By Mustafa Abid
It is long past time that the United States re-evaluates its foreign policy stance in the Middle East. For the sake of both Arabs and Americans, the State Department should start questioning several long-held policy tenants, specifically its alliance with Gulf Arab States and its refusal to collaborate with Iran on Middle Eastern policy. The current crisis in Iraq presents both the reasons and the opportunities to shakeup geopolitical assumptions about U.S. alliances, and in doing so, incapacitate groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
Over the past month, ISIS has caught the American public’s eye, and not in a flattering way. It stands accused of war crimes by the U.N., and its attempt to commit ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, against the Iraqi Yezidi minority seems to have prodded the international community into tangible actions against ISIS, including U.S. air strikes. While debate continues regarding the extent of the direct ISIS threat to the United States and Europe, it seems likely that ISIS will eventually turn its attention westward. What, then, is America’s long-term game for ISIS?
While the immediate military threat ISIS poses can only be extinguished via military intervention, The United States must look to dry out foreign funding sources for ISIS to achieve long-term security both for themselves and the Middle East. No amount of violence will quash the underlying Wahhabi ideologies fueling ISIS, but if the group lacks the funds to rebuild itself or support a future insurgency, then at the least the ideology has been incapacitated in its tangible effects.
To cut off this foreign funding requires the first major policy shift: the introduction of asset freezes against individuals and ‘charities’ in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, and economic sanctions against financial institutions in Kuwait. A Brookings Institution report from 2013, as well as several concurrent articles, singled out Kuwait as a clearinghouse for funding efforts from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, now to Syria, and before, to Iraq. As noted by congressional reports, during Saudi Arabia’s previous funding adventures in Iraq, Saudi private donors (it is important to note that the government is not implicated in this funding) donated to al-Qaeda and fueled an insurgency that claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives.
There is little doubt that private donors from the Gulf provide funds to ISIS. Yet many have noted that in light of the enormous immediate wealth ISIS accrued through capturing Mosul, eliminating foreign funding would do little. This funding may make little difference in the short term, but Iraqi and Kurdish forces succeed in eliminating ISIS oil and extortion revenues, funding from Gulf patrons will prevent a lasting military incapacitation of ISIS, just as it helped to establish the group.
In addition to destroying the lifeline that prevents permanent incapacitation of ISIS capabilities, these economic sanctions and asset seizures will send a message to the Gulf States that the U.S. will no longer tolerate the financing of terrorist organizations. As Lori Boghardt of the Washington Institute notes, “There are signs that ISIS “successes” may fuel higher levels of private Saudi and other Gulf support to a variety of Sunni extremist groups operating in Iraq and Syria, which would be important to counter.” The U.S. possesses almost unmatched sanction capabilities, and it is time the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) realized that they are not immune to these sanctions, especially in an age where American dependence on Gulf oil dwindles.
Funding to ISIS from the Gulf, and the fact that many ISIS fighters come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, just like their al-Qaeda predecessors and 15 of the 19 September 11th hijackers, demands the same question: is the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the GCC, especially during the current proxy wars between Iran and Saudi Arabia, beneficial?
As the GCC steps into a more prominent regional role through its attempts to fuel the Syrian and Iraqi rebellions, they will inadvertently create numerous power vacuums in which ISIS and other extremist groups can flourish, especially with private funding. If the United States considers ISIS an enemy, shouldn’t it then ally itself with other nations combating ISIS, instead of with those whose citizens played a part in funding it?
These questions, and the reality on the ground in Iraq, all point to the need for cooperation with Iran against ISIS, the second major policy shift. While we do not know what covert operations against ISIS may have already involved such cooperation, we do know that U.S. troops are on the ground to advise, as are the Iranians. With both nations attempting to maintain a light footprint to avoid feeding ISIS claims of foreign occupation, cooperation would allow both the forces to train more Iraqi units and produce more coordinated military strategies. Cooperation between the two estranged nations against a terrorist threat is not a new idea and was even considered after the 9/11 attacks in respect to Afghanistan and al-Qaeda.
With a threat such as ISIS, the U.S. policy of sanctioning and isolating the only regional power capable and interested in crushing the ISIS threat seems counter intuitive, just as it did when the U.S. faced al-Qaeda and turned down Iranian cooperation. It is time for the U.S. to begin cooperating with Iran against ISIS and the proceeding regional Islamist threats. The relationship will never be a pretty one, but at the very least, it would be an effective one. Iran has, through Syria, experience in counter-insurgency, specifically against ISIS, and there is little doubt that Iran played the deciding factor in the ouster of Nouri al-Maliki from the Iraqi presidency, paving the road for a more inclusive government. Iran has demonstrated it shares America’s belief in a long-term solution based on political inclusion, but also matches U.S. resolve to not let ISIS entrench itself. It’s time these commonalities were recognized and capitalized on.
Both the American public and politicians must now ask themselves why the United States stands so firmly by Saudi Arabia and the GCC and why it stands so firmly against Iran, and whether this policy represents the most prudent means by which to protect U.S. interests and promote regional stability. Looking at the current and historical track records of America’s allies in the Middle East, it seems the time has come to re-evaluate antiquated alliances and adapt to the geopolitical realities of the 21st century.
UPDATE: Since this article was written, Iran has offered to support Western efforts against ISIS in return for a lifting of nuclear-related sanctions against Iran. Talks are apparently already underway with European governments about Iran’s future role in Iraq.
Image Source: The Guardian