The US military is strong – but there are limits to what it can achieve in the Mideast. Pictured: an FA-18C Hornet land on the USS George H.W. Bush. Not always the answer: a US drone patrols the skies.
While talk of a new “coalition of the willing” to tackle the threat posed by the militants of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria has already generated a flurry of activity in Western capitals including Canberra, there are a number of significant obstacles in the region itself to any large-scale military action and even to an expanded campaign of air strikes.
1. Getting Arab states on board
Both Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel have spoken out on the need for neighbouring Arab states to become part of any solution to the crisis represented by the military progress of Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. However this doesn’t address the disconnect between autocratic leaders and their publics in many of these countries in the wake of the 2011 “Arab Spring”.
In Saudi Arabia, a country where beheading is still part of the penal regime and there is a history of destruction of religious sites that do not conform with the government’s strict reading of Sunni Islam, there are many Saudis keen to support what they see as a just religious war against the godless Assad regime and its Shiite backers in Iran. This has meant that Saudi Arabia is fighting an enemy within on the question. Jordan, another likely Western ally, has also seen internal discontent with the ruling class expressed as support for IS.
Almost every regime in the Arab world already feels its grip on power is fragile. This will temper their enthusiasm for signing up to any initiative that comes out of Washington.
2. The trouble with drones
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, has said that IS cannot be defeated unless it is engaged in Syria, however at present neither he nor US President Barack Obama appear to envision a ground offensive in that country. Instead, any strikes are likely to be from the air, notwithstanding the admitted limits of US intelligence-gathering and drone access inside that country.
Even if drones of the low-flying, weapons-carrying type used in Pakistan’s tribal areas, Afghanistan, Yemen and Africa over recent years were to be deployed, this would create new challenges at both the military and political levels. As Fairfax’s Middle East Correspondent Ruth Pollard has reported from the Gaza Strip, a campaign of air strikes in populated areas can result in tremendous human suffering. US politicians have already been told by those living on the ground in Yemen of the radicalising effect on populations of drone strikes that go awry, and public opinion around the world – while rightly outraged and repulsed by the atrocities committed by IS in recent weeks – might also find it difficult to stomach scenes of destruction caused in the countries targeted.
3. Once bitten, twice shy
In all the countries which the US relies upon for support in the Middle East, memories are still raw over the way in which the Obama administration created an expectation that it would strike the Assad regime in Syria, only to step back from the brink.
Saudi Arabia, already dismayed by Mr Obama’s decision to stand aside as protests toppled key US and Saudi ally Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, saw the failure to strike Syria and the continuing talks with Iran over its nuclear program as proof that Washington was no longer a reliable partner in the region. One symptom of this relationship breakdown is the decision by Egypt’s current regime and the United Arab Emirates to carry out air strikes of their own in Libya without consulting the US.
For Saudi Arabia in particular, which is financing the Egyptian regime, cooperation with Western powers in Syria and Iraq will raise the question of what it might expect in return on the question of Iran’s nuclear program. Shiite-ruled Iran, the nemesis of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, enjoys huge political influence in Iraq and supports the continued existence of the Assad regime.
4. Beating IS is not the whole story
As was the case in Libya in 2011, Iraq in 2003, and Afghanistan in 2001, there is no question that the US and its allies have the military means to defeat their opponent in a direct confrontation. But what happens next? The overall structure of power in the Middle East has been severely shaken by successive Western interventions and their consequences. Should IS be destroyed and the Assad regime be left standing, many young Sunnis who have watched the daily carnage inflicted by the Syrian military on its own population will feel that there is a double standard at work. The ability of the traditional Sunni elite to manage this anger will be further eroded. There are already strong signs of this problem in Lebanon and Iraq.
There is also alarm both among Arab states and Arab populations at the prospect that military intervention might fuel Kurdish efforts to carve out an independent state of their own across Iraq and Syria. This makes questions such as Canberra’s response to a plea for support from the Kurdish Regional Government a political minefield, at a time when Kurds are increasingly acting independently of Baghdad in areas such as oil sales.
Maher Mughrabi is the Foreign Editor for Fairfax Media
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.