As soon as President Barack Obama Wednesday announced his intention to lead a Coalition of the Willing to “degrade and destroy” the ISIS, his core coalition partners began to fidget and reach out for the exit door.
British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond said “UK will not be taking part in the air strikes in Syria”. He said the Syrian issue had been debated threadbare in the British Parliament. Policy enunciated in the House of Commons cannot be upturned.
A hand from across the Atlantic must have tweaked Prime Minister David Cameron’s ears, because his spokesman said Britain had not ruled out anything.
German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “We haven’t been asked nor will we do it (airstrikes). We have to be honest with ourselves: we don’t yet have a final blanket strategy which guarantees that we’ll be successful against ISIS and similar groups.” Similar misgivings in other European capitals suggest they would first like to size up the ISIS danger at home lest premature action provokes an unacceptable backlash.
Turkey has said “no” to any participation in the conflict and Jordan says it is worried about Gaza.
Syria has been succinct in its response. “Any foreign intervention in Syria would be an act of aggression against the country unless it is approved by Damascus.” But if asked, Syria would oblige.
Russia says: “Airstrikes against Islamist militants in Syria without a UN Security Council mandate will be an act of aggression.”
After the US National Security adviser, Susan Rice’ visit, Beijing has been cautious. It has endorsed coalitions against terrorism as a general principle.
The only outright endorsement of Obama’s speech has come from Saudi Arabia and Israel. And thereby hangs a tale.
Time was when Arab statesmen considered it politically incorrect to be seen alongside Israel. Saudis have pioneered a culture of open coalition with the Jewish state. But even the Saudis can sustain this policy only upto a point. They have serious domestic concerns.
There are several reasons for Obama’s over ambitious declaration of intent. A key reason has been Saudi anxiety -- ever since Abu Bakr al Baghdadi declared a Caliphate and conquered large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria. By reliable accounts, he has 30,000 men with the most sophisticated weapons, armour, personal carriers, helicopters all left behind by externally financed, then abandoned, mercenary Jehadis. As a result of chaos at Tripoli airport there were fears that ISIS may have access to transport planes as well.
It is common knowledge among West Asian observers that Paul Bremer, the first US Representative in Baghdad, was overzealous in disbanding Saddam Hussains Revolutionary Guards, secret police, armed forces and indeed, the Baath Party structure. This entire lot reared in a culture of secrecy under Saddam Hussain, proceeded to live below the radar waiting for the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki to be sensitive to the Baathists. This lot were atheists when they were in harness but they began to turn to the mosque in their bad days. After all, even Saddam Hussain had “Allah” inscribed on the Iraqi flag only after Operation Desert Storm. And that operation was launched from Saudi Arabia in 1992. The Saudis were the cheerleaders then.
Since the occupation of Iraq in 2003, Islam as a tactic slowly transformed itself into Islam - the faith native to Iraqis since pre Baath days. At the fall of Saddam Hussain, who were the cheer leaders? The Saudis, ofcourse.
The vacuum created by Saddam’s fall, was filled in by the Shia majority in the South. Suddenly the world (and the Saudis) realized that Shias were a majority in Iraq by a long margin. Earlier, after, the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, there was the usual wringing of hands. A Salafi-Wahabi bulwark against Shia Iran had been removed.
The Saudis began to beat their breast. “The Shia axis; the Shia axis.” So, every extremist Sunni group was injected into Syria to topple the Super Alawi Bashar al Assad even though the overriding concern was to break the Teheran, Damascus, Hezbullah, Gaza chain. At one stage according to UN representative Lakhdar Brahimi, there were 64 different groups in operation inside Syria, each more unsavoury than the other. One ghastly fellow posted a video of him gouging out the opponent’s liver for a macabre feast.
Well, this lot has conflated with the Baathists in Iraq and some who may have defected from the Syrian establishment. This powerful machine on the move is giving Saudis nightmares. ISIS is a hotchpotch of Wahabis, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood wedded to an Islamized Baathist structure. This Caliphate has become a rallying force for rampaging anti Americanism in the Muslim world. Worry of worries, inside European countries too.
The Syrian government would like to see the ISIS bombed, but the US cannot make a sudden U-turn and incorporate Syria into the otherwise wobbly coalition.
Teheran, like Baghdad and Damascus, would like the Sunni energy of ISIS to be exhausted without being seen to be in the fight. It would not like to be seen externally as a sectarian force. Inside Iran, proximity to the US, beyond the nuclear deal, would alienate the powerful hardliners.
Teheran would not like to upset the status quo in Riyadh. “An alternative to the present regime may be more in the grip of the Wahabi clergy whose extremism is boundless.” Behind the scenes, Iran has co-operated with the US and the Saudis in accepting Haider al Abadi as a successor to the sectarian Nouri al Maliki.
Meanwhile, Obama’s Congressmen face elections in November. A mega show has to be mounted to take the cameras off the unspeakable mess in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Gaza etcetera etcetera.
(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)