Obama’s Islamic State strategy relies on allies with own reputations for brutality

Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, Jan. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File)
Fighters from the Islamic State marching in Raqqa, Syria, Jan. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Militant Website, File) AP

Whatever strategy President Barack Obama lays out Wednesday to combat the Islamic State is sure to rely heavily on buy-in from rival Muslim powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran – one a Sunni Muslim kingdom with its own grim penchant for beheadings and the other a Shiite pariah state that’s executed thousands of dissidents.

Though hardly ideal, these partners are vital to any serious effort to weaken the Islamic State, according to foreign policy analysts who are tracking the U.S. response. Depending on hardline Islamist theocracies to help in the fight against an even more militant, self-proclaimed caliphate is among the many uncomfortable scenarios Obama must accept if he’s serious about wading deeper into Middle Eastern wars.

“The lessons of the past 15 years, good and bad, have taken us to this point, where these are the two key actors,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. Hitting on a strategy that looks after U.S. as well as regional interests, he said, would require “real political compromise and accommodation, and we’ll see whether Kerry and the American leadership can deliver that.”

Secretary of State John Kerry left Tuesday for visits to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where he’s expected to seek the Arab political cover necessary should the United States broaden its Iraq-focused campaign to Islamic State positions in neighboring Syria. The Arab monarchs on Kerry’s schedule are sure to bring up yet another uncomfortable truth: Virtually any action against the Islamic State inside of Syria will help the forces of President Bashar Assad, whose ouster the United States has demanded for years.

The Sunni powers are nervous about the Islamic State but skeptical of throwing in with the United States unless there’s a real commitment to securing more Sunni political representation in Iraq and more support for moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria. The Americans counter that the Sunni leaders also have room for improvement, starting with the need to crack down on the networks that send money and fighters from the Persian Gulf states to the Islamic State, which now controls roughly half of Iraq and a third of Syria.

“Without us having some skin in the game, it’s not clear that all the parties would play their assigned roles,” said Gregory Gause, a Persian Gulf specialist who heads the international affairs department at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. “The Iranians would be fighting these guys anyway, but the Turks might say, ‘We have to do a deal with them if they control all this territory.’ And the Saudis might say, ‘These guys are bad, but they’re fighting Assad and Iran.’”

Iran, meanwhile, is what Shaikh called the “silent partner” in the coalition, too radioactive to be explicitly included but whose presence and influence are too great to be ignored.

The expectation, analysts said, is that Iran would contribute discreetly by leaning on the new government in Baghdad to make more concessions to Sunni leaders and by nudging the Assad regime in Damascus toward reviving the idea of a negotiated resolution to the crisis.

“What Iran does now will determine to what extent the other Gulf and Arab states will more visibly accept its role,” Shaikh said. “It’s a key moment.”

U.S.-Iranian talks on the Islamic State are kept very quiet, but evidence crops up in occasional leaks or news items. One recent example is the emergence of a photo that purported to show Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani with Iraqi Shiite militiamen near Amerli, where U.S. warplanes had just helped to break a months-long siege. Put more simply: Americans provided the air cover and Iranian-backed militias provided the ground forces to retake territory from the Islamic State.

For all the attention that episode garnered, Middle East specialists cautioned against concluding that it could signal a wider detente between Tehran and its old foes in Washington and Riyadh.

“Both sides are willing to focus, at least temporarily, on the more serious threat. That doesn’t make them friends,” said Anthony Cordesman, a former senior defense official who’s now with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Arab leaders are taking time to craft their public responses, in part because joining a U.S.-led coalition that would end up helping Baghdad and Damascus is sensitive in countries where there are pockets of support for the Islamic State’s message of restoring dignity to Sunnis after years of humiliations at the hands of Western and Shiite enemies.

Saudi Arabia has targeted imams not just for expressly supporting the Islamic State but even for neglecting to publicly condemn it; other Arab nations are closely monitoring the tenor of religious speech in mosques and in the streets.

Jordan reportedly has arrested more than 70 suspected jihadists throughout the country, and King Abdullah II is forming a special task force to deal with the Islamic State response. The possibility of Arab powers joining the U.S.-led coalition in a military capacity remains distant but no longer unthinkable, with Jordan among a handful of nations floating the idea.

But the Jordanian monarchy is also facing domestic pressure; 21 legislators signed on to a memorandum demanding that Jordan stay out the fight against the Islamic State, according to news reports.

“We reject categorically any Jordanian contribution in a battle that is not ours,” the document said, according to the AFP news agency.

Saudi state news announced that the kingdom would host talks Thursday to “tackle the issue of terrorism in the region and the extremist organizations that stand behind it.” Participants are said to include Sunni heavyweights Egypt, Jordan and Turkey, as well as the Gulf Cooperation Council, which in addition to Saudi Arabia includes Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

“You may well say that including Qatar and Saudi Arabia is a bit counterproductive because a lot of people blame them for the problems in the first place, but it’s like with Iran – they have to be part of the solution,” said Michael Stephens, a specialist on Gulf states, Israel and Syria for the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, a British research center.

Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political science professor at Emirates University and a frequent political commentator on Gulf affairs, calls the Islamic State “political super glue that has momentarily fixed the many shattered glasses,” including the Gulf rifts over issues such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s role in regional politics.

But Abdulla said that the tentative willingness to cooperate isn’t likely to extend to Iran, with which the rifts are much deeper, highly sectarian and probably irreparable even with a common enemy at the gates. Saudi Arabia and Iran have floated the idea of a foreign minister-level visit, but no one predicts a real thaw anytime soon.

“That’s too much to ask at this stage,” Abdulla said. “The talking has started, but I don’t think there’s more to it than talking at this time. They’re still fighting here, there, everywhere, all over the region.”

“And Iran is already there whether we like it or not,” he added, referring to the battles against the Islamic State. “There’s no need to invite it.”