Nicholas Saidel

A regional Awakening

There is ample evidence to suggest that a more muscular, and possibly unified, Sunni response to Iran and ISIS is forthcoming

Sheikh Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Fujairah, attends the closing session of the Arab League summit in Egypt on 29 March 2015. (AFP/Mohamed el-Shahed)


The “boots on the ground” campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) has undoubtedly been a Shiite endeavor thus far. It is the Shiites who are spilling blood in their attempt to stem the tide of ISIS. As they have taken the lead and emerged victorious in many ground battles, it is the Shiite who are winning the hearts and minds of the local populations, especially in Iraq. Sunni states in the region are seemingly beginning to recognize the two risks posed by allowing this trend to continue: Iran’s expanding sphere of influence in the Middle East, and the radicalizing effect this Shiite-led campaign is having on Sunnis across the region—which plays into ISIS’s sectarian narrative and which could destabilize and undermine Sunni regimes in their countries of origin. 


Sunni efforts against ISIS—and by implication against Iranian hegemonic ambitions—have been limited in nature. Gulf States and Jordan have joined the anti-ISIS coalition and have conducted air strikes in Iraq. Egypt has hit ISIS in Libya and is waging a costly military campaign in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS branches there. These notwithstanding, there has yet to be a unified Sunni strategy to destroy ISIS and contain the expansion of Iranian influence in the region. Internal bickering, such as between Turkey/Qatar and Egypt, is but one impediment; inept military capability (excluding Egypt, Jordan and perhaps Turkey) is another. Finally, fear of internal blowback from fighting other “Sunnis” has also diminished Sunni states’ appetite to undertake a serious effort to destroy ISIS and thus reestablish the old regional order as it applied to Iran.


However, the rapid rise of Iran and the emergence of ISIS in new frontiers such as Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, and Lebanon is precipitating a change in the mindset of some of these Sunni states that see both Iran and ISIS as threats to their national security. It is now perhaps becoming clearer to these states that ISIS is a Sunni problem best dealt with by Sunni-led armed forces. Passively allowing Iran, Hezbollah, the Syrian Arab Army, and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) of Iraq take control of the fight against ISIS is therefore a double mistake that will only serve to radicalize more Sunnis and aid Iran in its power grab. For example, the atrocities committed against Sunni civilians in areas “liberated” in Iraq by the PMUs only serve to recruit more Sunnis to ISIS. In Syria, the moderate Sunni rebellion of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has been hit hard on both sides by ISIS/Jabhat al-Nusra and the Assad regime. FSA fighters whose battalions have disbanded or have been conquered have little choice but to pledge allegiance to ISIS when faced with such a decision, as the removal of Assad is their primary objective. In Yemen, the advance of the Shiite Houthi movement, which is backed by Iran, will also play into the hands of Sunni radicals like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, as the frightened Sunni majority population will seek protection from militants of their own sect. Such radicalization will have a rippling effect, fomenting domestic extremism in these Sunni states and—absent a Sunni response—will keep the pretext for Iranian occupation of Arab lands alive.


There is ample evidence to suggest that a more muscular, and possibly unified, Sunni response to Iran and ISIS is forthcoming. For example, in late February, Jordan deployed thousands of its ground troops to the Iraqi border, waiting for permission from the Iraqi government to advance an offensive operation. Jordan also recently surprised Iran with a visit by Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, which some experts considered conciliatory in nature, but which in reality was a warning signal to Iran about the latter’s goals along the Syrian-Jordanian border.


Within Iraq, there has been a legislative push for the creation of an Iraqi national guard, with the goal of incorporating Sunnis into the fight against ISIS. While this legislation has yet to be passed, reports indicate the US is already arming and training Sunnis behind the scenes in anticipation of the operation to retake the city of Mosul, a move that countries like the UAE have requested for quite some time. While the PMUs have achieved military victories in Iraq, they have suffered heavy losses and stalled in battles such as the one to retake the Sunni city of Tikrit, demonstrating the limitations of using a Shiite militia in areas where sectarian tensions run high. The US has taken note of this drawback and has reached an agreement with the Iraqi government to replace the PMUs with 4,000 Iraqi Army and federal police personnel to carry out “clearing operations” in Tikrit.


Current Iraq Vice President Iyad Allawi recently told Sky News that the Shiite-dominated fight against ISIS is failing to push the movement’s fighters back, adding: “[That Iran is] doing what they are doing and sending officers to fight and to lead, and declaring that Baghdad is becoming the capital of the Persian empire, is unacceptable.” The unacceptability of these unchecked and oftentimes brutally violent Shiite militias was recently echoed by former US General David H. Petraeus, US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and to a lesser extent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Experts state that while there will be challenges for the US, the fight against ISIS needs a Sunni face and that arming and training Sunnis as it did during the first Sunni “Awakening” in 2005 could likely result in the ouster of ISIS as was the case with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). 


For its part, Sunni-majority Turkey is now coping with the danger of thousands of young Turks turning to ISIS, which will likely pose a domestic threat down the line. While Turkey has been recalcitrant during most of the war against ISIS, it has of late proven itself to be more assertive in the fight. Turkey recently advanced into Syria without permission from Assad to evacuate its forces from a swath of Turkish land inside Syria that hosts the Tomb of Suleiman Shah. Notably, in late 2014, the Turkish parliament authorized military intervention to “defeat attacks directed at our country from all terrorist groups in Iraq and Syria,” adding a one-year mandate “to allow foreign troops in Turkey for the same purposes.” Turkey also struck a deal with the US last month to train and arm Syrian rebels on Turkish territory to fight ISIS, and according to Turkish officials, possibly the Assad regime after that. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan have also pledged to host training facilities for what would ostensibly be mainly Sunni Syrian rebels with funding from the US in the effort against ISIS. Turkey has erstwhile improved its border control with Syria. Finally, the fact that anywhere between 1 and 1.5 million Syrian refugees now reside in Turkey, hurting the country’s economy, are all the more reason to believe Turkey will, at least minimally, ramp up its efforts against ISIS. Having said that, Turkey remains insistent on a Syrian no-fly zone and that Assad’s removal be an integral part of any overall military strategy there. This policy may still temper Turkey’s role for the foreseeable future.


While Turkish President Erdogan’s government sees the Assad regime as an Alawite-run oligarchy, he underestimates the backing Assad has from the Sunni community inside Syria. It is fair to state that a fair amount of Sunni support for Assad, from the business community and from Sunnis in the Syrian Arab Army, is one of the primary reasons he is still in power, though that support is at the least counterbalanced by the Sunni-led insurgency against the brutal dictator. In Syria, the sectarian issue is not as black and white as in Iraq. The Assad regime cooperates with ISIS at times, allows ISIS to fight other rebel groups to weaken the revolution, and has no sustained strategy to destroy the group. In short, it cannot be relied on to defeat ISIS. Even with the help of its Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian backers, Assad has still been losing territory. In fact, the Syrian regime and its allies just lost the city and provincial capital of Idlib to Jabhat al-Nusra after a five-day battle. In short, there is a need for a different military response in Syria. The Sunni rebel forces now being trained are a piece of that puzzle, a regional Arab (primarily Sunni) force could also play a vital role. 


As for the prospect of such a force, on 9 March Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi told delegates: "There is an urgent need for the creation of a multi-purpose common Arab military force." In late February 2015 Egyptian President El-Sisi similarly stated: "The need for a unified Arab force is growing and becoming more pressing every day,” and that: "We need the Arab states to be the ones to eventually put the boots on the ground. Whether they actually end up doing it and being dedicated to this, we'll have to see." This is important, as Egypt arguably has the largest, best-equipped and best-trained Arab Sunni army in the region, one that would likely form the basis of any regional Sunni military force in the fight against ISIS and Iranian hegemony.


Given the recent military flare-up in Yemen, this issue took center stage at the Arab League Summit that took place over the weekend in Egypt. At the Summit, plans were unveiled to form such a joint Arab intervention force. A purposely vaguely-worded resolution was passed, stating that the joint Arab defense force would be deployed at the request of any Arab nation facing a national security threat and that it would also be used to combat terrorist groups. The planned force would be headquartered in either Cairo or Riyadh and consist of up to 40,000 elite troops backed by jet fighters, warships and light armor. The event was marked by thinly-veiled references to Iranian meddling in Yemen’s affairs through its engagement with the Houthi movement. At a subsequent news conference, Al-Arabi explicitly condemned Iran for its intervention in many nations. All signals point to this force’s objectives being two-fold: To destroy ISIS and to contain Iran. It will be interesting to see if the force will operate outside the Gulf, Libya, and the Sinai Peninsula—i.e. whether it has Syria and Iraq in its sights. Iraq’s Shiite-led government, a member of the Arab League, said it needed more time to discuss the details of the proposed force. Intra-League disputes, as Arab League history has demonstrated, will likely present challenges moving forward. 


The impetus for this budding “Sunni unification” against perceived Iranian expansion into the Arabian Peninsula is partially the result of Yemen’s besieged regime recently pleading with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to fight off what it deems to be an Iranian-backed coup against the Sunni government in Sanaa. Yemen, which suffered a horrific bombing at the hands of ISIS on 20 March that left over 130 dead, is also home to thousands of Al-Qaeda operatives who control territory as well, rendering it a truly fractured state—and one that borders two of the GCC states, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Notably, Iraq also borders two GCC states; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.


The GCC’s response to the Hadi government’s request was swift and robust. Within less than two days of the appeal, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced the launch of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. This operation, which is currently confined to airstrikes and the blockading of the Yemeni coast, is comprised of a wide range of participants: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE as well as non-member states Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, and Pakistan. Interestingly, taking a note from Iran’s playbook regarding the role of ISIS in the invasion, in a joint statement, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait said they “decided to repel Houthi militias, Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the country (emphasis added).”


Most salient to the arguments presented herein, reports indicate that Saudi Arabia and Egypt will lead a ground operation in Yemen, with troops arriving by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea. Sudan has also gone on record as committing ground troops. Importantly, Erdogan came out in support of the GCC-led effort, stating that Turkey may provide logistical support and adding strong words about Iraq: "The aim of Iran is to increase its influence in Iraq… Iran is trying to chase Daesh [ISIS] from the region only to take its place." While in the short term, a ground invasion would likely be aimed at forcing the rebels to reach a power-sharing agreement, missions against ISIS and/or Al-Qaeda targets are a distinct possibility. This operation could be the first wave of Sunni boots on the ground in an effort to foil Iranian regional ambitions and to officially begin the process of wresting control of the ground war against ISIS from the Shiite axis. 


Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania. He tweets @nicksaidel

Sheikh Hamad Bin Mohammad Al Sharqi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Fujairah, attends the closing session of the Arab League summit in Egypt on 29 March 2015. (AFP/Mohamed el-Shahed)

Passively allowing Iran, Hezbollah, the Syrian Arab Army, and the Popular Mobilization Units of Iraq take control of the fight against ISIS is therefore a double mistake that will only serve to radicalize more Sunnis and aid Iran in its power grab.”

  • Beiruti

    I am sure that in Israel, they look on with a great deal of concern the creation of a joint Arab military force. If the force is formed and gets battle hardened and experience ced in joint operations against the ISIL, could it pose a conventional threat to the IDF??

    March 31, 2015