Tewfik argues that as the world prepares itself to broaden the war against ISIS Arab Leadership is necessary. Arab states must urgently act against ISIS for their short term self interest to both destroy the movement and set the tone against extremism for the future.
Tomorrow Barack Obama will outline his plan for dealing with ISIS. Listening to statements from the White House and other potential coalition partners I expect the plan to involve a broad array of Arab and non-Arab partners. It will involve US airstrikes but “no-boots on the ground” save for the few hundred advisors in Kurdish controlled areas and Baghdad. Most likely the plan will extend the mandate for airstrikes and action into Syria (without cooperating with the government of Bashar Al-Assad). I envision the plan to be led by NATO but with the participation and acquiescence of many members of the Arab League (if not the League’s full support).
If these predictions hold true then military action against ISIS will resemble more the first Gulf War against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait than the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. Similar to the first Gulf War it will offer Arab States with an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in defining the field in which states (and non-state actors) operate. It also offers Arabs with an opportunity to fight extremism and to shape the institutions in two of the most influential and populous states in the region, Syria and Iraq.
The reasons for Arab leadership are manifold. ISIS represents a serious, existential threat to many of the states in the region. It currently occupies large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria and reportedly operates to a limited capacity in Lebanon. It also leads several thousand fighters who are in possession of large amounts of advanced military hardware. Many of its fighters come from many Arab and Western states and could be deployed in terrorist attacks against their home countries. It is also well financed and exhibits an alarming degree of organizational and institutional sophistication which makes it especially threatening to neighboring states of Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. These countries have a direct, vested interest in taking action against ISIS before it reaches their borders.
ISIS also provides other armed, extremist militias from Nigeria to Libya to Afghanistan with a blueprint for merging armed insurrection with extremist ideals. The rise of Libyan Dawn has pushed Libya into civil war and threatens Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria with the spillover effect. Boko Haram in Nigeria have increasingly adopted ISIS like strategies, increasingly brazen in their attacks. Destroying ISIS may turn the clock back against these terrorist movements.
Finally (and perhaps most compellingly) ISIS represents a black mark on the Arab psyche. Its ability to successfully undertake an ethnic cleansing of the Christian population and its slaughter of Shiites and Yazidis amount to horrific war crimes. Permitting these actions in our backyard will plague our conscience going forward. Taking action to protect minorities will send a message across the region that religious and ethnic minorities are protected under international law and global values.
Arab leadership should manifest itself in both the military and political elements of the equation. The military element should include use of Arab airspace, air bases and even Arab pilots flying sorties against ISIS positions. When the time comes Arab states should contribute men to a peacekeeping force in the affected area. Politically, Arab leaders should, with the help of Iran, be proactive in finding solutions to the problems that brought about the fall of ISIS (namely the regime of Bashar Al-Assad and the strongman tactics of Nour Al-Maliki). Arab states should also contribute to the refugee support effort, establish a broader rapprochement with Iran and proactively fight the anti-Shiite sentiment that has become emblematic of the rhetoric emanating from the Gulf. Finally, the onus will fall on Arab states to figure out a way to deal with the thousands of disbanded ISIS fighters when the time comes, avoiding future terrorist attacks necessitates their successful reintegration into society. Only by being actively involved and taking leadership can Arab States hope to defeat ISIS, we can no longer ask others to fight our battles for us.
By Tewfik Cassis, a student at Harvard Business School. Tewfik has an interest in the global political economy with a particular focus on Middle Eastern politics and conflict resolution and used to be Executive Editor of the MIT International Review.