THE LEVANT – By Osama Al Sharif – NATO’s ten-nation “core coalition” that was formed last week in Wales in the United Kingdom to confront the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIL, did not include any Arab country. And yet President Barack Obama has underlined the important role that Sunni Arab states can play in helping to defeat IS militants because, as he said, “this is their neighborhood.” With the exception of Turkey, no Muslim country has joined the newly formed coalition so far.
On Sunday, Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to discuss the threat of extremism particularly that of the IS in both Iraq and Syria. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby warned that “the number of threats facing the Arab world were unprecedented and of an existential nature.” He called for broad-based action and a comprehensive Arab response, including security, political, economic, philosophical and cultural measures. The foreign ministers agreed to take “all necessary action to confront the Islamic State and cooperate with all international, regional and local efforts to fight extremist movements.”
But they did not refer to the new international coalition or to Obama’s call on Arab states to join the US-led campaign. The resolution was vague on specific steps to be taken in response to IS challenge. Elaraby had earlier said that actions should be taken under the joint Arab defense pact, but admitted that the Arab League was unable to perform although its charter gives it the legal and political framework to intervene and help any Arab country, which is facing crisis including military intervention.
Arab countries recognize the danger that IS poses to regional and international stability and security. But they are unable to come up with a unified strategy to deal with such dangers. Moreover, while most are willing to cooperate with US-led efforts to deter and degrade IS fighters and capabilities; they are keen on keeping such cooperation away from public opinion.
One case is Jordan whose prime minister recently denied that Jordan was part of an international or regional coalition to fight the ISIL. King Abdallah had attended the NATO summit in Wales and Jordan was mentioned by Obama and his aides, as a key player with important intelligence experience in fighting radical groups. A number of Jordanian deputies had signed a petition warning against involving the kingdom in a US-led coalition.
Such wariness will be demonstrated by other Arab countries as well. Joining a military campaign led by the United States evokes bitter memories of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which most see as the root cause of that country’s present plight. But IS threat may change all that. The movement has already retuned the regional agenda and put traditional rivalries on hold. Regional powers now back efforts by Iraqi Prime Minister Hamed Al-Abadi to form a new national reconciliation government that promises to appease Iraq’s Sunnis and Kurds and bring them back into the political process.
Confronting IS militants would require a strong and united government in Baghdad that is able to wage military operations by the Iraqi army. Al-Abadi is facing problems forming his new Cabinet and Iraq’s Sunnis remain skeptical of his ability to meet their demands. The role of Iraq’s Sunnis in standing against IS militants is paramount and without their support it will be difficult to deny IS fighters the so-called “social incubator” that has allowed them to control most of Iraq’s Sunni governorates.
On the other hand, President Obama, who will unveil his strategy to fight IS soon, realizes that aerial bombardment alone will not defeat the terrorist organization. With no foreign boots on the ground, he will have to rely on Kurds and the Iraqi army to expel the militants. It is unlikely that Arab troops will get involved in Syria or Iraq. In Syria, the west now realizes that it must support “moderate rebels”, namely the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to stand up to radical groups. How will this reflect on current positions from the Assad regime remains to be seen?
It is a sad reality that Arab countries are unable to address regional challenges on their own. On paper the Arab League provides possible solutions that can spare foreign intervention. An Arab coalition would have been ideal to deal with many existential challenges that the countries of the region face today. Instead this organization is helpless against regional crises that today threaten Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. The Arab political order is crippled and the void that we see today is being filled by the US and others.
One thing is certain and that is while the international coalition will be able to deal with the immediate danger of radicalism, the difficult task for the Arabs will be to pinpoint the root cause of such a disturbing phenomenon and come up with solutions to it.