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The new great war for civilisation

Arab countries may want to join the fight against ISIS, but forging a grand coalition will not be easy.

comment Updated: Sep 15, 2014 23:33 IST

The Islamic State (ISIS), by beheading two American citizens, has drawn international attention and has made US President Barack Obama send American troops as military advisers to Iraq. In his speech last week, Mr Obama stressed the need for a coalition of countries to tackle ISIS. Britain has decided not to be directly involved but France and Australia have extended support. US secretary of state John Kerry is in West Asia, stitching together a coalition of regional players. Several Arab countries have reportedly reciprocated, expressing willingness to join in airstrikes on ISIS. The details are yet unclear, but forging a grand coalition amid the complex politics of West Asia is easier said than done.

The role of Arab governments, especially Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, in the growth of ISIS is well known. So why would they now want to destroy ISIS? The rise of ISIS, a Sunni terror group, which targeted Shias and other minorities, was acceptable — even desirable — for Sunni kingdoms in West Asia. For them ISIS’ anti-Shia drive meant the ultimate weakening of Iran, the Shia heavyweight in West Asia. However, the equation changed the moment ISIS revealed its grand plans for an Islamic caliphate. Put differently, the snakes in the backyard have turned homeward. Also many countries fear that their local Sunni population might get influenced by ISIS. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and others put their forces on alert in July since the caliphate was declared.

The US does not want Iran and Syria to be part of the coalition, thereby making it a largely Sunni group. Turkey’s reluctance to join the coalition also weakens the drive against ISIS. Ankara is wary of the Kurdish resistance in the country and 49 Turkish diplomats are in ISIS’ custody. But it shares a 1,200-km-long border with Iraq and Syria and can choke ISIS by tightening its border and stopping the flow of oil from ISIS-controlled areas. It needs to be seen how much the US and its allies will be willing to attack ISIS in Syria without aiding the Bashar al-Assad government. The regional coalition should also check terror groups in, say, Libya, Egypt, etc. Focusing solely on ISIS and leaving other groups is half the job done. ISIS, through its call for an Islamic caliphate, is hoping to rekindle the passion for Arab nationalism. More importantly, it wants West Asia to unite and oppose Western powers that have ‘subjugated’ the region for more than two centuries. Given this, there is a grain of truth when Mr Obama said that “…this is not our fight alone” and “nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing the region”. The success of the coalition depends on a united West Asia that overlooks sectarian and national differences. Unless the Arab nations take up the fight, the attack on ISIS will be viewed as Western propaganda against Islam and the region — and ISIS will continue to terrorise the world.