Secretary of State John Kerry participates in a Gulf Cooperation Council and Regional Partners meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday.

Secretary of State John Kerry participates in a Gulf Cooperation Council and Regional Partners meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Thursday. State Department

The Islamic State Fight Now Hinges on Arab Leaders

The Islamic State cannot be defeated without the broad support of ordinary citizens of the Middle East. On its face, this shouldn't be difficult. By Bobby Ghosh

Now that president Barack Obama has made his case for war against the Islamic State (IS) to the American people, the harder task falls to secretary of state John Kerry: to get Arab states to join a broad coalition against the terrorist group that controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

And perhaps more difficult still, Kerry must persuade Arab leaders to follow Obama’s example and communicate to their own peoples why IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL) must be defeated. Autocrats almost to a man, Arab leaders rarely think it necessary to explain themselves, but the fight against IS cannot be won without broad support among ordinary people.

Judging by his speech, Obama is looking mainly for a military alliance against IS.  He has sent Kerry to Saudi Arabia for intensive talks with officials from across the region about a strategy to defeat IS. In addition to the Saudis, Kerry will meet officials from Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. Kerry’s message: This is your fight.

Obama and Kerry have already cobbled together a “core coalition” of NATO states for what promises to be a long campaign. But they know an international military effort will lack credibility if it doesn’t include a large contingent of Arab states.

Like the US, many of these countries will not commit to putting boots on the ground, but there are lots of other ways they can help. Each of them has an air force—comprised mainly of American and European planes—that can be deployed over Iraq and Syria. Many have powerful intelligence agencies that can both gather information from IS-controlled areas and, perhaps more important, stop the flow of volunteers and money into the ranks of the terrorists. Countries bordering the war zone can provide logistical help. The oil-rich kingdoms can also help underwrite the military campaign.

On the face of it, this should not be a hard sale: IS has, after all, killed tens of thousands of Arabs, and represents a far greater danger to Arab states that to the US. It has already made incursions into Lebanon, and has menaced Jordan.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has warned that IS will bring terror to Europe and the US, but he is mindful that the terrorists are much closer to his own country: Saudi Arabia has a long border with Iraq, and many of the fighters in IS ranks are Saudi nationals. Like al-Qaeda, IS regards the Saudi royal family as an enemy of Islam. The terrorists have reportedly even threatened to destroy the Kaaba, a sacred site in Mecca.

The Saudis have already agreed to provide a military base for the training of Syrian opposition fighters not aligned with IS or al-Qaeda. Riyadh must do much more. The UAE and Egypt have already demonstrated a willingness to take military action against Islamist militants in a third Arab nation. They must now be persuaded to do the same in Iraq and Syria.

The template for the coalition against IS should be the international effort in 1991, marshaled by another US secretary of state, James A. Baker III, to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. The presence of many Arab nations was not only vital for the military strategy, it also prevented Saddam from portraying the conflict as a battle between Islam and the West. Kerry will no doubt invoke the Baker coalition in his conversations with Arab officials in Riyadh.

But as effective as the 1991 military campaign was, many Arab people felt no sense of ownership over the victory. Their leaders had not sought their approval, and had failed to explain why it was necessary to join non-Arab armies to eject Saddam from Kuwait. This explains why Saddam remained popular among Arabs long after his defeat in Kuwait. It also allowed Osama bin Laden to portray the 1991 campaign as an unholy alliance between Arab elites (mainly the Saudi royal family) and the Western “crusaders.”

George W. Bush’s 2003 war against Iraq, too, was portrayed—and not only by extremists—as a clash of civilizations. Although Kuwait provided the launching ground for the war, most Arab states stayed out, and al-Qaeda was once again able to make propaganda hay. It fell to Bush to explain his motivations to the Arab world, but few bought his assurances that the war would lead to democracy in the Middle East.

This must not happen again. Obama is wise to avoid the political overreach of his predecessor: It was never in Bush’s power to deliver democracy to the Arabs. Instead, Obama and Kerry can take smaller steps to making Arab leaders more accountable.

To defeat IS, the new coalition must not only command the skies and support troops on the ground, it must also seize the high ground of the moral argument. That has to start with Arab leaders talking to their people.