x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Iraq crisis needs a proper response from this region

Iraq has become a multilayered problem that the Gulf states ignore at their peril, says Hassan Hassan.

One of the facts exposed by recent events in Iraq is that the Gulf states have no strategy for addressing the troubles pulsing dangerously through that country beyond “wait and see”.

These Arab countries are suddenly facing unprecedented challenges in Iraq: insurgents have eradicated the border with Syria, reached the Kurdish region and are marching towards Baghdad. More importantly, the swift advances led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) have made the group even more alluring in the region. This fact could pose many potential security challenges for the region itself. On the other hand, the government of Nouri Al Maliki has called on “volunteers” and is closely coordinating with Iran to fend off Sunni insurgents.

Meanwhile, the Gulf states find themselves with little influence, connection or relevance in Iraq – whether among the insurgents or in the government – and opposing both sides.

In statements, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have blamed Mr Al Maliki for the rising sectarian tensions in Iraq. But they have equal and deep concerns about the groups that took over Sunni areas, including non-ISIL groups.

In a sense, while the focus has been on the merging of American and Iranian interests, the Gulf interests are not that far from those in Washington. But this crisis should also serve as a warning for the Gulf states that if they stand idly by, Iraq will become an increasingly worrisome neighbour who will be harder to engage.

So, what can the Gulf states do to change that reality?

The answer lies in a gradualist approach that starts with engaging individuals and groups that some Gulf countries may have concerns about, but who, in reality, pose less immediate risks. While ISIL has a leading role in the takeover, there are groups that represent the local interests of Sunni Iraqis, ranging from neo-Baathists to Islamists. These groups joined the rebellion against the Maliki government but many of them had also previously fought Sunni extremists and expelled them from their areas.

These groups play a role and have to be engaged. The alternative is unthinkable: as we have seen in Syria, ISIL will try to eliminate its direct and potential opponents and attempt to reign supreme. So, there is really no choice under the current circumstances but to engage and strengthen the role of these groups, notwithstanding whatever long-term concerns exist about them.

Also, it is imperative for the Gulf states to effectively communicate to those outside powers who have an interest in stabilising Iraq that the reality in Sunni areas is more nuanced than simply that ISIL has taken control of these territories.

Ignoring this dynamic – that other groups are involved – will lead countries such as the United States to support solutions that will exacerbate the situation and entrench the grievances that were the root cause of the current crisis in the first place.

One such misguided solution is the suggestion that the US will work with Iran to fight the Sunni insurgents. Practically speaking, aside from the Gulf-Iran rivalry, an Iranian involvement other than to pressure Mr Al Maliki will only fuel tensions within Iraq. And that will only make matters worse.

This gradualist approach requires, above all, Gulf unity. The current situation in Iraq is a double whammy for the Gulf states, as it makes the task of stabilising Syria even more daunting. They now have two important Arab countries falling into chaos, and securing these two territories requires an interconnected solution. Unfortunately, the Gulf states do not yet have a clear-cut strategy to fix them.

But that does not mean they can’t work to develop one. The challenge Iraq presents should push the Gulf countries to work together to contain it. Qatar, for example, has links to individuals and groups in Sunni areas. Saudi Arabia, while it may not know these groups, should work with Qatar on the containment of the situation in northern Iraq. Such a pragmatic trade-off would be better than an inflexible approach to the region’s problems.

One also senses that there is an apathy in terms of policies in the Gulf towards Iraq, perhaps because of three main reasons: the country is a danger that they accommodated and contained for decades since Saddam Hussain assumed control of the country; it is too complicated to be resolved, and a strong Iraq might be perceived as a potential danger to the Gulf.

But as the current crisis shows, Iraq has become a multilayered problem that the Gulf states ignore at their peril. It is in Iraq where Iran is now pushing for a geopolitical realignment at the expense of the Gulf. It is in Iraq where the worst jihadist group is growing and it is in Iraq where Shiite jihadists, a phenomenon unheard of before, are polarised, recruited and trained. If these trends do not alarm the Gulf to move more actively to defend their interests, what will?

Hassan Hassan is an analyst with the Delma Institute, a research centre in Abu Dhabi

On Twitter: @hhassan140