The Middle East hosts a formidable array of air power. Between them, the six nations of the Gulf Co-operation Council possess more than 600 combat-capable aircraft. Add Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt, and you have 1,000 more.
Why, then, is only the US dropping bombs on the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) as they expand their “caliphate” in the heart of the region? Why has Britain deployed half a dozen fighter jets to nearby Cyprus while a vast cache of firepower lies dormant nearby? And why are distant European powers rushing to arm the embattled Kurds?
The Arab world has failed to come to terms with the most grievous threat it has faced since Saddam Hussein led Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait two decades ago. It has preferred to ride on the coat-tails of outsiders while castigating western “inaction”. It is time for the Arab world, and neighbours such as Turkey, to act.
To help them do it, the west must first understand three Arab fears. First, the Sunni-led Arab states view Iraq through the lens of Iranian power and sectarian balance. They are loath to fight the brutal Sunni militants of Isis if doing so strengthens a Shia-led, pro-Iranian government in Baghdad at the expense of Iraqi Sunnis. Some Arab citizens even view Isis as a vehicle for legitimate Sunni ambitions; and Arab rulers are wary of overtly taking on a putative army of Islam.
Second, Arab states are concerned that weakening Isis, which has won significant territory in Syria, might boost the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They have aggressively opposed the regime, which they view as an outpost of Iranian influence.
Third, Arab states fear what Isis might do if attacked. The borders of Syria and Iraq are long and porous, and Arab citizens have joined the group in droves. Why make oneself a target? Turkey, in particular, is worried about the fate of 49 hostages held by the jihadis.
Some of these arguments are complacent, some spurious and some legitimate. The threat from Isis far outstrips that of Iran. Prioritising the containment of Tehran over pushing back the militants is like cutting off the nose to spite the face. Isis has spent more time fighting other rebels in Syria than taking on the regime, which is why Damascus exempted the group from air strikes until recently. If Syria’s neighbours take on Isis, it will ease pressure on the genuine opposition to the Assads. On the other hand, Arab states are right to be concerned about retaliation. The west should help gird their borders and steel their resolve.
Last week’s political transition in Iraq opens up an opportunity. The resignation of Nouri al-Maliki, the discredited prime minister who alienated Iraq’s Sunnis, and the appointment of Haider al-Abadi, a more neutral figure welcomed by both Saudi Arabia and Iran, is the moment for Arab states to reassess their hostility to Baghdad. Mr Abadi has yet to put together a broad-based government, dismantle Mr Maliki’s imperial premiership and mend fences with minorities. This is a prerequisite for defeating Isis. But military action is an indispensable complement to reconciliation, and the Iraqi Air Force, even with new Russian jets, is not up to the task.
An Arab coalition, with Turkey, should now offer direct military support to target Isis in Iraq. The US, UK and allies must offer support: refuelling aircraft, providing intelligence and deploying special forces for a large, complex coalition. But there is no reason why the Arab states cannot take the lead in mounting air strikes in their own backyard. Saudi Arabia has done so in Yemen and Turkey against Kurdish insurgents, and the UAE has seen combat in Afghanistan. Western nations have faced criticism for selling arms to Arab autocrats but no one could object to defensive action against an adversary with avowedly expansionist aims.
Minimising the western role would deprive Isis of its most potent means of recruitment. US drone strikes in Yemen, for instance, may have swelled the numbers of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who were able to claim “defensive jihad”. An Arab spearhead in Iraq would cut through this flimsy claim.
It is vital to reassure vulnerable countries that their home front is secure. In Jordan, for instance, this would involve surveillance of border areas, perhaps by western aircraft, more intelligence resources devoted to Isis’ cross-border activities and possibly a beefing up of the US military presence. Nato could play a role in assuaging Turkish concerns, by promising deeper consultations on security in the south of the country.
The more Isis spreads, the stronger it grows. It seizes resources, builds local networks and nurtures its most effective weapons: momentum and repute. But if Iraq’s neighbours will not recognise and address the threat, outsiders can achieve little. Iran’s nakedly sectarian policies in Syria and Iraq have helped bring things to this point, but Arab states are not without blame. The priority must be to confront a revolutionary movement that has no precedent in the modern era. The region must step up and take responsibility.
The writer is senior research fellow at Royal United Services Institute
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