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Saudis join war against Islamic State; many sceptical

Sandhya Jain is Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi. The current Essay is part of her ongoing research on Balochistan province of Pakistan. The views expressed are personal.
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  • September 29, 2014

    In an extraordinary show of determination to defeat the Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham (Daesh) or Islamic State (IS), Riyadh deputed Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, and an unidentified royal scion to join the military action against the terrorist group. On September 25, Prince Khaled piloted one of the planes from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that joined the US-led bombing of Daesh positions in Syria.

    The high profile participation by the royal family indicates the regime’s implacable opposition to the mercenary group. Prince Khaled is the son of the Saudi prime minister, defence minister and heir to the throne. Reports also suggest that the UAE’s first female pilot, Major Mariam Al Mansouri, a veteran of F-16 warplanes, participated in the raid.

    With these moves, the Arab Gulf nations have shed their diffidence and are openly deploying forces to exterminate the most brutal killers of the 21st century. To the cognoscenti, the rise of the IS was not unexpected and Washington was expecting an attack on Iraq, especially Mosul, from at least August 2013. US security experts were aware of the role of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in supporting IS; what is less well known is that the UAE was the largest financier. The group’s rise was further abetted by the US, UK and France funding, training and equipping ‘moderate’ rebels against the Syrian regime, who then joined the IS with their weapons. The Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has publicly accused Washington of having created Daesh.

    US President Barack Obama admitted (Sept 28) that America had underestimated the strength and ferocity of the enemy and overestimated the ability of Iraqi forces to counter the group. Washington also underestimated the rise of the group in Syria while it was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; this enabled it to recruit fighters from Europe, Australia, the US, and Muslim countries. The Islamic State now poses an equal threat to its Gulf and Western patrons, hence the air strikes.

    Damascus has issued a statement that it has been “notified” by the Pentagon that its territory would be bombed. The raids in the Syrian provinces of Deir Ezzor and Hasakeh targetted oil facilities and forced Daesh to stop extracting oil in Deir Ezzor, which has six major oilfields and the Coneco gas field. The move may impact Daesh’s war chest, which is funded by oil sales, ransoms and other extortions. Previous air strikes compelled Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to quit its bases in the Idlib countryside, northwest of Syria. The Ahrar al-Sham group also abandoned its bases.

    Reservations persist in some capitals regarding the success of the operation as Washington and Riyadh have not renounced the goal of removing Syrian President Bashir al-Assad. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly assured Riyadh on this score when he met King Abdullah on Sept. 11 (though he allegedly gave the opposite assurance to Tehran). The goal is to link Qatar’s huge natural gas fields to Europe and curtail Russian President Putin’s politico-economic leverage. Moreover, for Saudi Arabia, Syria is a frontline state in the battle for regional influence with Iran, an Assad ally.

    Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has dismissed the airstrikes as a “psychological operation”, not a military one. Speaking to CNN, he said, “it is a common threat for all of us” and requires a “vast campaign of operations ... the aerial bombardment campaign is mostly … a form of theater, rather than a serious battle against terrorism”. Iran has sent Revolutionary Guard units to fight the Islamic State in Iraq.

    Experts feel that Iran would cooperate with the US-led action against Daesh if given some concessions on its uranium enrichment program. Briefly, Tehran wants flexibility on the number of atomic centrifuges it could keep under any long-term deal that would lift sanctions in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program. Western officials have privately admitted that it would be tricky to keep Tehran’s nuclear negotiations out of the regional imbroglio, given Iran’s influence with the Syrian and Iraqi governments. Currently, the beleaguered regime in Syria is defending the nation’s core areas, leaving the countryside to the Islamic State; Iraq, however, has thrown itself into the fight. During his recent visit to the region, John Kerry hinted that some understanding with Tehran was possible.

    Other faultlines are surfacing. Iraq’s Deputy National Security Advisor Safa Al-Sheikh Hussein has accused Istanbul of helping the Islamic State by letting it export oil to Europe via Turkey. John Kerry had also claimed that the IS was exporting oil through Turkey or Lebanon. Turkey is said to have benefited from the oil smuggling, and from banking transactions; it underplayed the threat posed by the IS.

    The Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) also accused Turkey of covertly supporting IS mercenaries fighting Kurds in Syria, and said it might endanger the March 2013 truce between Turkey’s Kurdish militants and Istanbul. The KCK is an umbrella group of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been fighting for an independent Kurdistan from Kurd regions carved out of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. The Kurds are the world’s largest ethnic group that wants an independent state.

    It is not easy for Turkey to deflect allegations of helping Daesh. Initially, it allowed the 560-mile border with Syria to be used as a ‘jihad highway’ from where weapons, material, and foreign mercenaries from Europe crossed over to join the IS, though it later imposed restrictions when it began to sense danger to its own territory. Now, with 49 hostages from its consulate (46 Turkish and three Iraqi nationals) released by the IS, Washington hopes its NATO ally will join the coalition against Daesh.

    For Moscow, things remain complicated since like Tehran, it supports al-Assad and fears the US may use the raids to promote regime change. Russia disagreed with the US permanent representative to the UN, Samantha Power’s letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, stating that the Iraqi government had urged America to conduct air raids in Syria as the Syrian government was unable to respond to the Islamist threat. President Putin insisted to Ban Ki-moon that Russia wants a resolution of the UN Security Council.

    Russia stressed the US mistakes which gave rise to the terrorists in Iraq after the invasion of that country. Most serious was the dissolution of the Iraqi army, due to which the soldiers went home with guns and some joined terrorist groups. Coupled with this was the failure of the Iraq regime to create a new and strong army, with old and new cadres.

    Further, to protect its naval base in Syria, Russia wants some guarantee that the raids will not be directed against the regime. Reports suggest that Washington assured Tehran it would not attack Syrian government forces during the campaign against IS in Syrian territory. Russia is also adamant that Ukraine or other issues must not be linked to the campaign against the IS. Analysts feel that Moscow will maintain a low profile during the air attacks, and continue to assist the regimes in Iraq and Syria.

    In the West, experts fear that without ground forces, which the US is reluctant to commit, the air raids in Iraq and Syria may exacerbate the crisis without defeating the IS which is entrenched in large territory. The strikes will add civilian casualties, which Daesh will exploit to make the coalition look bad. As President Obama admits, the prolonged Syrian civil war made large swathes of the country ungovernable and these became the breeding ground for the IS. Ultimately, as more countries join the effort, a ground war may be inevitable.

    The author is a senior journalist

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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