Wanted: A Coalition to Defeat the Islamic State and Assad

Halting the violent fracturing of the Middle East requires the U.S. and regional states to stop talking past each other.  

AP Photo
AP Photo

As the United States and its allies launch airstrikes against Sunni militants in Syria to stop the progress of the Islamic State, the central question of what role America’s Arab and Islamic allies will play has lingered without any clear answer. Though planes from three Arab countries — Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia (with Qatar in a supporting position) — have flown alongside U.S. fighters, the specific terms of a partnership have remained frustratingly vague, indicating a disconnect between the United States and regional powers. Understanding and addressing this disconnect is crucial, because banding together to quash a vicious, well-funded new threat that has swept across Iraq and Syria with impressive speed has obvious advantages for all involved.

Regional critics of the U.S. strategy point to what they see as a political double standard. Why has President Barack Obama and much of the world rallied around the idea of stopping the Islamic State, while doing nothing about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s massive bloodletting of his own people? The shift of focus away from the Syrian regime toward the Islamic State as the central regional concern is viewed by some as sanctioning Assad’s actions. Regional critics argue that the Syrian question is directly linked to the growth of the Islamic Stat: It is the Sunni-dominated uprising against Assad that has galvanized jihadi forces, bringing more recruits to al Qaeda-like groups, including the Islamic State, and further destabilizing the whole region. And so regional partners want the Syrian question to be addressed at its roots, and they are unlikely to devote themselves to solving the Islamic State problem unless the United States acknowledges their primary concern.

The Syria question is one that the Obama administration cannot afford to ignore. The United Nations estimated as of April 2014 that Assad’s internal war had killed more than a staggering 191,000 Syrians. The Islamic State, which now controls an area greater than that of many actual countries, has caused more than 9,300 deaths over the past eight months or so.

The perceived double standard is the root of the disconnect between the United States and its regional partners. This disconnect is partially a result of the United States framing of the threat. In essence, the frame suggests, the Islamic State is a threat to the United States and Europe — and thus the world — whereas Assad is mainly a threat to his people and a destabilizing force in the region.

The Islamic State’s physical expansion continues partly because borders cannot confine the extremist ideology, which bases its rhetoric on a clash with the Western world in defense of the Islamic way of life. A hijacking of Muslim grievances drives its growth, and the Islamic State (as its name clearly suggests) casts itself as the true vanguard of Islam, fighting relentlessly against the encroachment of Western civilization. The ultimate goal of this extremist ideology is to do as much harm to the United States and Europe as possible.

At the same time, the group’s success threatens the integrity of the international economy. Recent U.S. interventions in the Middle East have reinforced the narrative that the superpower cares more about oil than about saving lives. Not intervening against Assad when he used chemical weapons against his own people but launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in oil-rich Iraq reinforces this "oil-centric" narrative. (The expansion of the Islamic State has indeed caused global oil prices to spike.)

From this perspective, the assumption is made that the Islamic State is the true threat, whereas Syria remains a conflict the primary focus of which is internal. While Assad’s brutal suppression of his people amounts to one of the greatest crimes in the modern era, history shows that dictators rarely try to extend their authoritarian reach outside their immediate sphere of control and influence. In other words, Assad may be a threat to the Syrian people, but is he truly a threat to the world?

That frame isn’t wrong, per se, but it isn’t necessarily right either.

Many would argue what is happening now has been part of Assad’s strategy all along. Assad now cleverly points to the Islamic State’s takeover of Syria as the inevitable followup to his fall, if it were to happen. This helps bolster his power, even as he is feeding the jihadi threat. Indeed, the reality is that the Islamic State could not thrive were it not for the existence of a brutal dictatorship that has stripped people of their dignity, humanity, and hope for a better life.

It is for that reason that regional powers are more worried about Assad and really want something done about him. They are concerned about the Islamic State, yes, but less so than the Syrian war. The impact of the refugee crisis alone on neighboring countries is profound. The rise of extremism as fighters travel to fight against the Assad regime have countries from Tunisia to Yemen to Saudi Arabia concerned about citizens returning disenfranchised and violent.

The United States needs to understand the connection between Assad and the Islamic State, and Assad as a prime concern for regional powers. Until it does, its strategy for dealing with the Islamic State will not work, in no small part because it will not be able to build a coalition worth very much.

Here is what the United States can do. It can hash out a deal in good faith with regional powers that will address the fact that they are concerned about Syria and acknowledge that the Islamic State and Assad are interconnected problems. This will help address an underlying lack of trust between the United States and Middle Eastern states, establishing the dialogue and commitment necessary to form the strong coalition that must be the lynchpin of any strategy to defeat the violence and attendant concerns spreading through the region.

Hesitant Arab states, on the flip side, are wrong if they think the Islamic State will only turn on them if they choose to associate themselves with such a coalition. The idea that they can escape being targeted is a myth. Their best option is to become more proactive in the battle against the Islamic State. Their voices are critical to defeating the violence and attendant concerns confronting the Middle East. 

Indeed, it is not additional firepower that regional allies would bring to the table. It is their legitimacy on the ground. They can combat the dangerous, infectious rhetoric the Islamic State has created. Arab states and other Islamic countries have an opportunity to disrupt the destructive narrative of the Islamic State as the true representatives of Islam. They can do so by framing the fight against the militant group as a battle to protect the honor and name of Islam, and by standing at the forefront of a strong coalition, they can negate and repudiate (if only in this case) the common perception that their foreign policy is dictated by the United States.

With the rise of the Islamic State, the United States seems to have run into the most extreme manifestation of the threat that it has been warning the world of since at least 9/11. Stopping this threat by getting to its roots requires a strong, balanced relationship with Middle Eastern states. Otherwise, like a virus, another extremist mutation may be on the horizon.

Manal Omar is acting vice president of the Middle East and Africa Center at the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP).

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