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Jeddah meeting on IS brings together unlikely allies

Members of opposing blocs in the region have been meeting to discuss the need to deal with the threat the Islamic State poses to them and other states, but the United States remains in the lead in confronting the organization.
A resident of Tabqa city touring the streets on a motorcycle waves an Islamist flag in celebration after Islamic State militants took over Tabqa air base, in nearby Raqqa city August 24, 2014. Islamic State militants stormed the air base in northeast Syria on Sunday, capturing most of it from government forces after days of fighting over the strategic location, a witness and a monitoring group said. Fighting raged inside the walls of the Tabqa air base, the Syrian army's last foothold in an area otherwise c

In an out-of-control Middle East — where chaos engulfs almost half the area and regional powers are proving themselves helpless against the new the Islamic State (IS) phenomenon — the serious need for a radical review of policies and alliances has finally become clear. Three main blocs are currently in conflict on several fronts: the “moderate” bloc, consisting of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Jordan; the resistance bloc of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah; and the Turkey-Qatar alliance, which can be described as a pro-Muslim Brotherhood bloc.

As these alliances engage in wars from Libya to Iraq, the territory controlled by IS continues to grow. As of late August, IS dominates an area bordering on Turkey and Jordan that spreads from northeastern Aleppo, in Syria, to Jalawla, in eastern Iraq, a mere 38 kilometers (23.6 miles) from Iran. The Iranians are concerned, and the Saudis even more so; meanwhile, the United States, although undecided on a final strategy to defeat this new enemy, has at least made a decision to confront it and has begun doing so.

In Jeddah on Aug. 24, the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt gathered to discuss the Syrian conflict and other “challenges, including the rise of terrorist extremist ideology.” In an official statement, they expressed their agreement on “the need to seriously work to deal with these crises and challenges to preserve security and stability in Arab countries.” Egypt’s Foreign Ministry had released an earlier statement indicating the meeting would focus on “the growing presence in Iraq and Syria of extremists,” notably IS. The rise of IS means that the “search for a political solution to the Syria crisis [is] needed more than ever.”

On Aug. 25, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s undersecretary for Arab and African affairs, paid a surprising visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to discuss regional matters and bilateral relations. Amir Abdollahian had “positive meetings and agreed with the Saudi official on opening a new chapter in relations between the two countries," a source in Tehran told Al-Monitor. “The meeting involved the regional matters of mutual interest to both countries — the Israeli war on Gaza, the situation in Syria, the growing threat the extremists in Iraq and Syria pose to regional security and the importance of Saudi-Iranian cooperation to confront terrorism and extremism in the region.”

Thus, players from the three regional blocs have been meeting to discuss the same issues, and they have all arrived at this conclusion: Any tactical advantage they might have in a particular area does not stand up to the strategic threat of IS. Moreover, the status quo and ongoing side battles are only providing IS with opportunities to expand and become a power in the region, especially given the situation on the ground, including IS control over water and energy resources, which contributes to making it an even bigger threat to neighboring states.

For the first few weeks after IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the establishment of a caliphate, the main regional players reacted hesitantly, ignoring that Baghdadi's proclamation was one of the most significant geopolitical events since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Israel. In short, their responses were not on the level of what had actually occurred. They appeared to approach the event as they had in the past with the rise of other groups, for instance, al-Qaeda. The problem this time, however, was their failure to consider that the former Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham was no longer just an organization, but had evolved into a governing entity with a multinational army and members who flew in from Europe, the Americas, Asia and elsewhere to establish their long-awaited divine state.

Iranian guards with magnification devices can now see IS' army on the other side of the border. Iran, a Shiite Muslim-run state, knows well that it heads the IS' enemies list. For Baghdadi’s followers, Shiites are not only unbelievers, but infidels whose repentance is not accepted. The Saudis are more concerned because the new player embraces the same religious ideology they preached in their schools for almost a century. Thus, many a Wahhabi believer in the kingdom might see in the IS’ proclaimed caliphate a righteous ruling system given its adherence to the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of their brand of Islam.

Despite all the reasons for the Middle Eastern rivals to cooperate, the US decision to confront IS appears to be one of the main prompters of regional, antiterrorism cooperation. This might provide future actions the cover of an international umbrella, with a mandate to uproot the most imminent threat facing the region's conflicting power blocs.