TSG IntelBrief: The Hard Realities of an Anti-Islamic State Coalition
September 15, 2014

The Hard Realities of an Anti-Islamic State Coalition

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Bottom Line Up Front:

• On the surface, the nations of the anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition are saying the right things; a deeper look at their statements suggests each country sees the issue differently even as they all oppose IS in general

• There will be an understandable divide between public statements and private assurances/actions of support, but recent statements by Saudi Arabia and Egypt show there is also a divide between how these countries will define and address the threat and the root issues behind it

• Saudi Arabia and Egypt will work to fold the fight against IS into a larger campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups they perceive as an equal if not greater threat than IS

• Turkey, which will have to play a significant role if IS is to be truly diminished, so far hasn’t joined the coalition as it sees the root causes of IS very differently than Saudi Arabia

• Further complicating the situation, the Free Syrian Army has announced it won’t join the anti-IS coalition because if prefers to focus on ousting the Assad regime instead of the group that has been quite successful against the Syrian dictator.

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The only thing that will be harder than truly diminishing and defeating the so-called Islamic State (IS) will be managing the coalition formed to do just that, with the necessity of the coalition more than matched by its complexity. The US has received public support in its call for an international and regional effort to address the IS threat, with all parties saying the right things in public, to a degree. However, a closer look at the public statements of support suggests there isn’t yet a unified definition of the threat or its solution.

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Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, after meeting with his US counterpart, John Kerry, spoke about the need to counter the IS threat. He went on, however, to include “terrorism which now ravages Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen.” While there are indeed terrorist groups in all these countries, Saudi Arabia is particularly concerned with groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that has recently become Saudi’s prime regional concern. It is also concerned with Iran-backed proxies in Lebanon, with Hizballah, and in neighboring Yemen, with the al-Houthi/Zaydi insurgency, and in Syria, with the Assad regime. Saudi Arabia will most likely use its influence to broaden the focus of the nascent coalition. This makes sense given how Saudi Arabia sees the issue, but it will potentially break apart the original anti-IS effort.

To that end, al-Faisal’s statement, with its call to address the root causes of terrorism, manages to be both correct and troubling at the same time: correct in that the underlying issues of terrorism, such as extreme ideology, oppression, lack of good governance, etc, need to be addressed; troubling in that broadening the focus of the coalition will increase the likelihood of internal conflict, and that Saudi Arabia has significant challenges with the aforementioned underlying issues. Additionally, Saudi Grand Mufti Shaykh Abdul Aziz al-Shaykh stated that if IS “fights Muslims, then Muslims must fight them to rid people and religion of their evil and harm,” showing the Saudi focus on the IS threat is to Muslims and not the international community as a whole. Even in his rather remarkable speech in June denouncing IS, Saudi King Abdullah said, “we will not allow a handful of terrorists, using Islam for personal aims, to terrify Muslims or undermine our country and its inhabitants.” For perspective, these statements are targeted to a domestic audience, and the Saudi government will need to manage public support as it moves against IS, which won’t be an easy task.

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Egypt

Another supporter for broadening the focus of the coalition is Egypt, which, like Saudi Arabia, might view groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as a bigger internal threat than IS, as well as serious extremist groups in their midst. Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Shukri stated, after his meeting with Secretary Kerry, that the international fight should include militant groups in the Sinai, which is very understandable given the situation there and reports of cooperation between foreign fighters returning from Syria and stopping in the Sinai. But Egypt is primarily concerned with Islamists, and will support Saudi efforts to include their ranks as targets for the coalition, from Libya to Syria. Again, what makes this so difficult is that Egypt is correct in worrying about extremist groups in the Sinai and elsewhere, but turning the anti-IS coalition into a Saudi/Egypt-led campaign against its foes isn’t what the US and the West have in mind and will derail the group’s mission and focus before it even gets started.

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Turkey

One of the most important countries in the fight against IS hasn’t even joined the coalition. Turkey has concerns about the US initiative, in that it might elevate rival Saudi Arabia at the expense of Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood. This concern shouldn’t be underestimated. Also of concern is Turkey’s complicated relationship with IS. Turkey has led the effort to depose Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and has worked with groups like IS to achieve that goal. According to former US Ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, Ankara has worked closely with IS, al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and other extremist groups in a vain attempt to moderate or control them while trying to overthrow Assad. After investing so much in the effort, Ankara won’t be keen on helping a coalition aimed at the exact opposite goal, with the added insult of increasing Saudi Arabia’s influence across the region while decreasing Turkey’s.

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Free Syrian Army

As a final sign of how truly complicated this endeavor will be, the Free Syrian Army, the alleged moderate rebel group that has the backing of many Western countries, has declined to join the anti-IS coalition, even though IS currently represents a bigger threat to the group than the Assad regime. FSA fears that fighting IS will only help Assad, a fear that is both stunningly self-interested yet probably correct in the short term given the lack of credible non-IS opposition to the Syrian government.

The challenges of managing a regional anti-IS coalition makes herding cats seem like a reasoned chess match. And yet, the need to confront IS before the group and its toxic ideology spread even further outweighs the many difficulties. However, as problematic as it will be, a regional coalition with international support is most likely the best approach to the problem, and public and private patience and a focus on the task at hand—with a willingness to address root causes after the immediate threat is beat down—will prove more valuable than any airstrikes.

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