ISIS, the United States, and the GCC

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It was no ordinary event when 26 countries’ representatives met on February 6 in Munich to discuss how best to confront the challenge of ISIS. What the so-called “Islamic State,” or ISIS, or ISIL represents differs from one person to the next. To people immediately adjacent to lands in Iraq and Syria that ISIS has not yet conquered, the militant movement is a mortal threat. Whether Shia, Sunni, Christian, Arab, Kurdish, or other in nature and orientation, polities that neighbor ISIS-controlled areas have seen their national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity threatened.

An F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf on January 1, 2015, conducting air operations in Iraq and Syria.

An F/A-18 Hornet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier in the Gulf on January 1, 2015, conducting air operations in Iraq and Syria. Photo: U.S. Department of Defense.

The attributes of national sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity are no ordinary phenomena. Together they have been and remain the most important criteria for admission into and membership in good standing within the United Nations.
Unfortunately, the United States in the course of its invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003 had already smashed to smithereens each of these criteria. Even worse is that the United States simultaneously blasted into nonexistence what exists in the American Constitution – and was previously enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution – namely: provisions for a people’s domestic safety, external defense, enhancement of their material wellbeing, and the effective administration of a civil system of justice.

In so doing, the United States contributed mightily not only to the formation of ISIS but also its focus and priorities. The poignancy of this reality must not be lost. It is but one among other inconvenient truths that plague America’s predicament in seeking to navigate the shoals of the storm its shortsighted actions created.

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Geo-Political Dynamics: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, & Iran – 2014 Arab-US Policymakers Conference

The National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations23rd Annual Arab U.S.-Policymakers Conference included a session on “Geo-Political Dynamics: Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, & Iran” that featured Dr. John Iskander, H.E. Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, Dr. Judith Yaphe, Dr. Najib Ghadbian, Dr. Imad Harb, and Dr. Trita Parsi.

An audio and video recording of the session as well as a link to the transcript are available below. Videos of the entire 2014 conference are available on YouTube and podcasts of the conference are available through iTunes and FeedBurner.

 

 

Transcript (.pdf)

Audio only:

 

The Return of Strong GCC-U.S. Strategic Relations

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with GCC and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry poses for a photo with GCC and Regional Partners meeting participants in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in September 2014. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Numerous recent developments point to a positive and fundamental shift in GCC-U.S. relations. From the U.S. heavy re-engagement in Middle Eastern issues, to the success of the fourth ministerial GCC-U.S. Strategic Dialogue Forum in New York last September, to fighting ISIS, to continuing consultations about Syria, Iraq, Iran and others, it appears that the strategic partnership is being re-established on a different basis than before.  This is despite the perpetuation of various disagreements and misunderstandings. Such renewal is bound to have an important impact on the future of bilateral U.S.-GCC relations and many other related issues, especially their joint and respective efforts to effect positive change in the region.

New Dynamics of the GCC-U.S. Relationship

The current state of affairs between the United States and the GCC countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – is a far cry from public comments by Arabian Gulf officials a few months ago. These intimated what some considered irreparable damage to established strategic relations. GCC governments showed grave concern about America’s intention to re-balance to the Asia-Pacific theatre, its attempts to re-habilitate Iran and bring it in from the cold, its abandonment of Iraq to violent extremism and the Islamic Republic, and arguably, its vacillation regarding Syria and its grinding civil war.1 From its part, the United States showed signs of fatigue from its long and costly commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan and produced debatable decisions relating to one of the world’s most strategically vital regions.

From whence did these turns in trends and indications emanate? For one, they can be traced to developments since the June collapse of the Iraqi army in its fight against the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which gave a much-needed jolt to what many critics allege was the lethargic American foreign policy in the Levant. For another, they are rooted in the potential and actual massacres of minority civilians in northern Iraq, mass executions of Iraqi soldiers, and credible threats of overpowering Kurdish defenses. Combined, these developments pushed the Obama administration to re-calibrate its response by sending military advisors to Iraq and initiating aerial bombardment of ISIS positions.2

In reality, America’s change of policy was the start of a “re-balancing of the ‘re-balance’” back to the Middle East,  while, fortuitously, the GCC and other countries saw it as the right decision at the right time for the world’s leading superpower.

But, given Washington’s many trepidations about being once again enmeshed in trouble in the Middle East, the American about-face could not be sustained without the effectiveness of willing and capable regional allies. In reality, America’s change of policy was the start of a “re-balancing of the ‘re-balance’” back to the Middle East,3 while, fortuitously, the GCC and other countries saw it as the right decision at the right time for the world’s leading superpower.

The United States has obviously re-engaged in the Middle East for the long-term. Equally clear, the GCC states have committed to a broader and more assertive role in the region. As geo-political and geo-strategic realities and conditions develop over the next weeks and months, it will likely become increasingly evident that a strengthened U.S.-GCC relationship is the only practical and prudent alternative for the United States, the GCC countries, and the world at large to help attain and maintain a semblance of sustained stability in the Middle East. An important and thus far little discussed component among these developments in U.S. as well as GCC policy and behavior is a renewal and reformulation of an alignment with Egypt that was shaken over the last few years. A successful realignment of the ties between Washington and Cairo, coupled with strategic linkages between Egypt and key GCC member-countries, will doubtlessly do much to cement the overall GCC-U.S. relationship.

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  1. See Abdullah Al Shayji, “The GCC-U.S. Relationship: A GCC Perspective,” Middle East Policy Council Journal, Vol. XXI, No. 3 (Fall 2014). []
  2. Chelsea Carter, Mohammed Tawfeeq, and Barbara Starr, “Officials: U.S. airstrikes pound ISIS militants firing at Iraq’s Yazidis,” CNN, August 10, 2014, at http://cnn.it/1AfzFOI []
  3. See Imad Harb, “America’s Full-Fledged Return to the Middle East,” Quest for Middle East Analysis, September 11, 2014, at http://bit.ly/harb-return-middle-east []

Arab League Ambassador Mohammed Al Hussaini Al Sharif Appears on “This is America & The World”

H.E. Ambassador Mohammed Al Hussaini Al Sharif, Chief Representative of the League of Arab States to the United States, former Ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Canada and Turkey, and former Head of the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Houston, recently appeared on Episode 1801 of THIS IS AMERICA & THE WORLD with Dennis Wholey. The program is a weekly, international affairs television series produced in Washington, New York City, and in countries around the world, and distributed nationally on PBS. On This is America & The World, “Dennis Wholey sets out to explore the cultural, social and political lives” of “high profile individuals that shape our world.” The interview with H.E. Ambassador Al Sharif “focuses on the various sources of extreme tension throughout the Middle East and touches on Islam, ISIS and recent developments in Israel and Palestine.”

The Dynamics of Future Saudi Arabian-Iranian Relations in Context

All is not well in Arabia and the Gulf. The further unraveling of security and stability in Iraq has exemplified this and more to the increasingly beleaguered government of Iraqi Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad, the country’s capital. The accelerated breakdown of law and order in the land between the rivers has also rattled the governments and political dynamics of Iran, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Yemen, and the six member-countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

Among these countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran are of out-sized importance. Greater information, insight, and knowledge about how these two competitors for regional prominence perceive, interact with, and analyze and assess the likely intentions of the other – not just regarding Iraq but also Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon – is essential to understanding key trends and indications in Arabia and the Gulf at the present time and where the region is likely to be headed in the days to come. 

It is in this context that the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations is privileged to present the essay that follows by National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow Dr. Imad Kamel Harb. Dr. Harb recently returned to Washington, DC after spending the previous seven years working as a researcher and analyst in the GCC region. 

Dr. Harb previously worked to help rehabilitate the Iraqi higher education sector as a Senior Program Officer for Education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). There he authored a USIP Special Report on “Higher Education and the Future of Iraq,” published in 2008. 

Since earning his PhD from the University of Utah, Dr. Harb has been an Adjunct Professor at San Francisco State University, the University of Utah, Georgetown University, George Washington University, the University of Maryland, and the Middle East Institute. 

Dr. John Duke Anthony


THE DYNAMICS OF FUTURE SAUDI ARABIAN-IRANIAN RELATIONS IN CONTEXT

By Dr. Imad Kamel Harb

June 12, 2014

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Recent diplomatic overtures emanating from Saudi Arabia about possibilities for a thawing of relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran are unlikely to produce their desired results. Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal’s recent invitation to his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to visit the kingdom was tepidly received at the Iranian Foreign Ministry.

A potential visit by the former Iranian President, and former Chairman of the Assembly of Experts, Ayatullah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, itself originating from an invitation by the new Saudi Ambassador to Tehran, Abdul-Rahman bin Ghorman, still awaits the approval of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei.

Myriad contentious issues from Bahrain to Yemen to Iraq, and from Lebanon to Syria have had the two countries’ leaderships at loggerheads and made anentente improbable. Indeed, Iranian-Arab acrimony promises to be the state of affairs for the foreseeable future, negatively affecting regional peace and inter-communal relations between the Gulf’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

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Dr. John Duke Anthony on Al Youm (Al Hurra TV)

On March 25, 2014, Dr. John Duke Anthony, Founding President & CEO of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, appeared on Al Youm on Al Hurra TV. The discussion touched on Iran, Syria, and President Obama’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia. [Program in Arabic.]

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Dr. John Duke Anthony on Iran’s Exclusion from the Syria Peace Conference

Q: Was the exclusion of Iran from the Syria peace talks taking place in Montreux, Switzerland inevitable? What are some possible implications?

Bashar Ja'afari, Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations, speaks to the media during the Geneva II Conference on Syria, in Montreux, Switzerland. Photo: UN.

Bashar Ja’afari, Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations, speaks to the media during the Geneva II Conference on Syria, in Montreux, Switzerland. Photo: UN.

John Duke Anthony: The exclusion of Iran may be the price the conference conveners believe they had to pay to have any talks at all in keeping with the advance hype about there being a January meeting. I believe the rebel groups we want represented would have gone under any circumstances. Certainly the price for their not doing so would have been high, perhaps prohibitively so. The global image of their being irresponsible and refusing to engage in the give and take of discussion, debate, and negotiations may well have proved ruinous. It would have practically guaranteed that the Syrian government’s image would correspondingly improve, as indeed would Iran’s, Russia’s, and everybody else’s. In an echo of Shakespeare’s “Beware the wrath of a rejected suitor” and “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” Iran, having been provoked, antagonized, and told to stay home, will be tempted to extract a price for being excluded. By leaving no fingerprints — so as not to add further fuel to American Congressional threats to increase the sanctions against Iran — Tehran could instigate here or there, and possibly here and there, violent attacks or other harm to American and/or other prominent conference attendees’ interests by groups or individuals it controls.

For Reference:

“Excluded Iran Says Its Role at Talks on Syria Will Be Missed” – The New York Times, January 21, 2014

National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations Founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony periodically responds to questions posed by friends of the National Council for the Arabia, the Gulf, and the GCC Blog. Find Dr. Anthony’s full biography here and read more from Dr. Anthony here.

Listen to NCUSAR Public Affairs Briefings from Spring and Summer 2013

Audio recordings of National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Public Affairs Briefings held during the spring and summer of 2013 are available for streaming and downloading. Listen to and download each program through the links below, or visit the National Council’s podcast feed through iTunes to access recordings from Council programs.