The US Needs Saudi Arabia and the GCC to Prevent the Emergence of the “Son of ISIS”
by Dennis Ross*
Rarely has the Middle East seemed more volatile. An Iranian-made drone fired on al Tanf in southern Syria where the US has been training local forces to fight ISIS. The US-led coalition destroyed the drone. The White House statement after the attack pointed out that the United States has maintained a presence at al Tanf for the past year and that this location was part of the de-confliction understanding with the Russians—and yet Iranian backed Shia militias in Syria moved against this area and fired on the US presence.
Did they do so because they are seeking to create a corridor from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon—and they want to prevent any US-backed groups from establishing themselves in eastern Syria, especially as the liberation of Raqqa gets under way? No doubt, this is a key Iranian objective—seemingly demonstrated by Shia militias now in Iraq clearing ISIS away from the Iraqi-Syrian border and the recent Iranian decision to send Hezbollah forces to eastern Syria to Deir a-Zour.
With President Trump’s trip to the region emphasizing support for our traditional Arab friends in the region, the Iranians may also be signaling something else: they will act and not just talk. They will test just what the US is willing to do in Syria—and at a minimum, demonstrate that the Islamic Republic is determined to deepen the Iranian presence even as it moves to control Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan. It is hard to believe that Syria’s border with Israel is not also on the Iranian agenda.
To be sure, the Trump administration has not been passive in the face of Iranian-backed moves by Shia militias to expand into areas where US Special Forces have been located in Syria. Twice now, on May 18th and again on June 8th, US forces targeted the Iranian backed forces pushing into these areas. It is noteworthy, however, that the White House statement in explaining our destruction of the Iranian-made drone explained that our coalition does “not seek to fight” pro-Assad forces but will “defend itself” against those forces if they move into “a well- established de-confliction zone.” In other words, the message from the administration is that our priority is fighting ISIS and not Iran, its Shia militia proxies, or the Assad regime.
Fair enough, but the administration should also consider the broader implications of what is happening now. The Iranian effort to create a corridor from Iraq through Syria means that it is difficult to have a successful anti-ISIS strategy if there is not also a strategy for Syria and Iran’s unmistakable effort to extend its reach and create a land bridge from Iran to Lebanon. The challenge for the US anti-ISIS strategy may come into sharper relief as ISIS is cleared from Raqqa. I say that because our arming of the Syrian Protection Forces, the Kurdish YPG, highlights one of the potential contradictions in the current approach: the YPG is an effective fighter against ISIS but it also has ties to the Assad regime. Will it invite it into Raqqa after ISIS is defeated there? If so, especially given the shortage of Syrian military manpower and Assad’s dependence on the Shia militias, the may be clearing ISIS of Raqqa and the Iranians may be the beneficiary. Leaving aside, the implications for the region, should that be the outcome, the conditions for “son of ISIS” to emerge could well be in the making. If the Assad regime re-emerges in Raqqa along with the presence of Shia militias, the very sectarianism and oppression of Sunnis that produced ISIS in the first place is certain to be recreated. Surely, President Trump, having accused President Obama of being responsible for the rise of ISIS because of his withdrawal from Iraq will not want to preside over the reincarnation of ISIS on his watch.
If nothing else, the administration needs to be focused on what comes after ISIS in Raqqa (and Mosul too for that matter). The US must be positioned with an implementable plan for reconstruction, security, governance and Sunni inclusion once ISIS is out.
For that, the Saudis, Emirates and others in the GCC must play a role. Reconstruction and governance will prove very difficult without their material and political support. Presently, they are focused on Qatar and are taking unprecedented steps to pressure the Qatari emir into finally ending the regime’s dual policy: permit the US use of al Udeid air base and gain an American security guarantee even as the Qataris support the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other Islamists, including al Qaeda affiliates. The Saudis, Emirates, Bahrainis, and Egyptians have broken relations and adopted an effective boycott that reflects their collective frustration with a regime that uses its monetary means and soft power through platforms like al Jazeera to foster the very groups we are collectively fighting.
With Turkey now offering troops to Qatar, a new division among the Sunni states in the region may be adding to an already complicated picture in the region. What should the administration do?
Keep its eye on the ball. Understand we need the Saudis et al to help us shape the post-Raqqa, post-Mosul reality. Turkey, of course, could play a helpful role here but won’t until they see we will not abet the Kurdish/YPG position in the area. So we must be clear on stopping any YPG effort to bring Assad and the Iranians into Raqqa. But we also need to show we won’t tolerate anyone’s double game. And this brings us back to Qatar. It is time we tell the Qataris we are prepared to give up al Udeid base and the implicit security guarantee to Qatar unless it stops its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, and no longer lays out the welcome mat for the MB, Hamas, the Taliban and related groups. Qatar can be an American partner but it must act like one. In this sense, the administration’s mixed messages must end: on the one hand, President Trump takes credit for the Saudi pressure campaign on Qatar and later declares that “Qatar must end its funding of terror” and “its extremist ideology in terms of funding”—even as the Pentagon lauds Qatar’s contributions to our military efforts and Secretary Tillerson calls for an end to the Saudi-led boycott, emphasizing its negative “military” and “humanitarian” consequences.
In a confusing landscape, the administration must leave little doubt about its objectives and priorities—otherwise, Iran may well extend its reach in Syria, “son of ISIS” may emerge in time, and Qatar will keep playing a double game.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington