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#4682, 6 October 2014

Spotlight West Asia

War against the Islamic State: Political and Military Responses from the Region
Ranjit Gupta
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS and Former Indian Ambassador to Yemen and Oman

Strange things are happening in West Asia. Those who created the modern jihad in an extremely misguided and immature tactical response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan are today at war with its most extremist manifestation, the Islamic State. The latter has also succeeded in bringing about the almost impossible - uniting countries and regimes deeply antagonistic and hostile to each other in a common war against a common enemy. The US and Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Saudi Arabia and a Shia government in Iraq, the Assad regime and those sworn to overthrow it - Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US and assorted Islamist groups, all in the same camp warring against the Islamic State.

The Islamic State (IS), an extremist Sunni entity, is a particularly serious existential threat to the regimes of the GCC countries, especially Saudi Arabia, as its religious roots and those of Wahhabism are broadly the same. The rulers of the GCC countries know that if the IS succeeds in Iraq, a spillover into their countries is inevitable. The IS is thus a direct, immediate and strong existential challenge to the continuing rule of these regimes, something that has not happened before. After agonizing for weeks they have become active participants in a war against a Sunni entity in Shia ruled states. This is unprecedented and something that simply could not have even been imagined only a few months ago.

The IS is fanatically anti Shia; it is also the most potent threat to the pro-Iranian regimes in Iraq and Syria and to the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria. For these three reasons the IS is now the single most active and potent direct threat to Iran’s influence and standing throughout West Asia. Iran is Iraq’s ally and is the first and only regional country that has provided actual assistance on the ground.

The IS thus simultaneously poses the biggest strategic threat to both Iran and Saudi Arabia, though for entirely different reasons. For the first time since the Islamic Revolution in Iran these two countries face a common threat. They are the two key players if the war against the IS is to succeed. They have to find a way to cooperate. This is going to be difficult particularly as Saudi Arabia continues to attach priority to regime change in Syria which is absolutely unacceptable to Iran. A particularly important meeting was held between the Saudi and Iranian Foreign Ministers in New York on 21 September 2014. Statements made by them indicate that both countries recognize that they have to work together to confront the common enemy.

The Iraqi central Government has been opposed to the Barzani run Kurdish regional government and Iran has traditionally been opposed to the Barzani faction of the Iraqi Kurds. Shia militias have been fighting against the Kurds. The Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Turkey have never managed to put up a single united overall Kurdish front; indeed in Iraq they are divided in two rival groups. But in recent weeks all of them are now fighting together in many theatres against the Islamic State.  

On 22 September, the United States launched air strikes against the ISIL in Syria and aircraft from Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE also took part in the airstrikes while Qatar “played a supportive role”. Arab states have continued to be involved in such air strikes since then. Iraq welcomed these airstrikes with great excitement and enthusiasm.

President Assad reacted by saying that Syria “supports any international effort in the fight against terrorism”; Syrian Foreign Minister was supportive saying that “Syria had been informed before the strikes by the United States”. Analysts on Syrian State television said that these “air strikes did not constitute aggression as Syria was informed in advance.” They have other reasons for feeling rather pleased because the US airstrikes inflicted significant casualties on the Khorasan group and the Jabhat Al Nusra, also fighting against the Syrian regime. Significantly, Syrian opposition National Coalition President Hadi Al Bahra said “tonight the international community has joined our fight against the ISIS in Syria.”

Syria is very keen to be formally a part of the coalition against the IS but unfortunately the US and GCC countries are adamantly opposed to this even as they are tacitly cooperating with the regime directly and through Iran, in coordinating the airstrikes against the IS. Iran would have been happy to attend the meeting in Jeddah on September 11 and in Paris on September 15 to join the international coalition to fight the Islamic State but was not invited due to US opposition. There was no blistering condemnation from Iran which would have been the automatic reaction in the past. Iran has merely said that such actions do not have international legality.

After doggedly refusing to allow any support for any military action in Iraq or Syria against the Islamic State despite intense personal efforts by President Obama and the Secretaries of State and Defense, hours after the first airstrikes in Syria Erdogan said in New York that Turkey was now considering a role that "includes everything. Both military and political…Of course we will do our part." The next few days should see greater clarity about Turkey’s involvement.

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