The Gulf-Gulf conversation about the challenges posed by the Islamic State (IS/ISIS) and the alliances that will be forged to destroy it indicates that a striking disparity exists between the positions of official leaderships and the sentiment of the grassroots. There is a sense of schizophrenia surrounding what the Gulf parties want from the United States, as they quarrel over what Washington wants from them.
What is remarkable – and certainly healthy – is the sudden candor in expressing radical differences, for example between the fact that Gulf governments have characterized the ISIS threat as an “existential” one, and the fact that a large segment of the public sympathizes with ISIS and its motives, and sees it as something necessary in the balance of power and the balance of terror. A segment in the Gulf says that Islam is innocent of ISIS and that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. Another segment sees it as the pure Islam that spoke about Christians in the language of “convert or be killed or exiled.” Therefore, this segment of society in the Gulf does not perceive ISIS and its practices from the standpoint of terrorism – and this is more common in Saudi society relative to other Gulf societies. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz made it clear that the priority should be to fight terrorism, whether it is practiced by ISIS or by similar organizations. On the other hand, there is a significant segment of Saudi society – including within institutions – that deny the charge of terrorism from ISIS and sees the latter as a necessary instrument to confront the Islamic Republic of Iran and its regional ambitions, especially in the war in Syria, and as a way to avenge the Sunnis in Iraq who have been marginalized by the Shiites.
This race between these two principles and two paths is directly impacting President Barack Obama’s assessment of and objectives behind his declared war on ISIS, amid a lack of confidence in Obama and ongoing doubt in whether he is serious this time or whether he is going to back track again.
Perhaps everyone in the Gulf region, the Middle East, and in the Western and Eastern capitals are biting their nails, fearing the ISIS threat to them in one form or another. ISIS’s threats are wide ranging, while the governments of many countries pursue selective policies. Many decision makers are being stubborn or are gambling, amid radical political divisions. However, it will not be possible to wage a serious war against ISIS with military operations alone, because only the political tack is able to mobilize the necessary popular support against ISIS. This requires radically new policies from all countries concerned, from Washington to Moscow, to Beijing and Tehran, as well as the Gulf capitals, Iraq, and Syria.
Obduracy and one-upmanship continue to dominate not only the policies of Iran and Russia, which hold the keys to political solutions in Syria and also the responsibility for its total collapse. They also persist in Iraq, where some are using ISIS as leverage and asking for a price to abandon it.
Many Sunnis in Iraq and the Gulf consider ISIS a bullet in their rifles aimed at Shiite extremism, in their bid to restore their lost standing. They are not yet willing to denounce ISIS or join the battle against it, because they see it as the bullet that could help restore their lost rights. As long as these factions are not given guarantees toward restoring their status and putting an end to their exclusion, they will continue to petulantly pursue this course, risky as it may be.
Some among these factions know that the US-led war on ISIS will definitely need them as soldiers on the ground, but they are unwilling to take part if the objectives of this war are vague, ambivalent, or lacking in a serious strategy. This segment of Sunnis purport that they had been betrayed before by the US more than once, most recently after the Iraqi tribes in the Sahawat or Awakening rose up against al-Qaeda, before they found themselves victims of
marginalization, provocation, and humiliation at the hands of the Iranian-baked and US-blessed government of Nouri
al-Maliki. Treachery and betrayal have left a bitter taste with this segment, which is apprehensive about the usual US policy and legacy of abandoning partners after they serve their purpose.
This week, an exceptional conference was held in Riyadh, and was characterized by forthrightness where challenges were discussed transparently. The conference was organized by the Institute of Diplomatic Studies of the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was chaired by Dr Abdulkarim bin Hamoud
al-Dakhil and the chairman of the Gulf Research Center Dr. Abdulaziz bin
Saqr. A group of leading political and academic figures spoke at the conference, which included private, candid sessions that highlighted the disparity in Gulf attitudes regarding the alliance being created against ISIS and the US role in it.
One Saudi participant said during a private session that this was yet another US battle in favor of the Shiites, calling on the US president not to use Sunnis as fodder in the war. Addressing Obama, he said, “Take your alliance and leave, and don’t claim that the war against ISIS is for our sake…Leave.”
“The Sunnis cannot offer their blood for free,” declared secretary general of the Iraqi National Future Society and MP Dr. Zafer bin Nazim
al-Ani, “only to entrench a new sectarian government.” He also spoke about “sectarian humiliation,” “uprooting Sunnis,” and said that the “Iranian Revolutionary Guards are no less worse than ISIS.”
At the same time, he spoke about “tangible hope” through the government of Haider
Abadi, after the removal of Nouri al-Maliki, and said, “Defeating terrorism is important to us, but for the sake of whom?” He also stressed the need for Sunni Arabs to have a sense of citizenship, saying that Sunni Arabs must be shown that change has already started, if they are to participate in the international war on terror, which can only be won by winning over locals on the ground. He said, “The real fighters who would defeat terrorism are the Sunni Arabs.”
Al-Ani carried a message from Haider Abadi to the conference in Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia in particular, calling on Saudi to turn the page on the past. Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Abdul Latif Rashid Al Zayani said that “a formula must be found to manage relations with Iran” – meaning Iraq specifically. He said that the responsibility is “collective”; that it is important to have a comprehensive strategy involving all parties, all areas, and all structures equally, both immediate and subsequent; and that coordination and communication between everyone was a must.