Revelations keep pouring in about the uneasy relationship between Western aid givers and ISIS operators: from bribes given by humanitarian convoys to secure access in war-torn Syria, to food and medical equipment appropriated by Islamists and used to provide basic services to the population under its control. Moreover, USAID personnel working in the area have to be vetted by ISIS: “There is always at least one ISIS person on the payroll; they force people on us” one aid worker told the Daily Beast earlier this month.
This is just the start.
As the Islamic State makes inroads into Iraqi and Syrian territory, it’s becoming increasingly clear that American promises to ‘degrade, and ultimately destroy’ the jihadists ring ever more hollow. Lax supervision, half-hearted pledges, chaotic supply chains and a dumbfounding lack of understanding of the regional context has laid bare the stark disconnect between the strongly-worded ad-libs of Western leaders and the response on the ground.
The Iraqi army, a $20 billion-plus affair that was supposed to be the bulwark against insurgents, have either fled, joined the ranks of the terrorists, or are awaiting training in the barracks. As it turns out, American advisors still have to prepare the remaining 26 brigades that pledge allegiance to Baghdad.
In June, when the bulk of the Iraqi army surrendered in the battle for Mosul, an unknown number of US-supplied arms, Humvees, rockets and helicopters were captured by Isis. According to Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst speaking to the Wall Street Journal in July, Iraq lost ‘three divisions worth of equipment’, including T-55 tanks, rocket-propelled grenades and Howitzers. To this line-up, Isis added an extra seven M1 Abrams tanks, captured from three ex-Iraqi army bases in the Anbar province.
Meanwhile, the newly baptised US operation ‘Inherent Resolve’ against the Islamic State is lumbering ahead, dropping US bombs on former US assets. Making matters worse, evidence has surfaced concerning a potential chemical attack by Islamists fuelling rumours that the group now has access to WMDs previously produced by the West alongside Saddam Hussein.
The US has handled splendidly the job of arming the warring factions running amok the Middle East – if one were to count Isis as our ally. Otherwise, it has been a dismal failure. Since the prospect of deploying boots on the ground is anathema for a great part of the Western audience, maybe it is time to hand over the baton before it’s too late, and elicit more support from regional powers that also have a stake in Iraq’s security.
Among the West’s steadfast regional allies, Israel stands as the most exposed, because of its close proximity to the Syrian conflict and the undeniable potential for radicalisation in the West Bank and Gaza at the hand of Isis’ ideology. Aside from the US and, to a very limited extent, Turkey, the Gulf States are the only ones to have devoted military assets in Syria. While Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates boast the most powerful air forces in the region, Qatar has been criticised so far for its limited involvement in the conflict and its hit-and-miss record of tackling the jihadist threat.
But Qatar’s role should not be so quickly dismissed, as military assistance is not the only measure of an ally. Qatar’s real value for the West is in opening channels of communication for long-term peace and stability that would otherwise be closed. Even if its connections are not always to the West’s liking, the country has proven its use before: the prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl, brokering negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and the US, and searching for a mediated solution for the spiralling violence in Gaza.
Isis and the appeal of extremist Islamic ideology will never be defeated if the nominally Judeo-Christian West is the only party opposing it. The deep Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq can only be healed with the help of other Islamic nations that possess both the legitimacy and the wherewithal to start a process of reconciliation in the wider Middle East. Endowed with the proper combination of diplomacy and military heft, the Gulf states are uniquely placed to address the shortcomings of the West.
Mark Varga is a political consultant based in Budapest with roughly 20 years of experience in the field of international relations and conflict analysis.