x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

GCC ministers denounce ISIL at Jeddah meeting

Concerns over ISIL appear to be bringing Gulf states closer together, writes Taimur Khan.

Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. AP
Saudi King Abdullah in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. AP

GCC ministers condemned ISIL extremists at a summit in Jeddah on Saturday, where they met to discuss security in the region.

“We denounce vehemently the practices of those who use Islam as a pretext to kill and displace en masse Iraqis and Syrians,” said Sabah Khaled Al Sabah, foreign minister of Kuwait, which currently holds the GCC presidency.

Shared concerns over the spread of ISIL may be helping bring the GCC members into closer alignment.

“Terrorism at this time is an evil force that must be fought with wisdom and speed,” Saudi King Abdullah said on Friday. “And if neglected I’m sure after a month it will arrive in Europe and a month after that in America.”

Last week, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud Al Faisal was at the centre of diplomatic efforts to stand up to the challenge posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant group.

He and his counterparts from Egypt, Qatar and the UAE held talks on Syria and agreed on “the need to seriously work to deal with these crises and challenges to preserve security and stability in Arab countries”.

US president Barack Obama admitted last week that Washington does not currently have a “strategy” for fighting ISIL in Syria, but called for an international coalition to fight the group.

The US secretaries of state and defence will travel to the Middle East after a Nato summit this week to try to form an alliance against the group.

More crucial than US military intervention, Mr Obama said last week, is the necessity of regional countries putting aside rivalries and fostering inclusive political reconciliation in Iraq and Syria.

The “long-term project” of destroying ISIL needs a regional strategy involving “particularly [our] Sunni partners, because part of the goal here is to make sure that Sunnis both in Syria and in Iraq feel as if they’ve got an investment in a government that … can protect them”, Mr Obama said.

One of the key challenges for the US secretary of state, John Kerry will be navigating the tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, who blame each other for the rise of ISIL and are locked in proxy conflicts across the region.

Complicating matters further are rivalries among the Sunni-majority countries, between those who support political Islam and those who view it as a destabilising force.

Yet, Mr Kerry will have one positive development to build on: signs that Riyadh and Tehran are tentatively open to working together against ISIL.

Last week, Prince Saud met with his Iranian counterpart’s deputy in part to discuss the ISIL threat. The meeting was the highest-level talks between the two countries since the election of president Hassan Rouhani, who has pledged to strengthen ties with the GCC.

“Similar to US-Iranian tactical cooperation against the Taliban post-September 11, there is an opportunity here for tactical cooperation between Iran and Saudi” against a common adversary, said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

However, analysts doubted cooperation against ISIL would lead to any deeper rapprochement.

The divide between Iran’s more moderate elected government and the entrenched hardline religious leadership could make it difficult for Riyadh to trust Tehran, Mr Sadjadpour said.

“When they hear statements of cooperation and moderation from [foreign minister Mohammed Jawad] Zarif, they don’t take them at face value,” he said.

Both countries publicly supported the nomination of the new Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi, a longtime official in the Iranian-supported, Shiite Islamist Dawa party.

But it is unclear how far Iraq’s ruling coalition has decided to reform the sectarian policies of his predecessor Nouri Al Maliki, which most observers consider to have caused Sunnis to turn against the government and prompted ISIL’s rise.

Broader support from the US and GCC countries appears contingent on these reforms, including political reconciliation with Sunnis and making the military less sectarian.

“This is Abadi’s biggest challenge,” said Kirk Sowell, an Amman-based political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics. Even if the government decides to reform the security forces, the implementation will take time.

“Another year of the Islamic State and people are going to have had it with them” but there must be an alternative in place, Mr Sowell said.

The role that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries could play in facilitating this process is overstated, analysts said.

Gulf countries maintained few links in Iraq while it was under Mr Al Maliki’s rule, and only Qatar has significant influence with a major Sunni party, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Islamic Party, according to Mr Sowell.

In Syria, the US will press Gulf countries, primarily Saudi and Qatar, to more closely coordinate and aid the respective rebel groups they support under one command structure. They are also likely to push for an end to battlefield cooperation with Jabhat Al Nusra, the local Al Qaeda’s affiliate who is also fighting ISIL, according to US media.

A US intelligence assessment of Syria, given to Mr Obama last week that factored into his decision to delay strikes, cited serious concerns about coordinating military action in Syria with the FSA because of some of its relationship with Al Nusra, US media reported.

“Today we are witnessing the birth of new cooperation among Qatar, Saudi and the US” in Syria, but “at the same time it is not yet clear what the long-term strategy for this cooperation is”, especially on the political front, said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

* With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse

tkhan@thenational.ae