The presence of Sunni Arab allies in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is heralded by some observers for providing legitimacy to the airstrikes targeting Islamist groups. However, the United States’ regional allies — Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — are governed by regimes that see Islamism as a dire threat to their power, and they are only too happy to join the fight against ISIL. In fact, by targeting ISIL, the U.S. is doing a favor for these regimes, and in return, the Obama administration should exert leverage on its allies to take steps toward political and economic reforms. If the U.S. is to vanquish ISIL and its ideology, U.S. policymakers must stop eschewing Arab popular will and reconsider Washington’s longstanding policy of propping up autocratic regimes in the Middle East in exchange for short-term stability.
U.S. success against ISIL will have far-reaching and unintended consequences in Iraq and Syria (where the group currently operates), as well as among the five Arab states in the anti-ISIL coalition. First, the U.S. fight against ISIL is likely to strengthen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime by removing its greatest enemy. Second, halting ISIL’s advance through Iraq will eliminate the Iraqi government’s most serious security threat. But it could also remove an incentive for Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, to bring disgruntled Sunnis into the fold. The U.S. is pushing Abadi to create a more inclusive government, incorporate Sunnis into the Iraqi police and military and end the cronyism that characterized his predecessor Nouri al-Maliki’s government. However, this may prove difficult, not least because Abadi shares political roots with Maliki as a member of the Islamic Dawa Party, Iraq’s biggest Shia political bloc. Besides, Maliki is one of Iraq’s three vice presidents, which — although the role is largely ceremonial — may still signal to Iraqis that his era has not yet ended.
However, Washington’s greatest challenges and opportunities may lie with its Arab allies in the region. ISIL operates in territory that is next door to Jordan and Saudi Arabia and hardly a stone’s throw from Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE. Although the five monarchies are staunchly Sunni, ISIL’s self-declared caliphate is a challenge to the political legitimacy of their governments. Arab leaders are just as afraid of ISIL and its ilk as the United States is, if not more so. Thus the U.S. is not only helping its Arab allies contain ISIL and keep it away from their borders but also assisting them to send a clear message to ISIL sympathizers or radical elements in their own societies. In return, the U.S. should leverage this aid by encouraging its allies to engage with their citizens. Given ISIL’s threat to their power and regional stability, these leaders may now be more willing to mitigate conditions such as youth unemployment, lack of political participation and restrictions on freedom of expression that might lead to radicalization.
The five monarchies in the U.S.-led coalition have varying track records of political reform, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Over the last four years, seemingly unshakable regimes in the region have fallen, and this has resulted — by and large — in great turmoil and violence. In order to prevent similar outcomes, these nations can ameliorate the disenfranchisement that led to the Arab Spring revolts in other states.
Jordan faces an influx of refugees and extremists as a result of instability in Iraq and Syria. In 2011 Jordan suppressed Arab Spring–style protests, but it has since taken tentative steps to empower its parliament. Saudi Arabia’s economy remains primarily reliant on oil, and the government could do more to expand economic opportunity beyond that sector. To the extent that the kingdom has experienced unrest, it has mostly come from the Shia population in the eastern provinces. Similarly, Bahrain’s majority Shia population is disenfranchised, and public demonstrations have often been violently suppressed. Qatar and the UAE have largely been immune to protests, but they would also do well to broaden economic opportunities beyond the oil industry for their citizens and improve conditions for foreign workers. Ultimately, the U.S. must take precautions to ensure that the local populations do not see it as an enabler of these regimes.
From the shah of Iran to Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt, the U.S. has long supported policies that privileged stability, access to oil and, in many cases, authoritarianism over democracy in the Middle East. Obama should seize the chance afforded by the latest close cooperation to encourage U.S. allies in the region to initiate economic reforms, engage their youth populations and reach out to religious minorities. Change in the Middle East will either be quick and violent or slow and peaceful. The U.S. should work tirelessly on behalf of the latter. The Syrian crisis offers Barack Obama’s administration an opportunity to be on the right side of history and be proactive in promoting policies that, in the long run, will be more beneficial to U.S. interests in the region.