The Arab Role in Combating ISIS

While much attention has been paid to the policies of the United States and its international allies in combatting the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the role of Arab states has thus far been largely ignored despite the existential threat that ISIS poses to them. That all changed in early February, when ISIS released video recordings of the immolation of Jordanian pilot Moath al-Kasasbeh and the execution of Egyptian Christians. The response to these barbaric executions has been overwhelming, with Jordan promising massive retaliation, Egypt opening another front against ISIS in Libya, and other Arab states such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates rejoining the fight and operating aircraft out of Jordan. Clearly the fight against ISIS is not, as some in the United States and other NATO countries have feared, going to be undertaken by Western powers alone. However, much doubt has been cast on the effectiveness of the Arab states’ ability to wage war.

Image courtesy of Chatham House © 2011, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Chatham House © 2011, some rights reserved

First and foremost, Arab states such as Jordan that have committed to conducting airstrikes against ISIS often do so without the use of guided munitions, rendering the efficacy of said strikes highly uncertain. Even Jordan’s King Abdullah II has noted that, while Jordan’s military has become adept at utilising unguided munitions, they are desperately in need of precision-guided munitions.[1] Despite the claimed adeptness of Jordanian pilots at using unguided munitions, the indiscriminate use of such weapons could have severe repercussions for the coalition fighting ISIS. Should such munitions be used against targets in population centres, civilian casualties are almost guaranteed. As the United States and NATO have found out over the past decade or so, airstrikes or drone strikes causing significant collateral damage serve only to radicalise civilians and push them closer to groups such as ISIS. Though the United States has reportedly expedited shipments of munitions to Jordan, which may include precision-guided arms,[2] such weapons are not guaranteed to make the air campaign against ISIS any more effective. The traditional targets of airstrikes, fixed targets and infrastructure, should now be few and far between, assuming that coalition airstrikes have been as effective as is publically claimed, meaning that airstrikes are reaching the limits of their usefulness.[3] Without the incorporation of ground forces to exploit the openings made by airstrikes, the continued bombing of ISIS may well prove to be more of a public relations victory than an objective step towards the defeat of ISIS.

Having covered the questionable usefulness of the Arab air campaign against ISIS, it is now necessary to discuss the prospect of Arab states engaging in, or in some cases expanding, ground campaigns. By all accounts ground troops will be required to defeat ISIS, but do the Arab states have what it takes to accomplish this daunting objective? Up until now, the bulk of the fighting has been done by Iraqi Kurds and Shiite militias, often supported by US-led airstrikes.[4] These forces have had some success and, more importantly, have stalled the momentum of ISIS.[5] Despite these limited successes, the capability of Arab states to combat ISIS is still highly suspect. Take, for example, the Syrian forces of Bashar al-Assad, which have been involved in the fight against ISIS since its inception. These forces, despite having the home-field advantage and being relatively unconstrained by concern for civilian casualties, have failed to recover territory under the control of ISIS.[6] Experts have expressed doubts that Arab militaries are prepared to face a threat such as ISIS, especially so in the case of Egypt, due to the fact that the last time Egyptian forces were deployed in another Arab country (Yemen in the sixties) they were humiliated.[7] Even Jordan’s Special Operations Forces, who are widely respected by their Western counterparts, may be unable to defeat ISIS, as a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2006 suggests that they would rely on significant US logistical support.[8] Moreover, Jordan and states in similar financial situations are incapable of any extensive use of ground troops against ISIS, as such a deployment would cost far more than they could afford.[9]

Essentially, the fight against ISIS is not a fight to be left to Arab states alone. The armed forces of most Arab states are burdened with either prohibitive costs or dubious combat efficacy. That isn’t to say that the United States or other Western forces should intervene further in the fight against ISIS. Indeed, doing so might only serve to alienate moderates within the Arab states currently taking part in the coalition fight against ISIS. Perhaps the best way to combat ISIS is for Arab states to assist in the training and equipping of moderate forces within Iraq and Syria that are already engaged in the ground war against ISIS. Countries like Saudi Arabia have already taken steps toward this end by agreeing to host the training of moderate Syrian forces in addition to providing warplanes to strike ISIS targets.[10] This approach is holistically better for all parties involved: the Arab states avoid the crippling cost of a ground war, the use of Iraqi and Syrian forces gives domestic legitimacy to the fight against ISIS, and the United States avoids another foreign war. Though presented here as the sensible approach, Arab states may consider a different approach, one that may well bring ruin to them. The passions evoked by the brutal executions conducted by ISIS may lead the Arab states to overreach their capabilities financially, politically, and militarily. Such overestimate of their own capability would lead the Arab states into potential military disasters, disasters that would ensure ISIS’s position as a regional power. Only time will tell what role the Arab states will choose to play in the fight against ISIS, and whether their choices leads to renewed security in the Middle East or their destruction. Time will tell…











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