As the annual Muslim holy month of Ramadan drew to a close in late July 2014, Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud addressed a meeting of senior Saudi leadership figures and religious scholars in Jeddah. The Saudi monarch, who turned 90 on 1 August, spoke during the Eid al-Fitr celebrations to an audience of his closest supporters. While an official statement aimed at the overall international community had been read out on his behalf on Saudi state television on Friday 25 July 2014 in which he called the Israeli Operation Protective Edge in Gaza as "a war crime against humanity," at the Jeddah meeting, Abdullah returned to a theme that apparently concerns the Saudi royals even more than Gaza these days. He called it fitna, meaning civil strife among fellow Muslims, but what he really meant was the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Islamic State (IS) that now threatens the borders of the Saudi kingdom.
Back in the 2011-2013 timeframe, the Saudis, along with the Qataris and Turks, had been among the early supporters of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), when the hard-core Salafi militia was seen as the best chance for ousting the Iranian-backed regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad. But after al-Qa'eda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri officially broke ties with the group in February 2013 because its Iraqi leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, refused to confine his activities to Iraq, ISIS began a savage rampage across Syria that eventually in June 2014 drove southward into Iraq as well. The speed of the ISIS advance spread shock and alarm throughout the region. Division after division of the Iraqi army, trained and equipped by the U.S., collapsed and fled, abandoning large quantities of top-of-the-line tanks, vehicles, and weapons to ISIS. On 29 June 2014, with an ever-expanding swath of territory now fallen to his forces, al-Baghdadi proclaimed the establishment of a Caliphate (The Islamic State – IS). Shariah and the so-called 'Conditions of Umar' (the dhimma conditions) are brutally enforced everywhere under its control, sending hundreds of thousands of Christians, Shi'ites, Yazidis, and other minorities fleeing IS's merciless demands to "convert, pay the jizya, or die." Atrocities not seen on such a scale for many decades include the Islamic hudud punishments of amputations, crucifixions, flogging, and stoning, plus beheadings (even of children), sexual enslavement of captured women and the wholesale slaughter of prisoners.
It was against this backdrop that King Abdullah convened some of his closest supporters for the Jeddah speech, in which he cited key Qur'anic passages to condemn in the bluntest terms the "tumult and oppression" that IS is spreading:
Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors.
And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith.
But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
And fight them on until there is no more Tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression. (Qur'an 2:190 – 193)
Understandably shaken (and with good reason, given the thoroughly un-Islamic lifestyles enjoyed by many Saudi royals), the Saudi King directed his message at the Muslim community as a whole, but called specifically upon "Muslim leaders and scholars of the Islamic nation to carry out their duty towards Allah Almighty and stand in the face of those trying to hijack Islam and [present] it to the world as a religion of extremism, hatred and terrorism."
While Abdullah included a passing mention of "the blood of our brothers in Palestine," at least in this speech he did not call out Israel or Jews specifically by name, apparently more focused instead on the immediate crisis of IS on his doorstep. His call to other Sunni states ("those who fail to carry out their historic responsibilities against terrorism…will be its first victims tomorrow") rings as both condemnation of IS-supporting regimes in Qatar and Turkey and plaintive appeal to fellow Sunni regimes for support against the IS juggernaut—ironic of course, given that Saudis were among the original sponsors of an entire spectrum of jihadi militias in Syria, among them Jabhat al-Nusra and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as ISIS. The notable inclusion among the King's invited guests in Jeddah of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has just returned to Lebanon after several years of self-imposed exile in Paris, further indicates Saudi alarm at the spread of IS influence, that now threatens to plunge that troubled nation back into chaos as well.
Saudi, Jordanian, and Gulf leaderships that a short while ago feared above all the rising hegemony of a nuclear-capable Shi'ite power in Tehran are reeling at the sudden emergence of a far more immediate threat—a Sunni one that they themselves helped to birth. Speculation persists about a possible Iranian role that allowed ISIS to survive and expand in Syria, where its internecine campaigns against other rebels, including the Syrian Free Army, were at least as ferocious as anything it mounted against Damascus. Even now, with the Qods Force and its vaunted commander, Qassem Suleimani, in Baghdad ostensibly to repel the IS blitzkrieg, aggressive offensive moves against IS have not yet materialized.
The U.S. was drawn back into the Iraqi theater in early August 2014 to mount air strikes against IS forces threatening genocide against some 40,000 Christians and Yazidis trapped without food, water, or shelter atop Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq and perhaps moving as well on Kurdish-held Irbil (where the U.S. has a consulate). The Obama administration is floundering badly, responding only in haphazard fashion after public outcry about women and children dying on the mountain prodded it into action. But that action—limited for now, but in obvious danger of succumbing to mission creep—is no substitute for a coherent policy that outlines compelling U.S. national security interests and then implements an effective strategy to defend them.
The savagery that has torn Iraq and Syria apart is an intra-Islamic sectarian fight for dominance between Shi'ites and Sunnis that grew out of the Syrian civil war but has roots that date to the first century of Islam itself. More recently, the origins of IS date to the mid-2000s in Iraq, when al-Qa'eda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi plunged the country—and American and Coalition troops—into years of vicious sectarian conflict. Then, as now, the Iranian regime manipulated forces behind the scenes. While al-Zarqawi ostensibly loathed Shi'ites, his closest collaborator in Iraq was the Iranian Qods Force. Likewise, al-Baghdadi and his Caliphate have taken aim at Shi'ites, whom they term rafidah ("rejecters' – that is, of "true Islam"), while the Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei returned the sentiment in his own Eid al-Fitr speech, in which he called IS "a tumor" that needed to be excised (language usually reserved for Israel). And yet, even as these two rivals face off over leadership of the Muslim world and jihad movement, Suleimani thus far has given no indication of taking the fight to IS or doing any more than necessary to prevent the fall of Baghdad and what's left of a rump Iraqi state comprised largely of its Shi'ite population.
U.S. national security interests demand recognition, first and foremost, that both sides in this Islamic rivalry seek global dominance for Islam to rule in a resurgent Caliphate (or Imamate) where shariah is imposed forcibly on one and all. At issue here is only who gets to be on top. As such, it makes no sense for the U.S. to do anything that would tip the advantage to either one. Shi'ite or Sunni, the agenda is the same: jihad and shariah.
That doesn't mean we have no national interests in the region at all. To the contrary, it is imperative that U.S. leadership recognize the threat posed by the jihadist agenda, whether from IS or Iran, to U.S. regional interests directly, to friends and allies and those who ought to be, and eventually, to the homeland itself. This sort of understanding demands a sharp reversal of existing policy that refuses even to acknowledge the Islamic ideology that animates this enemy's threat doctrine. Only once that basic professional responsibility is met can an overall strategic policy that makes any sense be formulated and implemented.
Core U.S. interests in Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf region would then dictate the following policy priorities:
- American personnel and facilities at the American Embassy in Baghdad and the Irbil and Basra consulates must be secured; if this is not possible without calling in airstrikes off an aircraft carrier, they should be evacuated.
- The U.S. must stand by allies and partners in the region, especially Israel and Jordan. It is long past time that the U.S. also reaches out to those pro-Western ethnic and religious minorities who yearn to be part of the free world, especially the Kurds, and offer them support in their struggle to survive. For the Kurds in particular, this means diplomatic support, intelligence, logistics, and modern weapons that will at least allow them parity with the U.S. arsenal that IS has captured.
- It is right that we provide as much humanitarian aid as possible to beleaguered minorities facing genocide, as well as to friendly countries like Jordan that are burdened with overwhelming economic demands to care for millions of refugees.
- Finally, the U.S. should maintain—or create, as the case may be—a robust intelligence capability and deploy a Special Forces capability to the region that will provide early warning of threats to U.S. interests and the ability to project power and influence as required.
Beyond this, the latest round in the Islamic world's 1300 years of incessant chaos and warfare should be left to the belligerents to sort out. Regimes like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey that play all sides of the jihadi games have enabled a monster in IS that they can no longer control. They should be allowed to reap what they've sown. U.S. leadership has proven incapable of sorting out who's who or who's backing whom—not that it's so simple, but rather that understanding who we are should probably come first, followed by some intensive thinking about a new national security strategy that prioritizes American interests.