How the US Can Turn the GCC Into a Lasting Military Alliance

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council, on May 14, 2014.

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Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks during the opening session of the Gulf Cooperation Council, on May 14, 2014.

The Islamic State has achieved one thing: it got the GCC to agree on something. Now, can the U.S. make it last? By Melissa G. Dalton

As public debate swells around America’s military intervention in Iraq and Syria, the United States has succeeded in bringing together several Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, states to join the fight and counter the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, or ISIL). But could the GCC’s active participation in this war be the beginning of something more durable and reliable? 

While it is too early to assess what impact it will have toward the military objectives of Operation Inherent Resolve, GCC member participation raises several implications for the future of the region’s security. For decades, the U.S. has invested in building the military capabilities of the GCC states and encouraged them to strengthen their multilateral security cooperation activities and infrastructure. But efforts to foster greater cohesion and cooperation in the GCC have often withered. Regional competition among GCC states, suspicions of Saudi Arabia’s power and, recently, Qatar’s support for radical Islamists vilified by other GCC states have undermined its true potential as a security mechanism. 

GCC members prefer to deal bilaterally with the United States but when strong common interests exist and the stakes are high, GCC countries are willing to work together. GCC countries supported the Gulf War coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar lent Arab political cover to the 2011 Libya intervention with contributions of air and special operations forces. The threat of a hegemonic and potentially nuclear Shia-led Iran has mobilized the Sunni-led GCC states to reinforce their ballistic missile defenses, maritime and air strike capabilities and strengthen multilateral initiatives over the past 10 years. And today, deep concern regarding ISIL’s brand of Sunni extremism and rapid territorial gains has motivated GCC states to actively contribute to Operation Inherent Resolve.

In the intervals between crises, the U.S. has struggled to sustain cooperation among the Gulf states and to knit together mechanisms and capabilities that will improve the GCC’s ability to defend themselves during the next contingency, while at the same time preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Following the 2011 Arab uprisings, the U.S. has also increasingly faced the dilemma of continuing to rely upon the most undemocratic countries in the region to achieve its security objectives, despite any human rights objectives that remain in the region. Gulf participation in the Pentagon’s Operation Inherent Resolve not only heightens the importance of these questions but also adds new risk and opportunity dimensions to them.

Target For Opportunities

GCC member participation in the counter-ISIL mission opens the door for U.S. military planners to consider how GCC members might contribute to a range of future contingencies.  First, what can U.S. military leaders learn about GCC capabilities that could be relevant for future missions? Additional and more sophisticated precision strike and command-and-control capabilities, particularly for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, might prove useful. Enhanced air exercises and training could further buttress their capabilities. A more robustly unified and combat ready GCC could help keep Iran from backsliding on any nuclear deal’s commitments. To that end, the U.S. should encourage GCC members to prioritize investments in and exercises for special operations forces and maritime capabilities, as well as air attack and air defense capabilities. 

(RelatedWhy the Persian Gulf Isn’t Ready for Joint Security)

Second, active GCC participation in the counter-ISIL operation challenges decades-old assumptions about the GCC members’ military capabilities and their political will to use them. For years, GCC states have been criticized for collecting shiny toys without making necessary investments in training and sustainment to become self-reliant and develop real military capability. Certainly obstacles remain, and the level of readiness across the GCC is suspect and varies, but the fact that Gulf fighters were ready to deploy alongside U.S. fighters when called upon is noteworthy. If GCC members have strong interests in the outcome of a crisis, they now appear to have capabilities and political will to put skin in the game.

Inherent Risks

Several risks complicate U.S. efforts to leverage military capabilities of the GCC states going forward. First, specific to the current operation, GCC states’ commitment to the coalition may evaporate over time if their political objectives differ from the coalition’s objectives. Degrading and destroying ISIL will take years. Where GCC members want to see a dual-track approach in Syria against ISIL and President Bashar al-Assad, the United States is prioritizing counter-ISIL efforts in Iraq in the near-term. The absence of a coalition strategy to compel Assad to relinquish power may motivate GCC members to withdraw support from the counter-ISIL mission over time or to reinvigorate their support for disparate and conflicting Syrian militant groups opposing Assad, perpetuating the Syrian civil war.

Second, individual GCC states will ultimately act in their own interests in the region.  This is hardly a revolutionary observation, but it matters because these states may choose to pursue policies or conduct military operations uncoordinated with or at a distance from U.S. interests. For example, the UAE and Egypt conducted airstrikes against Islamic militants in Libya in August, reportedly catching the United States off guard. Saudi Arabia deployed forces under the auspices of the GCC Peninsula Shield Force to help quell the Shi`a uprising in Bahrain in 2011, although the United States preferred to ease tensions between protesters and the regime through dialogue. GCC members and Egypt are now reportedly planning to form a military alliance to battle Islamic militants in the region.  The Arab uprisings that began in 2011 have descended into a dark and violent period, If during the counter-ISIL campaign, internal dissent challenges a close GCC partner, and that partner cracks down harshly on protesters, how will the United States respond?

Third, the GCC countries’ recent military assertiveness may worry Israel, even if the GCC states’ actions do not directly threaten Israel’s territory or interests. This could complicate U.S. efforts to arm the GCC states. The United States is committed to Israel’s security, and by law when considering the sale or export of defense articles or services to another Middle East country, the administration must assess that those items will not adversely affect Israel’s qualitative military edge over military threats to Israel.

With U.S. leadership, it is possible to rally GCC members to a common cause. GCC states have demonstrated growing military capabilities and political will to bring to a war. Close cooperation, strategic planning, training, exercises and combined operations may help ensure unity of purpose in the region going forward.  Yet, as the dust eventually settles, the Obama administration and Congress will need to reconcile their support for Gulf partners’ security with Washington’s other objectives in the region, while recognizing that the GCC countries have their own agendas that may or may not overlap with that of the United States.  It won’t be easy.

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