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Will Arabs join fight against IS?

Sep 09,2014 - Last updated at Sep 09,2014

NATO’s 10-nation “core coalition” formed last week in Wales, in the United Kingdom, to confront the growing threat of the Islamic State, also known as IS, did not include any Arab country.

And yet, US President Barack Obama underlined the important role that Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates  can play in helping to defeat IS militants because, as he said, “this is their neighbourhood”.

With the exception of Turkey, no Islamic state has joined the newly formed coalition so far.

On Sunday, Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo to discuss the threat of Islamist extremism, particularly that of IS, in Iraq and Syria.

Arab League Secretary General Nabil El Araby 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.

Araby had earlier said that actions should be taken under the joint Arab defence 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 facing crisis, including through military intervention.

Arab countries recognise the danger IS poses to regional and international stability and security, but they are unable to come up with a unified strategy to deal with such danger.

Moreover, while most are willing to join the US-led efforts to deter and degrade IS fighters and capabilities, they are keen on keeping such cooperation away from public opinion.

One case in point is Jordan, whose prime minister recently denied that the country is part of an international or regional coalition to fight IS. 

King Abdullah 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 Islamist groups.

A number of Jordanian deputies 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 the IS threats may change all that. The movement has put traditional rivalries on hold. Saudi Arabia and Iran 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.

Iran has offered to play a part in confronting IS militants and there are signs of a thaw in relations between Cairo and Tehran, which could affect the future of President Bashar Assad’s regime and pave the way for a political solution in Syria.

Confronting IS militants would require a strong and united government in Baghdad that is able to wage military operations by the Iraqi army.

Abadi is facing problems forming his new Cabinet and Iraq’s Sunnis remain sceptical of his ability to meet their demands.

The role of Iraq’s Sunnis in standing against IS militants is paramount; 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, Obama, who will unveil his strategy to fight IS soon, realises that aerial bombardment alone will not defeat the terrorist organisation.

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 realises that it must support “moderate rebels”, namely the Free Syrian Army, to stand up to radical Islamists.

How this will 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 organisation is helpless against regional crises that threaten today 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: while the international coalition will be able to deal with the immediate danger of Islamist radicalism, the difficult task for the Arabs will be to pinpoint the root cause of such disturbing phenomenon and come up with solutions to it. 

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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