US-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS

Much has been said about the supposedly troubled relations between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Many in Washington have gone out of their way to paint the relationship as weakening in a way and to a degree not previously envisioned. The “evidence”: some cite a desire on the part of the Obama Administration to shift its focus to East Asia to counter Chinese adventurism.

Others point to something else. They cite the brokering by the United States of a nuclear deal with Iran. From this perspective, the latter will purportedly pave the way to a full return of American-Iranian relations but only – and some would claim obviously – at the expense of the GCC.

Still others note the United States’ lukewarm attitude regarding the Syrian quagmire, and/or what appears to be a hands-off approach toward pressing concerns elsewhere, whether elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf or in the wider Middle East.

And yet, the reality is that, in contrast, the nature and extent of political coordination and military cooperation between Washington and Gulf capitals have seen a robustness that proves the exact opposite.

In this light, what is one to say? Is it that Gulf and American officials seek to miss no opportunity to be able to take advantage of an opportunity? No, this would be too simplistic if not also in error. Rather, the countries involved would seem best advised to take care to consult on how best to consult with each other.

Surprise, surprise, innumerable media accounts to the contrary notwithstanding, this is exactly what the two sides have been doing all along with a view toward determining how best to plan and coordinate their efforts for future shared endeavors.

Indeed, GCC countries have doubled down on their relationship with the United States. They have done so by increasing their reliance on American security assistance and economic knowhow. On being able to do so effectively, it appears they believe, is it likely that their diversification efforts away from hydrocarbons will be successful.

In response, the United States has intensified its commitment to the security of the entente and, if anything, depends on it more, not less, as the bedrock of stability in the Middle East. In the ongoing enterprise of ridding the region – and, indeed, the world – of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Washington looks to the GCC as arguably the strongest sub-regional partner.

The reasons are sound. Not least among them is that the GCC’s member-countries have the requisite military, financial, and logistical capabilities to help execute what the latest meetings of the U.S.-led international coalition have declared they aim to accomplish.

The Anti-ISIS Meetings of July 21st

In terms of what is underway, one can hardly be more current than to indicate what GCC and other Defense and Foreign Ministers from the 67-member country anti-ISIS international coalition did at their July 21st meeting in Washington, D.C. Lest one be unaware or forget, the meeting was convened to re-affirm their commitment to defeat the organization. The series of meetings at Andrews Air Force Base and the U.S. Department of State – coming after similar ones this past February in Italy and Belgium – aimed to further coordinate activities.

These and other activities include efforts leading up to and including the expected major push against ISIS’ symbols of statehood and survival in the northern cities of Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq.

The military side of the most recent meetings in the United States’ capital aimed to secure additional assets for the campaigns to re-claim the two cities.

Alongside these initiatives were political efforts. These were intended to assure adequate funding for the huge humanitarian efforts expected to be undertaken in concert with the operations and after their conclusion.

These worthy objectives follow the recent successes by Iraqi forces in liberating what American officials estimate to be about half of the area that ISIS had conquered from a demoralized Iraqi army in 2014. The Iraqi territory in question includes most recently the cities of Fallujah and Hit and a string of towns along the Euphrates Valley south of Mosul. In Syria, the coalition and local partners have wrestled 20% of ISIS’ areas from its hands.

In addition, coalition aircraft are supporting American-trained and funded Kurdish and Syrian opposition forces. These are poised to liberate the strategic town of Manbij and sever ISIS’s clandestine supply routes into Syria from the Turkish border before laying siege to Raqqa, the Caliphate’s capital. With these advances on the ground slowly shrinking ISIS territory, the coalition’s operations may be able to end the jihadist scourge before the year is out.

Just as important, however, the coalition aims to secure the conditions for a post-ISIS stabilization and reconstruction effort. This ideally will commence immediately after the guns go silent. Estimates vary, but the number of refugees who may flee the fighting in Iraq alone is expected to reach 2 million in addition to hundreds of thousands displaced during previous military operations by ISIS and against it in Iraq’s west and northwest. This would match the number forced to flee the country in the aftermath of the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003

In Syria, hundreds of thousands of civilians who either live under ISIS’ sway or have fled its areas will necessarily require immediate help. Moreover, the coalition is concerned with securing enough funding for governance mechanisms for communities devastated by a brutal jihadist regime. These will be used to train and equip police forces capable of providing security and to reconstruct the prerequisites for a dignified return of displaced populations.

If ISIS is to be prevented from returning to the communities it now controls, and just as important if not more so, if one is to prevent the emergence of an al-Qaeda reality and/or Taliban-like replacement regime on the ashes of a defeated ISIS, this cannot be expected to occur by accident, coincidence, or wishful thinking. Quite the contrary. Indeed, this being an important strategic goal, the nature and extent of post-conflict reconstruction and stabilization efforts need to be agreed to ahead of time and put in place before military operations end.

Enter the GCC

The GCC countries, to their credit, joined the international coalition upon its inception in September 2014. They did so after ISIS succeeded in occupying about one-third of Iraq, joining it to the conquered territories it had already controlled in northeastern Syria, and declaring its Caliphate. The Bahraini, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Qatari, and Saudi Arabian air forces participated in the Coalition’s Operation Inherent Resolve the same year, using air, land, and maritime assets. Indeed, it was this operation that arguably halted ISIS’ march to Baghdad after the Iraqi army simply disintegrated after years of corruption, mismanagement, and ineptitude engendered by the sectarian proclivities of the government of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

In December 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced the establishment of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism that initially included 34 Sunni Muslim nations – and rose to 39 in March 2016 – with a command center in the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Three GCC countries, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, provide a large military contribution to the effort. Their collective involvement, together with the inclusion of such countries as Turkey, Pakistan, and Nigeria, must be seen for what it is: a serious augmentation of the earlier aims and objectives of the U.S.-led coalition. When the Islamic Alliance was announced, American Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declared it to be a welcome effort to combat ISIS by the Islamic world. Indeed, the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has been a clear signal of the Kingdom’s and its partners’ intention to wrestle Islam from ISIS’ illegitimate usurpation.

In the ongoing counter-ISIS effort, the GCC’s contribution to the fight is pivotal. The GCC sub-region’s geographic proximity to the Iraqi theater of operations provides its member-countries’ forces and the international coalition an indispensable strategic foothold. It is by having access to vital military facilities in Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE that the Gulf and coalition ground, air, and maritime forces have been able to conduct their operations.

Kuwait is obviously a launching pad for American troops in Iraq. These now number around 5,000 after the U.S. recently added 560 more soldiers to train the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga, and possibly assist with much-needed special operations. Having hosted more Western naval fleet contingents than the other GCC countries, for a far longer period (non-stop since 1948), and in conjunction with a larger number of regional conflicts than all the other GCC countries combined, Bahrain of course is in the lead insofar as the Gulf waters themselves are periodically host to major allied and American flotillas and aircraft carriers that assure the continued and relentless pressure Inherent Resolve must exert.

Militarily, since 2014 the GCC countries have had the best and most modern Arab armed forces participating in strategic missions regarding Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, and remain essential assets for upcoming missions. The U.S. Department of State announcement immediately after the conclusion of the July 21st meetings that Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk would travel to Abu Dhabi in the UAE and Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to follow up on discussions and further the coalition’s commitment to the defeat of ISIS testifies to the GCC countries’ central role.

In addition to the GCC’s roles and Saudi Arabia’s participation in air operations, the latter’s offer to also deploy land forces to Syria in coordination with American and other countries’ militaries, while opposed by Moscow and Tehran, remains a serious proposal. The UAE last February also announced its readiness to deploy its own ground forces to Syria. Whether McGurk’s mission entailed exploring the feasibility of mounting such deployments, notwithstanding possible continued Russian or Iranian objections, remains to be seen.

The GCC’s Unique Role

Where GCC countries could also provide crucial assistance is in influencing Arab Sunni communities in Iraq. The goal would be to sideline the support that ISIS was able to garner among these groups as a result of the exclusionary and sectarian policies of former Iraqi Premier Nouri al-Maliki. Certainly, GCC populations’ social and tribal ties extend deep into Iraqi and Gulf societies.

Such ties provide ready-made channels of soft power utilization in the effort to deprive ISIS of welcoming audiences. That said, since ISIS’s onslaught in Iraq in 2014, the country’s Sunni communities have never been full supporters of the group’s millennial discourse and brutal policies. To the contrary, many have been as repulsed as Sunnis much farther afield who also find ISIS’s strategic goals and the tactics deployed to further them abhorrent.

Where the GCC may specifically be able to produce results is in helping to convince Sunni Iraqis to participate in or, if nothing else, test what appear to be sincere efforts by the current Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reconcile his country’s communities. Some, at least, seem willing and eager to ascertain whether in this or in other ways he can and will be helpful in what large and increasing numbers of Iraqis believe is necessary: to break the hold of sectarian militias on security institutions that have violated the dignity of the inhabitants of Sunni-majority provinces.

Sound as this proposition may seem to many, it may well be deemed too late and/or too little to be effective in the eyes of those who would stand to benefit from it the most. And even if not too late to be attempted, the proposal might become hostage to regional dynamics involving Iran. This latter consideration, for sure, cannot be ignored.

For certain, Tehran is presently, and arguably has been for quite some time now, the most influential external player in Iraqi politics. Not that this was always the case. And not that it would be the case now but for the American-led illegal invasion against the regime in Baghdad.

Ironies Run Amok?

Paradoxically, GCC efforts to mollify Iraq’s Sunnis notwithstanding, the fight against ISIS has not been and is not now easy. Such things never are. The campaign against the organization and movement in that country will succeed only if certain conditions are met.

The cause of defeating ISIS cannot hope to prevail, and in the event this were to occur the equally if not more important subsequent stabilization effort haven’t a chance, short of achieving a goal that has hitherto been elusive. This is for the Iraqi government to be able to limit the role played by the Popular Mobilization Forces that are led and controlled by Iran’s friends in Iraq.

Indeed, compounding the irony of what is and is not possible in the eyes of some is the following. It is the seemingly undeniable need to come to terms with the reality of where the roots of victory lie. In short, in determining how fast Iraq is likely to be able to finally defeat ISIS, it is beginning to look more and more like the answer will turn primarily on what the United States will be able to accomplish from its engagement with the Iranian-influenced Iraqi government than what is likely to be achieved from whatever the GCC can and is able to produce from its relations with the country’s Sunnis.

The Syrian Nexus

In Syria, the situation has been and is likely to remain in important ways different. For example, it may be hard to increase the GCC’s level of commitment to the fight against ISIS beyond air operations and pledges to send ground troops. The reason is because of the myriad conflicting agendas and actors on the Syrian battlefield.

What GCC nations and the majority of the international community have found most frustrating has been the widely perceived non-commitment of the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies to seriously fight ISIS. Instead, these have directed their operations overwhelmingly against opposition forces fighting the regime. In the process, despite statements to the contrary, what the two non-Arab powers and the Shi’ite government in Damascus have achieved is to strengthen the Islamic State.

Today, as the international community prepares for its furthest and strongest push to date against ISIS, the Syrian regime is by no means asleep. Damascus is assisted by Russian aircraft, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps soldiers, and irregulars from Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias. The Assad regime is simultaneously pursuing what it hopes will be its own end game.

Damascus realizes that this entails closing in on what it expects to be the last pocket of opposition to its forces in Aleppo. Should it be able to prevail, it believes it will therefore send a signal that its only concern is perpetuating itself in power, the fight against ISIS be damned.

Over and against these considerations, the GCC is in a relatively good position to lead the funding effort to stabilize and reconstruct liberated areas once ISIS is defeated. Still, given the complications hindering the implementation of GCC economic influence in Iraq and Syria – namely, the uncertainty of the macro-political landscape after the defeat of ISIS – it may be hard to see how Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, or the UAE may be recruited to help in this effort.

Aside from possible immediate targeting of emergency funds to specific communities, the GCC may have to wait and see until and unless one, the other, or potentially two wished-for eventualities occur. One is whether and, if so, when Iraq might arrive to a comprehensive political reconciliation. The other, potentially just as elusive if not more so, is whether and again, if so, when the Syrian bleeding ulcer eventually finds a lasting political solution, which, regardless of whether it entails the departure of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, outside supporters who wish the Syrian people well can reach an agreement to contribute strategic funds adequate for reconstruction and stabilization.

Nonetheless, the nature, extent, and importance of GCC contributions to the international effort cannot be underestimated. The reasons are rooted in complications attendant to the political aspects of GCC-Iraqi-Syrian relations. In this spirit, Saudi Arabian Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman met with his American, French, and British counterparts and with Secretary of State John Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier among others on the sidelines of the main meetings recently in Washington, D.C.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan also met with Kerry. Such meetings can only signify the importance the GCC attaches to its international role. Reciprocally, from Washington, and indeed from the capitals of the more than the 61 other non-GCC nations whose representatives were present and participating in the deliberations, it telegraphs to the world the esteem with which the international community holds the members of the GCC.

GCC-U.S. Relations

Aside from the role GCC countries can be expected to play in defeating ISIS, American-Gulf relations have exponentially improved during the last few years. This is despite tensions, misunderstandings, and areas of potential discord. From military and security cooperation to strategic and political coordination to common visions for an enduring mutually beneficial economic future, bilateral relations between the old allies continue not only to survive; they continue to thrive.

The evidence? Consider the following.

In March, the U.S. Department of State noted that the United States had sold $33 billion worth of sophisticated weapons and munitions to its Gulf allies since May 2015. Included were attack helicopters, ballistic missile defense systems, and guided bombs to all six GCC members. On July 19, the State Department announced that it had approved the sale of $785 million worth of guided munitions to the UAE to be used in its operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Further, on August 9, the State Department announced its approval of a $1.15 billion sale of tanks and military equipment to Saudi Arabia.

In addition, this past April’s U.S.-GCC summit in Saudi Arabia was notable. So, too, were the attendant security-related pronouncements regarding ballistic missile defense, training, intelligence sharing, interoperability solutions, and common exercises. All of these summits, forums, and other gatherings of high-level leaders linked to common purposes and causes were but the latest endorsements of what will continue to be long-term and sustainable military-to-military relations.

As for political and strategic coordination, there appears to be a convergence on many issues between the GCC and the United States. This is despite trepidation in some quarters of the American decision-making apparatus. The most prominent and controversial case in point is especially in Congress.

In addition to agreeing to eradicate the ISIS-al-Qaeda nexus, the two allies continue to adhere to various aspects of their respective strategies towards Syria. In particular, they remain steadfast in their common position regarding what in their view must be the outcome of the Syrian civil war. This is that there must be a political transition from Bashar al-Assad.

The two sides also agree on the importance of re-claiming legitimate government in Yemen. They have remained steadfast in their belief in the required maintenance of non-belligerence in the Arabian Gulf, in enforcement of the international nuclear agreement with Iran, and in their continued joint opposition to subversive and destabilizing Iranian activities in the Gulf and wider region, although the response to this latter concern of most GCC countries has not been anywhere near as successful as the GCC would like. Ranking nowadays further down on their joint and even respective lists of priorities for regional strategic cooperation, their separate and combined efforts to bring about civic and political peace in Libya has also been a pillar of their coordination.

Moreover, economic cooperation was and continues to be steady and sustained. Lower energy prices have made GCC countries more determined to diversify their economies away from reliance on hydrocarbons. No one in the GCC doubts that this effort needs constant American technical support. It also requires expertise-sharing from which U.S. businesses have benefited and stand to continue to benefit handsomely.

The launch of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 has been coupled with visits by Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to American technology firms, entertainment giants, and financial centers. These signal nothing less than an enduring faith in the American economy. Also notable is that many of Qatar’s mega-projects in preparation for the 2022 World Cup were contracted to American companies.

In addition, Doha opened an investment office in New York in 2015 that intends to invest $35 billion in the American economy over the next five years. Other examples of economic cooperation abound. Combined, they lead to the only logical conclusion: that neither the U.S. nor the GCC countries can be independent from each other’s economic wellbeing.

Even so, as encouraging as these trends and developments indicate, there remain between the GCC countries and the United States differences in strategic analyses and assessments. Unless monitored carefully, and without efforts made to narrow or bridge the differences, these may sometimes point to or produce divergent outcomes on important issues. For example, despite long-established and good relations with the United States, Qatar and Kuwait wonder why their respective requests for weapons acquisitions of American manufactured 72 F-15 and 40 F-18 fighter aircraft still languish in Washington. Saudi Arabia and the UAE also still wonder why the United States and important sectors of its decision-making elites fail to fully understand that Yemen cannot be allowed to simply fall helplessly in the lap of Iranian-inspired insurgents. Finally, and quite importantly, GCC states are unable to fathom why the Obama Administration allows the carnage to continue in Syria despite its proclamations about the sanctity of human life.

An Enduring Trend

The most recent meetings of the anti-ISIS international coalition have presented yet another occasion to contribute to more accurate information, knowledge, and understanding between the two sides. They have entailed taking advantage of an opportunity to highlight the role GCC states play in international affairs. In that regard, the gatherings have illustrated what actors on two quite disparate sides of the planet can do when they come together and remain together in pursuit of goals that are mutually agreed to be important – goals that are common in some instances and complementary in others.

To be sure, the answer to the question of how long it will take for Iraq to finally defeat ISIS is presently unknown. So too are answers to other even more important questions. Among them are what it will take to do so in terms of lives not yet lost, of material goods and services not yet spent and perhaps not yet even produced, of business and other opportunity costs that have gone unrealized, and funds that were few and far between and altogether inadequate to the need to begin with that are desperately needed for other purposes. These will probably remain valid but unanswered questions for some time yet to come.

But what is not unknown is whether the United States and the GCC countries, together with more than 60 other countries, are joined at the hip to assure a peaceful global order at a time of considerable regional discord and in some areas absolute chaos. Indeed, the two sides, and the GCC side, the lesser known and understood of the two but which is far more endowed with the relevant resources for the task than many are aware or might imagine, are militarily and financially able to provide what the coalition requires to defeat the ISIS scourge. And what is more, they are propitiously situated to help set the ensuing conditions for successful stabilization – so long as the trends of more vibrant and improving relations with the United States as indicated herein continue.

Author: Dr Imad Harb, SIA Advisory Board member, Distinguished International Affairs Fellow at the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations and an adjunct faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. 

Republished the kind permission of the author. Original Article was published on 11 August, 2016 by National Council of US-Arab Relations

***Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia ***

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