“Trust me. The magic will turn against the magician.”
– Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, in reference to unnamed Gulf countries’ role in the Iraq crisis
Directly and indirectly, covertly and overtly, by word and by deed, nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have long bolstered extremist groups operating in the Middle East and beyond. They include the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the latter’s most recent incarnation, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
The six-country economic and political bloc known as the GCC is spearheaded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in support of takfiri organizations fighting in the Syrian civil war. Now the standout of the bunch, true to their name, has moved on to the Iraqi theater after seizing Mosul and nearby cities.
Predictably, both Saudi Arabia and Qatar issued nearly identical statements blaming Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for the carnage wrought by ISIS including its sectarian massacres, summary executions, destruction of churches and mosques, beheadings, car bombings, and suicide attacks.
Without doubt, Maliki has been inept in forming a cohesive, inclusive governing coalition during his tenure. Even if one believes this may be partially excused due to the still-fresh horrors of Saddam-era Ba’athist rule, lack of outreach and rampant, entrenched corruption have markedly hampered the nation’s post-occupation progress.
That said, neither can be blamed for ISIS’s well-armed, well-financed and coordinated attack on Mosul. Their limited fighters and successful takeover of Iraq’s second-largest city speak more to their support—not necessarily among ordinary Sunnis who at heart are repulsed by foreign invaders and their import of religious law—but from regional powers who share a similar vision: the overthrow of Maliki’s government specifically, and Shia-majority rule in Iraq generally. Not insignificant was the tactical assistance provided by opportunistic Saddamist parties like the New Ba’ath Party of former Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and the affiliated Naqshabandi Army.
As corrupt and dysfunctional as Maliki’s rule has been, certain Gulf regimes remain unhappy at the reversal of fortunes Iraq has seen since Saddam Hussein’s ouster (despite his invasion of Kuwait, he was much preferred to any popularly-elected leader), especially its close relations with Iran
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are quite content to see militants from ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and others operate far from their borders, although they are keenly aware the Frankensteins they created will turn on them in an instant if given the opportunity. Hence, these jihadist groups are kept at an arm’s length, busy settling scores and waging their financiers’ sectarian battles elsewhere in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. But early developments already point to the unintended consequences the ISIS-GCC alliance will inevitably bring, to the chagrin of both King Abdullah and the Emir of Qatar. Indeed, as Hasan Nasrallah recently stated, the magic may yet turn against the magicians.
Although the hope is for the Maliki government to fall and amicable ties with Iran severed, recognition of the danger posed by groups like ISIS will only hasten a rapprochement between the United States and Iran as they share a common enemy. The notion of joint military action by U.S. and Iranian forces is fanciful, yet the media’s mere mention of the possibility certainly sent shockwaves through Doha and Riyadh (and Tel Aviv). In addition, the United Kingdom already announced its embassy in Tehran is set to reopen with limited staff.
Once the brutish, draconian behavior of ISIS becomes apparent—and it will—their support will prove illusory as Sunni Arab tribes ultimately turn against them. In return, Sunnis are likely to demand meaningful political concessions from Maliki and he would be wise to seize the opportunity for reconciliation. Such cooperation between Sunni and Shia Iraqis will be anathema to those planning for the country’s partition and collapse, and a fitting rebuke to both ISIS and the GCC.
Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.