As U.S. public debate centers on how forcefully President Barack Obama should strike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the muted responses by the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to the threat of ISIS should be noted. The regional turmoil unleashed by ISIS tempers the actions of each these U.S. allies, as all three Sunni dominated countries have concerns that strong action to counteract the movement or overt support for U.S. efforts could increase domestic problems and turn significant portions of the populace against the respective governments. No doubt President Obama is seeking input from leaders of these states in order to determine the best course of action.
Western nations stepping into conflicts in the Middle East generally find that it is the “land of unintended consequences.” Misunderstanding regarding religious disputes going back for centuries underlie many of the problems. Acting to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq brought to the forefront the Shia and Sunni ethnic divisions in Iraq. Casting the Sunni power structure aside created the impetus behind al-Qaeda in Iraq, which then led to ISIS. Turning a blind eye to the Syrian civil war gave ISIS a recruiting platform to generate support. While perhaps feeling that Bashar al-Asaad losing control over Syria is not a bad result, remaining on the sideline as opposition forces fought against him gave ISIS credibility among many Sunni’s.
With ISIS now controlling significant portions of Iraq and Syria, the U.S. faces a threat potentially more grave than Saddam and al-Qaeda combined. Because ISIS is a Sunni organization fighting against Shiite governments in Syria and Iraq, the governments of Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have been largely silent even though ISIS represents a threat to their economies as well as their respective regimes. For Turkey, the ISIS fight against the Kurds conveniently limits the capabilities of a regional nemesis. Nevertheless, the ISIS threat could soon hurt Turkish commerce routes as well as tourism revenues. The threats to the monarchies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia are more direct. Any Sunni movement creating street unrest creates pressures on the viability of monarchies forged on the implied consent of the populace.
Much of the financial support for ISIS comes from individuals in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The Kuwait banking system is a sieve that funnels funds to the organization. Again, along the theme of unintended consequences, U.S. forces tossed Saddam out of Kuwait, yet a significant portion of the monetary lifeblood for ISIS comes from or flows through Kuwait. According to reports, the U.S. government is working with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to slow down or stop the flow of funds, but the task is difficult.
Criticism over a lack of a cohesive U.S. strategy to counteract ISIS is legitimate. Unfortunately, developing such as strategy is a tall order. U.S. public opinion for increased air strikes against ISIS will be favorable after the beheading of James Foley. The savagery of the action cries out for a strong response. Nevertheless, U.S. foreign policy must also consider the impact of increased intervention against ISIS with the potential threats to allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. These states have largely kept quiet while turmoil metastasizes outside their doorsteps. They seemingly wish that staying out of the fray will protect them. By the time they request U.S. help or publically support U.S. efforts, it may be too late.
Opinion by William Costolo