caliphate. This weakness will become clearer as time passes.
Bessma Momani: I don’t think ISIS is a real strategic threat, but must be uprooted by going to the source of local grievances and stemming the tide of individuals drawn from the region and globally, that have been attracted to join its ranks. The number of ISIS fighters is reportedly low and can be combated but through winning back locals who have, in some cases throughout Iraq, invited ISIS into their communities. Nevertheless, best practices in counterinsurgency would suggest that both soft and hard instruments need to be used, depending on the local context. What I would hate to see is a blowback effect that would swell the ranks and draw more people into ISIS ranks.
Kamran Bokhari: The transnational jihadist group, the Islamic State [(IS) – formerly ISIS], by declaring that it has re-established the caliphate, has engaged in over-reach. Its so-called caliphate is at best an emirate – limited to the areas that it controls in Syria and Iraq, which are not contiguous. Its position in both neighboring Arab states is tenuous given that it faces resistance from both the Iranian led-Shia camp as well as from within the Sunni communities it seeks to lead. Syrian Sunnis are caught between the Alawite-Baathist regime that has brutalized them and the IS, which wishes to establish a far worse draconian order than the Assad clan has imposed since 1971. Not only is the support base of the Islamic State weak, it is also fighting on five different fronts – against the regime, nationalist rebels, Kurdish forces, Salafist-jihadist groups, and al-Qaeda. Similarly, in Iraq, the Islamic State’s recent surge needs to be understood in the context of the Iraqi Sunni needs to use the Islamic State as a force-multiplier to counter Iranian-backed Shia domination of the post-Baathist Iraqi republic. Already, we are seeing several Iraqi Sunni groups turn against IS. Furthermore, there is a strong precedent of Iraq’s Sunni tribes turning against the Islamic State’s predecessor ISI (aka al-Qaeda in Iraq). Therefore, it is unlikely that the Islamic State can establish a singular battlespace in the Levantine-Mesopotamian landmass – let alone a polity with staying power.
Ayham Kamel: The Islamic State will not survive as a normal political entity in the region. The Iraqi government will cut almost all financial transfers to the Sunni areas occupied by the Islamic State (ISIS); the Iraqi military will pressure insurgents over the long term. The Islamic state’s borders with Turkey, the Kurdish region, and Iraq will be closed to any trade, and the US will eventually conduct counterterrorism drone strikes against the Islamic State’s leadership.
However, ISIS has a much more sophisticated political and military machine compared to its predecessors in Iraq and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (probably with significant support from his advisors) is skilfully exploiting the regional geopolitical environment. ISIS is capitalizing on the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the region at large by claiming that the route to effective governance is not through participation in western style democratic system, but through establishment of a just Islamic State. At least some disenchanted conservative Muslims will view the Islamic State as a credible alternative in the current environment. The Islamic State’s narrative also competes with Saudi Arabia’s model that restricts power sharing to a family or clan. In this respect ISIS is becoming a more mainstream organization that appeals to a broader base of Muslims interested in religious governance rather than relying heavily on anti-western radicals. While ISIS will never fully prosper, its political strategy will help it bolster its position, increase its popularity amongst conservative Muslims, and expand its recruitment base.
How is the Al-Assad regime in Syria impacted by the ISIS?
Karen Elliott House: Right now, Assad is benefiting from the ISIS focus on Iraq, not Syria, and from the growing turmoil and competition among Sunni militant groups opposing his regime. But the ISIS appeal to young Sunnis in the region and in the West threatens to erode the influence of Iran and its Shiite partners including Assad, Hezbollah and the Iraqi regime. While ISIS may not succeed in truly governing a large chunk of Iraq and Syria (as opposed to occupying it) and eventually engulfing other Muslims neighbors, Iraqi Shiites have lost the opportunity to rule a united Iraq, something Iran hoped for and continues to support with its current help to Al Maliki’s government–though almost surely in vain. So, while ISIS poses an emerging threat to moderate Sunni regimes, it also undermines Shiite influence now and, if it succeeds at toppling moderate Sunni regimes, poses an even greater threat in the future to Shiite Iran and to Assad’s Syria.
Bessma Momani: On the one hand, ISIS is comfortable taking the eastern part of Syria which gives it the illusion of lots of territory. But it is important to note this territory is generally barren, with very low population and little in terms of economic and social viability.
The land ISIS controls in Syria is not part of the strategic heartland for Assad and his regime. While it is true that some refineries were captured by ISIS in the northeast of Syria, the Assad regime is willing to sacrifice this relative to the heartland of Syria. Assad is keen on preserving the central corridor of Aleppo to Damascus and of course the Laktaki coastland which is home to his sectarian community. Outside of this triangle, Assad is less concerned or in less of a rush to reclaim territory. Having ISIS in charge of the eastern part of Syrian territory and its expansion into Iraq help Assad in two ways. First, Assad takes comfort in knowing ISIS is busy with a larger fight in Anbar province and Mosul where Iraqi military operations will continue. Second, Assad is able to demonstrate to his benefactors in Russia and Iran, that he’s worth upholding and funding to ensure the spread of ISIS doesn’t get to the Caucuses and to Lebanon. Assad has also been able to change the Washington beltway narrative that maybe he is a better option than the spread of ISIS throughout Syria.
Kamran Bokhari: The ISIS is a godsend for the al-Assad regime. From the point of view of the Syrian government, its position that Damascus is fighting terrorism and not simply a genuine uprising has been strengthened. The group’s resurgence in neighboring Iraq has also given Damascus a breather and allows it to deal with other rebel groups while the ISIS is focused on Baghdad. Now that both Syria and Iraq are threatened by the ISIS, the two regimes can tag-team more openly with Iranian support to deal with their respective rebel forces. The regional expansion of the ISIS has further aggravated western concerns and the west is now all the more unlikely to want to oust Assad. Additionally, the ISIS actions have created opportunities for convergence of interests between Damascus and Washington, especially through the U.S.-Iranian channel.
Ayham Kamel: The Assad regime’s short term position is secure but the Islamic State presents a more concrete long term threat in eastern Syria, particularly as ISIS begins to expand its capability and tactics. In the meantime, the Syrian regime has not demonstrated any serious interest in regaining control of the eastern part of the country and been content with its series of military successes.
ISIS’s resurgence poses a more significant risk to different rebel groups in the opposition. The Islamic State’s leadership is unlikely to turn the page on the coordinated rebel offensives against its troops in Syria. Despite their joitn battle against Assad, the Nusra front, the Islamic Front, moderate rebels, and other Sunni rebels effectively forced ISIS out of most of western Syria at the beginning of 2014. Over the next few months, the Islamic State will most likely leverage the military equipment seized in the capture of Mosul to expand their influence and control in Syria. While military skirmishes will occur with both rebels and the Assad regime, the Syrian government has sufficient support to maintain its military position on the most important fronts.
Do you regard the situation in Iraq and Syria as a strategic blow to Iranian interests?
Karen Elliott House: Yes, for the reasons outlined in question 3 I believe ISIS success in paring down the territory under the rule of both Assad and Al Maliki is a strategic blow to Iranian interests in both countries.
Bessma Momani: I think both the fragmentation of Syria and Iraq are not advantageous to Iran, for sure, but I think Iran is increasingly more introverted than before. The economic crisis caused by the harsh sanctions has sidelined the more hawkish and expansionary forces in the country. It will take a long time for Iran to subdue those hawkish forces, but it seems as though there is a great thirst for a government that focuses on expanding and developing its economy, provides jobs for its youth, improves education and health care, etc.
This is not say that Iran has given up its strategic interests, but if the nuclear talks are any evidence of things to come, we don’t have any evidence that Iran has tried to use the nuclear talks to achieve its regional and strategic objectives in terms of negotiating terms that serve its allies like Assad or Maliki. So maybe this suggests that the Iranian government is becoming less worried about defending the interests of the axis of rejectionists than preserving the interests of its own people.
Kamran Bokhari: On the eve of the Arab Spring Iran had achieved a contiguous sphere of influence stretching from Central Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. In Dec 2010, a merger of the two rival Shia blocs in parliament prevented a Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc from forming the government and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had succeeded in gaining a second term in office despite the fact that his coalition came in second place in the March 2010 elections. The following month Hezbollah engineered a constitutional coup against the Saudi-backed Lebanese government of then prime minister, Saad al-Hariri. This was followed by the Arab Spring, which delighted the Iranians even further as it provided openings within the Arab world, which it could exploit to expand its regional footprint. For the Islamic Republic, the uprising in Bahrain by the Shia majority against a minority Sunni monarchy was the most significant development as it provided an opportunity for the Iranians to geopolitically leap across the Persian Gulf and on to the Arabian Peninsula. The optimism proved short-lived as the Saudis quickly locked down the island kingdom thus blocking Iran on that front. Much more importantly was the Arab Spring phenomenon reaching Syria where civil agitation against the regime very quickly morphed into an armed insurrection. This represented the greatest threat to Iranian national security since the Iran-Iraq war.
Until early 2013 it appeared as though Iran’s opponents in the West and the region would succeed in toppling the Syrian regime and in the process punch a major hole in Tehran’s sphere of influence. However, the situation turned around dramatically in the spring of last year with Hezbollah’s entry into the war and the regime began re-taking territory from the rebels who had begun fighting amongst each other. By the fall the U.S.-Iranian diplomacy essentially did away with whatever little western appetite there was to use force against Damascus. Since then the situation in Syria continues to improve for Iran, which to a considerable degree, explains why the ISIS turned its attention towards Iraq, which proved more fertile ground given the crises between the Maliki government and the country’s Sunni community as well as those between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish government in the north. For the Iranians this was an even bigger threat they faced in Syria because if the situation was not reversed then it could mean the loss of all the gains made in the past decade. This is why we see Iran operating on both the military and more importantly the political front to counter the threat. In essence, Iran will not be able to have contiguous sphere of influence on its western flank, so Iran will have to work out Lebanon style power-sharing arrangements in both Iraq and Syria (the latter more so than the former).
Ayham Kamel: Over the last three decades, the Iranian regime proved to be much more agile and effective than other regional powers in expanding its influence and confronting a series of military and economic challenges. Tehran’s allies in Syria and Iraq do not face existential risks, but the rise of sectarian radical Islamist groups like ISIS is creating a long term challenge to the Shia regime in Iran. Iran’s strategic project in the Middle East is built on redefining identities under pan-Islamist rather than sectarian principles. In addition to traditional competition from Sunni powers, Tehran must now attend to a new threat by radical Islamists that are less focused on the west and more willing to target Shia governments in the region.
However, the rise of ISIS presents Iran with an opportunity to redefine its strategic priorities and its relationship with the West. Despite his hardline rhetoric that caters to the conservative or IRGC base, Ayatollah Khamenei probably no longer believes that the West represents an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. In the context of a successful conclusion of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, Iran could focus on containing radical Islam with implicit acquiescence of the US and Europe.
To what extent could Saudi Arabia benefit from the rise of ISIS at the expense of Iran’s regional interests? Could the rise of such extremist Sunni groups come to haunt Riyadh?
Karen Elliott House: While Saudi Arabia obviously welcomes any weakening of Iranian influence in the Mideast, Riyadh would be shortsighted and foolish to welcome the rise of ISIS. The ISIS, like the Riyadh regime for so many decades, is less interested in advancing Allah than in advancing its own political power. So declaring a caliphate is the ISIS way of seeking to advance its own interests by purporting to protect and promote Allah’s community of believers. The Saudi rulers recognize this all too well—and know the deep danger it poses to the Al Saud regime whose genuine devotion to Allah already is in question by fundamentalist Muslims in the kingdom.
When I visited Riyadh just before the ISIS victories in Mosul and Tikrit, Saudi authorities were eager to boast of their renewed efforts to protect the kingdom from militants inside (outlawing the Moslem Brotherhood, criminalizing criticism of the government, forbidding Saudis to participate in jihad against Syria at penalty of prison, and imposing harsh sentences on convicted militants) and outside (more border protection, fingerprinting Saudis to assure that those who enter are who they say they are.) These same Saudi authorities acknowledge some wealthy Saudis (and Gulf citizens) are supporting ISIS financially, but insist the Saudi government isn’t. I believe the majority of Saudis do not support terrorism—at least inside Saudi Arabia. Still it is impossible to know the true sentiments of Saudis and how appealing they find the promise of a Sunni caliphate.
One small incident recorded by Saudi journalist and author, Jamal Khashoggi, indicates there are at least ISIS sympathizers in the kingdom. On a recent Ramadan evening after prayers, Khashoggi took his family to a Jeddah pastry shop. The next day he was tagged in a tweet that said: “I saw you yesterday in the restaurant…[Islamic] State supporters are everywhere, watch yourself.” Khashoggi is a well-known moderate who now is working with billionaire businessman, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, a liberal not popular with Islamists.
In sum, ISIS threatens to undermine Iranian influence in the region but poses a much more direct threat to a relatively moderate Sunni regime like Saudi Arabia.
Bessma Momani: I don’t think the rise of ISIS or any Islamist group, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, serves the interests of Saudi Arabia. It wouldn’t take long for ISIS to find enough reasons to condemn and curse the Saudi monarchy, so I doubt it sees them as an ally in any way. ISIS and the Saudis share an interest in seeing the demise of Maliki and Assad, but that would not lead the Saudis to see any benefit in supporting or helping ISIS. ISIS is not a group that Saudis could trust or control. Moreover, the Saudi’s interpretation of Islam is far from the ISIS’ view of the world. The disintegration of Iraq would also not benefit the Saudis. Sunnis predominantly live in non-oil producing regions of Iraq, which would put a Shiite country as the second largest producer in OPEC and in the region. The Saudis would prefer to see a united Iraq where Sunnis could partake in the potential wealth of the country, but of course they would like to see a more equitable power arrangement that gives Sunnis more say in Baghdad. The last point would not lead the Saudis to make a deal with the unpredictable and uncontrollable ISIS. It would be much too risky and counterintuitive in the long term.
Kamran Bokhari: Saudi Arabia and the ISIS are enemies of one another, however, Riyadh is trying to benefit from the offensive launched by the transnational jihadist group in Iraq. Riyadh has been shut out of Iraq, especially since the fall of Saddam regime and its efforts to back the country’s Sunni minority have not yielded results. After the frustration of its efforts in Syria, the rise of ISIS in Iraq is a major opportunity that the Saudis wish to exploit. Their goal is to be able to gain a seat at the Iraqi table and undermine Iran’s near monopoly of influence there.
The Saudis are likely to gain some form of stake in Iraq but it is unlikely to be a significant one because the ISIS wave is troughing as we are beginning to witness the end of the honeymoon between the jihadist movement and the Iraqi Sunni community. Furthermore, ISIS poses a physical threat to the Saudi kingdom, which is why Riyadh this month deployed some 30,000 additional troops to its border with Iraq. This threat from the ISIS comes at a time when the kingdom is also threatened by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (aQAP) based in Yemen. The group’s attack on a Saudi border post has alarmed Riyadh to the point where it has reportedly taken action against as many as 100 mosque imams who defied an order to condemn aQAP’s attack.
In addition, the Saudis in the last couple of weeks issued an alert announcing that security was being beefed up at key installations across the country due to intelligence intercept of an ISIS plot to attack infrastructure, especially desalinization plants. In essence, the Saudis can only benefit so much from jihadist conflict with Iran and the Shia. Riyadh cannot really combat Tehran and its Arab Shia allies unless it defeats jihadists first.
Ayham Kamel: he Most influential members of the al-Saud family in Riyadh view any crisis that undermines Iran or its regional allies as a net positive. The two Sunni insurgencies in Iraq and Syria improve Riyadh’s geopolitical position as they create significant external challenges for the Iranian leadership. Saudi Arabia has long been frustrated with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies and would not object to the weakening of the Iraqi Shia dominated central government-King Abdullah believes that Maliki has essentially served as Iran’s proxy in Baghdad and failed to reconnect Iraq to its Arab core.
Riyadh does not have a long list of effective tools to counter Iran’s influence. Riyadh lacks the necessary conventional military capability to confront Iran, and its patronage of Cairo will not force the Egyptian leadership—the region’s most effective Sunni military—to adopt hawkish positions against Iran. Despite Saudi reservations, Egypt’s president Abdulfatah el-Sisi was one of the first to call Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to offer his support after the ISIS capture of Mosul.
Officials in Riyadh are not insensitive to the security risks that the Islamic State can pose to them over the long term. Saudi Arabia’s interior minister Prince Mohammad bin Nayef is well attuned to the risks that radical Jihadists are creating and the policies pursued by the former head of intelligence Bandar bin Sultan. However, at least in the short term and in the context of potential rapprochement between Iran and the West, ISIS is a very effective tool in creating Vietnam-style conflicts that could essentially exhaust Iranian political and military power.