The cry for greater Arab leadership in the fight against Isis has gone up many times. It is repeated so often because it makes intuitive sense. US-led air strikes can “degrade” the insurgent group but they cannot get rid of it. More boots on the ground will be needed if this is to happen – and, after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, few need convincing that those boots should belong to Arab soldiers, not Western ones.
That leaders of Arab states might grasp the nettle more firmly is also a matter of self-defence. It is the likes of Jordan, Turkey and Egypt – alongside the Gulf nations – who face the most direct threat from Isis’s spreading reach. But most important of all is the symbolic value of predominantly Sunni Muslim nations taking the vanguard. At a stroke, that would undermine the claim of Isis to be resisting Western aggression, and might bring more of Iraq’s Sunni communities under the banner of “Operation Inherent Resolve”. It could even lay the ground for a rerun of the “Sunni awakening” that was critical in driving al-Qaeda out of Iraq in 2006.
The US has taken a dominant role so far, partly as a result of its military supremacy. Britain has contributed only 6 per cent of air strikes, it was revealed yesterday, while the US Air Force has carried out about 80 per cent. But several other factors have held back the Arab members of the anti-Isis coalition. One has been the delicate nature of going to fight against Muslims, in a nearby Muslim country.
Before he discovered that his son had been murdered by Isis, the father of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh – a sheikh in the powerful Hashemite tribe – said he believed that Jordan should not be part of the coalition at all. What happened to Lt Kasaesbeh changed his viewpoint. And it appears that much of Jordan, and indeed the wider Middle East, now shares Safi Youssef al-Kasaesbeh’s revulsion – and with it the desire for revenge.
Power struggle: Isis areas gained and lost
It was not naïve of Isis to hope that its targets would quail in response to its latest outrage. The withdrawal of the United Arab Emirates from the coalition, citing fears for the safety of its soldiers, was confirmed soon after the release of the footage showing Lt Kasaesbeh’s murder.
But the wider reaction looks like it may cost Isis. According to a US official, Jordan has sought permission to lead more air strikes. Ground troops have not been ruled out. The loss of the UAE would be more than compensated for by the increased involvement of Jordan, which borders both Iraq and Syria.
The West should do its part to encourage such developments. The UAE left the coalition in part because it believed America’s search-and-rescue operations for the downed pilot were lacklustre. That impression must be corrected. The US and UK should engage in a large diplomatic push to capitalise on the momentum against Isis, and invite further participation from Arab states.
To help facilitate that, more must be done to distance the coalition from Bashar al-Assad, who many Sunnis – within Syria and beyond – believe has become a de facto ally of the West as a result of President Obama’s “Isis-first” approach in Mr Assad’s country. Additionally, Western diplomats must make the case to Sunni leaders that failure to take on Isis because of fears that it would benefit Shia Iran represents the wrong approach.Isis is the clear and present danger.
This war will be a long one. It is incumbent upon the West to do all in its power to ensure that Lt Kasaesbeh’s murder is a turning point – and one in the coalition’s favour.Reuse content