Saudis a liability in fighting ISIS ideology



An official State Department photo of the September 11 meeting in Jeddah between Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, posted on Flickr, could be a metaphor for the current state of U.S.-Saudi relations, says Simon Henderson, the director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

It is out of focus, he writes for the New Republic:

Why such a photo was chosen for Flickr, along with a single (in-focus) close-up of Kerry and the Saudi monarch, can only be a matter of speculation. One obvious possibility is that the U.S. side was upset with the attendance — indeed, the prominence — on the Saudi side of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, one-time long-serving ambassador to the United States, later head of Saudi intelligence, now adviser and special envoy to the king as well as secretary-general of the Saudi National Security Council (NSC). A fuzzy photo might have served to downplay his involvement…..

Saudi Arabia regards itself as the leader of the Muslim world, and as such sees itself as existing in an existential struggle with Iran for dominance of this world. The centuries old Sunni/Shiite divide, which has opened up dangerously since the 1979 Iranian revolution, is compounded by the political Islam of the Brotherhood, which views Arab monarchies such as the House of Saud as anachronisms at best but, more dangerously, un-Islamic.

“We are fighting an ideology, not a regime,” said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Time reports:

Kerry is so animated by this war of ideas that he calls it even more important than the military campaign against the group. ….. “The military piece is one piece,” Kerry said. “It’s a critical component — but it’s only one component.”

“Probably far more important than the military in the end,” Kerry continued, is the effort “to start drying up this pool of jihadis.” The goal is to mobilize Arab leaders, preachers, and media outlets behind a message that ISIS does not represent a “pure” vision of Islam, but a grotesque distortion of it. That, they hope, can blunt ISIS’ ability to recruit new fighters among impressionable young Muslim men. Stopping a fighter from signing up, Kerry said, is “a far better mechanism than having to go chase him down in the battlefield.”

But a growing and influential faction within western foreign policy makers mistrust the Saudis, who espouse a hardline interpretation of Islam and are suspected of being the source of many of the group’s funds and fighters, writes FT analyst Borzhou Daragahi:

“Saudi has shown itself as being barely able to contain terrorism within its borders and certainly a sizeable chunk of fighters, recruiters, funding, support, preachers for Isis has come from Saudi, the country,” said Sajad Jiyad, an Iraqi researcher and analyst. “The preaching of jihadist ideology is in Saudi, not Egypt or elsewhere.”…

Taken together the interlacing networks of animosity, mistrust and fear among the spectrum of forces resemble the warring factions in Lebanon rather than the Allied front that invaded Europe on D-Day. That creates ample points of weakness for Isis to press in an effort to turn its enemies against each other or at least corner them into inaction.

Isis already has a record of being closely tuned to the sectarian and political rivalries among its enemies and using them for its own benefit. Many of its seemingly baffling moves, such as its extreme sectarian rhetoric or its high-profile beheading of westerners, make sense as attempts to inspire its enemies to take actions that strengthen its own hand. By drawing Iran, Syria and Shia militias deeper into the fight, or goading larger numbers of American troops to be deployed they would draw more recruits, justify their jihadi world view and gain legitimacy.

“Isis has studied the situation,” Mr Jiyad said. “It knows there is much rivalry among the forces fighting it. Isis are strategic, they are not thugs. Their leaders are smart and know how to sow discord between its enemies.”

A leading Iraqi expert on ISIS told CNN that Obama may already have revealed more about U.S. plans than he should have to the militant group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

“The mistake was announcing too much of the strategy, and this was a free gift to al-Baghdadi to prepare and counter what has been revealed,” said Hisham al-Hashimi, who has studied jihadist groups and their evolution in Iraq over the past decade.

“Help is needed from Saudi and Egyptian religious scholars in fighting ideology with ideology,” al-Hashimi said. “This is key to extracting ISIS from the roots.”

But another analyst argues that “the West must overcome its reluctance to offend the Saudis, and speak out much more forcefully against the insidious influence of Wahhabism and the ideological support it offers violent extremism.” “The Arab gulf states must choose a side. They cannot continue to finance terrorism and use fundamentalism as a policy tool and yet claim to be fighting it abroad. Saudi Arabia is both a sponsor and a target of jihad — it should wish to be neither,” Ahmad Samih Khalidi writes for the New York Times:

This may well be the real test of the West’s leadership. And if the United States and its allies instead amble into another major military conflict in the Middle East without realistic objectives and a clear-eyed plan to achieve them, they will have already failed.

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