• Gulf Participation in the Anti–Islamic State Coalition: Limitations and Costs

    Posted by: Frederic Wehrey September 23, 2014

    The participation of Gulf Arab air forces in yesterday’s attack on Islamic State targets in Syria is the most visible expression yet of the growing Gulf contribution to the U.S. war against the al-Qaeda splinter group. But the contribution should not be overstated and should be caveated with an awareness of the risks and costs—for both the Gulf regimes at home and U.S. interests in the region.

    The Air Strikes: Symbolic Importance Outweighs Military Value

    At one level, the strikes represent a growing trend toward greater out-of-area military operations for the Gulf states (the late August 2014 UAE strikes against Libya and the Qatari-Emirati participation in the 2011 NATO Libya operation) and a significant and (rare) expression of Gulf unity that has not been seen since the 1991 Gulf War. It is significant that these strikes were purportedly conducted in tandem with Iraq because the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) historically has been averse to exercises and joint operations with the Shia-dominated Iraqi military. Qatari-Saudi participation is also significant given their long-standing rivalry, and it illustrates the trend of Qatar’s foreign policy aligning more with Saudi Arabia’s. For the United States, this operation represents the culmination of a decades-long investment in training Gulf air forces.

    That said, the Gulf military contribution should not be overstated. The UAE fields the most capable air force, although not the most capable pilots—they belong to the Omanis who did not participate—and among Gulf countries, the Emiratis likely carried out the most sophisticated of air strikes. All of the Gulf states were heavily reliant on U.S. intelligence, targeting data, and perhaps aerial refueling (although the Emiratis have their own capability). The Qataris did not strike targets, and this is consistent with their participation in the Libya operation, where they only conduct “combat air patrols”—that is, flight without dropping bombs.

    As noted in the recent CENTCOM press release, most of the targets struck by the Gulf were static and fixed, like training compounds, headquarters, command and control facilities, and storage facilities. It is unlikely that the Gulf states can carry out the more difficult and complex task of “dynamic targeting” against maneuvering and mobile targets, for example armored units, troop transports, or “technical” vehicles. It is even harder still to coordinate such strikes with friendly forces on the ground (this requires controllers and advisers on the ground). The Gulf states did not conduct this sort of targeting during the Libya campaign. If there are Gulf states that can conduct this, it is the UAE and possibly Saudi Arabia.

    Domestic Costs for the Gulf

    What are risks for the Gulf states? Strategically and militarily, the risks are the same as those the United States faces—that airpower alone will not decimate the Islamic State; that the group will weather the aerial attacks and reconstitute itself; and that some sort of ground force is needed to occupy the vacuum exploited by the Islamic State and provide governance and security.

    But beyond this, the Gulf states face the added threat of domestic criticism. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the U.S. bombing of the Islamic State is reportedly unpopular among a range of Saudis. There is the perception in the Gulf that the United States is attacking Sunni power, while privileging minorities such as Kurds, Yazidis, Jews, and especially Shia. Radical voices in the Gulf could capitalize on this sentiment to indict their regimes for collaborating with the United States. The most powerful narrative that could emerge is that the Gulf states are inadvertently serving as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force, helping him deal with the most powerful of the (Sunni) opposition’s fielded military forces.

    Some polling from the Gulf—albeit unscientific and government funded—seems to highlight the domestic opposition that strikes could involve: a July 21 poll of Saudis conducted by al-Hayat (on social media) found that 92 percent of respondents believe that the Islamic State is in agreement with the teachings of Islam; 71 percent see no difference between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. The percentage of Saudis who think the Islamic State is not extremist is higher among twenty-five to thirty-year-olds. Similarly, a late September poll of Twitter users in Kuwait—which did not participate in the air strikes but is important nonetheless—found that 80 percent don’t support the Islamic State, 75 percent speak negatively about it, 42.1 percent view Islamic State members as terrorists, 31.6 percent see them as fighters (muqatileen), and 13.2 percent see them as warriors (muharribeen); 12.5 percent sympathize with the Islamic State while 7.5 percent are neutral.

    Counterideology Programs: Valuable, but Only in Tandem with Other Reforms

    Perhaps the most robust Gulf contribution will not come from the air but the airwaves. Several states in the region have offered counterideology and deradicalization programs as a centerpiece of their contribution to the anti–Islamic State effort. The state-funded religious establishments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt have begun campaigns to delegitimize the Islamic State on juridical and doctrinal grounds. In tandem, semi-independent clerics in the Gulf—particularly in Qatar and Kuwait—have demonized the group. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have recently offered to host anti–Islamic State conferences, while the UAE has funded a number of counterradicalization programs aimed at youth.

    While these initiatives have merit, they should be supported with caution for a number of reasons. First, these religious and ideological programs often become a cover for authoritarian regimes to avoid the sorts of meaningful institutional and political reforms that address the root causes of radicalization. Second, they typically focus on insulating the leadership elites and royal families of the regime from terrorist attacks, while skirting the more intolerant and sectarian features of the radicals’ ideology that legitimize attacks on Shia, Westerners, and others deemed heretical. Third, the literature on terrorist recruitment suggests that religious exhortations play, at best, a secondary or tertiary role in the decision to take up arms—it is often an ex post facto justification. Sermonizing by religious scholars—many of them tainted by their associations with authoritarian regimes—is unlikely to stem the tide.

    Antiterrorism Laws: A Cover for Broader Political Repression?

    America’s Gulf partners have long been criticized for tacitly supporting the jihadist enterprise, as a matter of deliberate policy or through lax oversight of financial flows across their borders.

    Under U.S. and international pressure, the Gulf states have all taken steps to curtail financial support to the Islamic State and other groups. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in particular, have enacted sweeping antiterrorism regulations that have been heralded by some in Washington as a much-needed fix. In practice, however, the definition of terrorism embodied in these codes encompasses nearly every form of peaceful political and intellectual activism. The laws appear particularly geared toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which is among many groups listed as a terrorist organization, and there are reports of increased coordination between these two Gulf monarchies and Egypt on enforcing these laws.

    Mindful of these costs and risks, the United States should welcome the participation of the Gulf states in confronting the Islamic State. But it should be wary of cooperation that is too cozy. It must push for a more holistic definition of counterterrorism in the Gulf that includes political, institutional, and economic reforms that address the root causes compelling disaffected youth to support the toxic narrative advanced by the Islamic State.

    And perhaps most importantly, Washington needs to avoid being drawn into the region’s increasingly polarized, intra-Sunni conflicts, where its Arab allies will use U.S. counterterrorism assistance for self-serving political ends that will ultimately perpetuate the terrorism problem.

  • What Is the “Khorasan Group” and Why Is the U.S. Bombing It in Syria?

    Posted by: Aron Lund Tuesday, September 23, 2014

    The “Khorasan Group,” a network affiliated with al-Qaeda, has been a target of recent U.S. bombing in Syria. The sudden flurry of revelations about the group in the past two weeks smacks of strategic leaks and political spin.

  • What Egypt Can and Cannot Do Against the Islamic State

    Posted by: Michele Dunne Monday, September 22, 2014

    In the struggle against the Islamic State, Egypt needs sound political and economic policies that will quench the spread of violence and extremism within the country itself.

  • Syria’s al-Qaeda Wing Searches for a Strategy

    Posted by: Aron Lund Thursday, September 18, 2014 1

    Ever since the Islamic State captured vast territories in northern Iraq in mid-June, no group has been more deeply affected by this jihadi civil war than the Nusra Front, which broke off from the Islamic State in April 2013 and has since emerged as Syria’s only official al-Qaeda franchise.

  • Five Hidden Risks of U.S. Action Against the Islamic State

    Posted by: Frederic Wehrey Thursday, September 11, 2014 11

    U.S. President Barack Obama’s four-pronged strategy against the Islamic State is fraught with trade-offs, risks, and hidden costs that need to be addressed.

  • Obama’s Strategic Gambles in Syria and Iraq

    Posted by: Lina Khatib Thursday, September 11, 2014 1

    Obama’s strategy is a positive step forward after years of relative inaction on part of the United States, but it is far from comprehensive.

  • Syria’s Ahrar al-Sham Leadership Wiped Out in Bombing

    Posted by: Aron Lund Tuesday, September 09, 2014 1

    The killing of Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership will have major ripple effects in the opposition.

  • Awaiting Assad’s Inauguration Speech

    Posted by: Aron Lund Tuesday, July 15, 2014 1

    There are no indications that Assad is ready to let anyone not under his control join the new government in his third term as president. Genuine power sharing in Syria will remain as distant as ever.

  • Jordan: The Jewel in the ISIS Crown

    Posted by: Nikita Malik, Abdullah Shami Tuesday, June 24, 2014 10

    As the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-influenced jihadists, Jordan will serve as a crucial buffer from the terrorist movements that threaten to spill over into the region.

  • Breaking Baghdad

    Posted by: Aron Lund Friday, June 13, 2014 5

    Leaving Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul in rebel hands could fatally undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s already weak legitimacy as a national leader. But even if the army were to recapture all or most of the rebel-held cities, the Mosul debacle has already dealt a tremendous blow not only to Maliki but to the Iraqi state as well.


The Carnegie Endowment does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented on this website are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Endowment, its staff, or its trustees.

Syria in Crisis provides analysis of the civil war and its impact on the region. Edited by Aron Lund, a researcher who has published extensively on the Syrian opposition, it brings together Carnegie and outside experts.

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