Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Leave It to the League

The Saudis, Qataris, and others are stepping into the fight against Islamic State. Now it's time for them to take the lead.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

On Monday the United States began a furious, focused bombing campaign on Islamist militants in Syria. But the United States was not alone: Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates both provided support and directly participated in the attacks on the Islamic State (IS), the shadowy Khorasan group, and others, U.S. military officials say. Those contributions validate the promises made on September 8, when at least 10 Arab countries agreed to join the United States in its campaign against the radical IS, which controls vast swaths of territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

While the Arab States' decision to follow the United States' lead is encouraging, they are missing a major opportunity. In fact, the Arab League's own history offers a far sounder strategy on how to deal with an indigenous threat to its member states: direct confrontation.

When Great Britain granted Kuwait its independence in June 1961, Iraq's revolutionary regime, led by a radical, opportunistic Arab nationalist named Abd al-Karim Qasim, who had come to power in a bloody coup in 1958, declared the tiny Gulf nation "an indivisible part of Iraq." Qasim quickly appointed a governor of the new Iraqi "province," mobilized troops along the Iraq-Kuwait border, and positioned tanks outside Basra, which appeared to be a staging ground for an invasion.

On Monday the United States began a furious, focused bombing campaign on Islamist militants in Syria. But the United States was not alone: Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates both provided support and directly participated in the attacks on the Islamic State (IS), the shadowy Khorasan group, and others, U.S. military officials say. Those contributions validate the promises made on September 8, when at least 10 Arab countries agreed to join the United States in its campaign against the radical IS, which controls vast swaths of territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

While the Arab States’ decision to follow the United States’ lead is encouraging, they are missing a major opportunity. In fact, the Arab League’s own history offers a far sounder strategy on how to deal with an indigenous threat to its member states: direct confrontation.

When Great Britain granted Kuwait its independence in June 1961, Iraq’s revolutionary regime, led by a radical, opportunistic Arab nationalist named Abd al-Karim Qasim, who had come to power in a bloody coup in 1958, declared the tiny Gulf nation "an indivisible part of Iraq." Qasim quickly appointed a governor of the new Iraqi "province," mobilized troops along the Iraq-Kuwait border, and positioned tanks outside Basra, which appeared to be a staging ground for an invasion.

Ever since the drawing of the Middle East’s borders following World War I, Iraq had coveted Kuwait largely because of its access to a deep-water port on the Gulf. However, Qasim’s territorial grab was also motivated by self-preservation. By 1961, he had managed to alienate nearly every segment of Iraq’s body politic — the military, Arab nationalists, Communists, and Kurds. And so when the British announced their withdrawal from Kuwait, Qasim smelled an opportunity to tap into nationalist pride and shore up support at home.

But Qasim’s move on Kuwait posed a direct threat to British strategic and economic interests. Britain’s post-war economy ran on cheap Kuwaiti oil. Indeed, according to the historian Nigel Ashton, by 1961 about 40 percent of Britain’s oil supply came from Kuwait. At the same time, the Kuwaiti emir had also invested nearly $840 million — roughly $6.7 billion in today’s dollars — in the British economy, which was an important source of foreign investment in the postwar era. Britain also relied heavily on the foreign exchange earnings generated by the highly profitable Kuwaiti Oil Company, which was jointly owned by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (known today as British Petroleum) and the U.S.-owned Gulf Oil Company.

Qasim’s ties with the Soviet Union only heightened Western anxieties. Following Iraq’s 1958 revolution, Qasim relied on the Iraqi Communist Party to help build a base of support for his regime. At the same time, he pulled Iraq out of the Baghdad Pact, a Middle Eastern collective security agreement similar to NATO, and established a military-supply relationship with Moscow.

If Iraq seized Kuwait, British and American officials feared, it could deprive Western Europe and Asia of oil, setting back postwar economic reconstruction. At the height of the Cold War, this was unacceptable to London and Washington, and on July 1, Britain deployed 5,000 troops to Kuwait.

Almost immediately, London faced intense opposition from the Arab League. At the time, the process of decolonization was well underway, and pan-Arab nationalism, an ideology that celebrates Arab culture and calls for the political union of Arab states, was fast spreading. The British occupation of Kuwait was rapidly transforming into a public-relations fiasco, and London desperately sought a way out.  

Then the Arab League arrived on the scene. After immediately admitting Kuwait as a member and promising to safeguard its independence, the bloc brokered a proposal: Kuwait would ask the British to withdraw its troops and replace them with a 4,000-strong Arab League force composed of Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, and Sudanese troops. Iraq responded with outrage, and withdrew its delegation from the League in late July, accusing it of "walking with British imperialism."

In early August 1961, after several weeks of negotiation, Kuwait agreed to the Arab League plan and asked Britain to withdraw its forces once Arab troops were in place. This plan, according to declassified documents, enjoyed the full support of the Kennedy administration.

The decision to collectively deploy troops to Kuwait in 1961 was a defining moment for the Arab League. Indeed, it is the only instance in its history where it has taken collective military action to resolve a crisis. More importantly, that action was taken against one of its own member states. In a pivotal moment, the League proved capable of acting independently and effectively when faced with a major internal challenge, much like other collective organizations, such as the Warsaw Pact, African Union, or even NATO.

In the aftermath of the Arab League’s deployment, Qasim remained defiant about Iraq’s claim to Kuwait, but never took direct military action because of the Arab deterrent. Instead, he retaliated by seizing Kuwaiti deposits in Iraqi banks and nationalizing the area inside Iraq where the British-owned Iraq Petroleum Company was allowed to search for and pump oil.  

Ultimately, the presence of an Arab League deterrent force helped deescalate the crisis. Arab troops would remain in Kuwait until February 1963, when the Baath Party overthrew Qasim in a coup, rejoining the Arab League and thus resorting Kuwait’s diplomatic recognition.

Though the threats facing Iraq and Syria today come from non-state actors, the historical precedent of 1961 shows how the Arab League could provide a multilateral solution to the crisis. If the League displayed such unity and purpose today, it would send a signal that the Arab world does not condone the Islamic State’s brutality, and is willing to take visible steps to curtail its presence. This approach would allow the West to limit its involvement to logistical support, intelligence-sharing, training, and weapons resupply.

However, the League must be united in both its long-term objectives and its execution. According to Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby, the bloc is beset with infighting, stalling progress and preventing a unified military response. While it is certainly significant that 10 Arab states are joining the U.S.-led coalition to confront IS in a region rife with anti-American sentiment, perhaps a better solution would be for the United States to step back and let the League to take a leading role in responding to this crisis.

This is entirely possible. On one level, an important first step the Arab League could take to undermine radical Islamists would be for its Sunni and Shiite members alike to abandon the sectarian rhetoric that has riven the region since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and revive the secular, once-powerful Arab nationalism that once united the region. Coupled with a multilateral Arab operation against IS, this could finally break the grip radical Islamists have held on the region since the 1980s.

Next, on a military level, members of the Arab League certainly have the numbers and military capability to take on IS: the Egyptian Army is some 438,000-strong, and Saudi Arabia could deploy 233,000 troops. Algeria fields another 130,000, while Jordan and the UAE could add 100,000 and 51,000 men, respectively. All of this, on top of Iraq’s 271,000-man army and the 190,000 Kurdish soldiers already fighting, show the League has the manpower to confront the Islamic State.

League members also boast the technological capability to take on the militants, like Saudi Arabia’s fleet of American-made F-15 fighter jets, its Apache and Black Hawk helicopters, or the UAE’s recent purchase of Predator drones, all of which are useful for ground attacks. Today, most member-states possess advanced ground and air forces capable of sophisticated operations. For example, according to the New York Times, in August the UAE and Egypt secretly launched airstrikes against Islamist militants battling for control of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.

The challenge, of course, will be convincing the rest of the League’s members that taking on the Islamic State is in their interests. This is where the power and wealth from the Gulf could play a major role in persuading the North African Arab states to approve broader action in support of ongoing Iraqi-Kurdish operations against the Islamic State, in the name of the Arab League.

In the end, history shows that the Arab League can muster a collective military force capable of intervening against rogue states, just as it could against non-state actors like IS. An Arab League-led intervention is a much more viable solution for confronting IS because it would maintain the Arab League’s independence from the West, prevent the reintroduction of Western forces into the region, and rob the IS of any legitimacy that it might gain among Islamists by protecting the Arab world from foreign invaders.

However, an indigenous, genuine, forceful, and collective Arab response can thrive only in combination with a shift in rhetoric among the Arab states away from the sectarianism of today and toward unity, which was once so successful.

Bryan R. Gibson is an Assistant Professor of History at Hawai’i Pacific University. He is the author of Sold Out? US Foreign Policy, Iraq, the Kurds, and the Cold War.

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