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What role should Mideast countries play in Islamic State fight?

September 18, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
The Obama administration has been drumming up support for the U.S. plan against the Islamic State. How do Middle Eastern nations regard the militant group and the U.S. strategy? Hari Sreenivasan gets reaction from Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace, Nader Hashemi of the University of Denver and former Jordanian Foreign Minister Jordan Marwan Muasher.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The most immediate threat that the Islamic State group poses, of course, is in the Middle East.

Tonight, Hari Sreenivasan takes a closer look at how that region views the group and efforts led by the United States to stop it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Joining me now to explore that is former Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher. He’s now a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace and author of “The Second Arab Awakening and the Battle for Pluralism.” Robin Wright is a journalist and author who has reported extensively on the Arab world and neighboring Iran. She’s also a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace and the Woodrow Wilson International Center. And Nader Hashemi is director for the Center for Mideast Studies at the University of Denver.

Marwan, I want to start with you.

This week, the Obama administration has been laying out the case to try and drum up support for the U.S. plan against the Islamic State. How much support is there in Jordan, where you are?

MARWAN MUASHER, Former Foreign Minister, Jordan: There’s a lot of support in Jordan against, you know, ISIS. That doesn’t mean, of course, again boots on the ground in the case of the Jordanians, but it will mean a lot of intelligence support, a lot of logistical support, a lot of support that we have seen before, when Jordan cooperated with the Americans against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the predecessor of I.S. in Iraq in 2007.

So, you can expect much of that support again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nader Hashemi, what’s your take on the people and the leaders in the Middle East and how much they support the U.S. plan?

NADER HASHEMI, University of Denver: Well, I think one always has the make that distinction between the people and the leaders of the Middle East, because what the people want is not always reflected in sort of official elite position.

I think there’s, you know, always the back drop of the legacy of external intervention, the legacy of colonialism, and more recently the legacy of the disaster of the Iraq war. People, I think, are very feared of a repeat in — of that scenario playing itself out if this intervention goes badly wrong.

And there is also, I think, just the general sort of uncertainty and lack of clarity in terms of what Obama’s long-term strategy for the region is, because he seems to have been sending signals in recent years that he really wasn’t interested in investing any time and attention in the Middle East. He wanted to pivot to Asia. He wanted to reduce the American footprint, all for very good reasons.

And then his whole strategy with respect to the bloodletting and the disaster in Syria has raised a lot of questions just about where Obama stands, what his grand strategy is. So, I think there’s a lot of sort of deep concern, both at the popular level and also at the governmental level, with respect to what comes next.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robin Wright, you have been to Iran twice in the past couple of months now. How do leaders there view the threat from the Islamic State, or the militants calling themselves the Islamic State, and the U.S. plan to confront it?

ROBIN WRIGHT, United States Institute of Peace: Well, after 35 years of tension, this is the first time that Washington and Tehran actually have common cause when it comes to a challenge in the region, that, during the U.S. intervention for eight years, Iran was the nemesis of the United States.

Today, they both feel that the Islamic State is the greatest threat in the region. That doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to cooperate. It is clear that these are the two countries that are most active in confronting the Iranians by providing equipment to the Peshmerga and the Shiite militias that are the kind of advance or the main fighting force on the ground, the United States through airpower.

There have been kind of tentative overtures by the Americans to the Iranians, but so far they have rejected the idea of cooperation. And, in fact, the Iranians believe that the United States bears some culpability for the creation of ISIS because it was — there was no ISIL before the U.S. intervention. There was no al-Qaida in Iraq before the U.S. intervention.

And they also believe that the U.S. allies, particularly in the Gulf countries, were responsible for funding, fueling the kind of Sunni extremism in the region. So there’s common cause, but there’s also very deep suspicion.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Robin, staying with you for a second, what about the other leaders in the region?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I think that there is a skepticism.

The United States is really reaching out to as many leaders in the region to give the heft, the momentum, the credibility of a U.S.-led coalition. The problem is that the performance of the United States during the Iraq war, actually two Iraq wars in the last quarter-century, and this is the third, the failure of Iraq after NATO intervention — today, it is almost a failed state — the good effort at trying to get a peace process going between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but that didn’t go any place, that there is a great deal of embedded skepticism about whether the United States is committed for the long term, can pull it off, really can make this happen, and particularly because there’s no specific plan.

Iraq is clearly part one, but then Syria looms, because you can’t destroy al-Qaida or ISIS unless you act in Syria as well. And that’s a long-term operation. I think there’s a lot of nervousness. And that’s why we don’t have the seriousness of commitment, the robustness that we want.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you mention the intervention in Libya as well, right?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.

So, Marwan, what do you think about that? Does the U.S. have the credibility, given its involvement in recent years?

MARWAN MUASHER: People in the region look with great skepticism about the U.S. and its involvement in the region, precisely because of the reasons that Robin just mentioned.

On the military side, the fact of the matter is that there is no other country than the United States that can at least have a chance of getting these people even, without boots on the ground. But the core of the matter remains the political process.

ISIS didn’t emerge out of a vacuum. It emerged out of frustration and a feeling of marginalization by certain groups, particularly the Sunnis in Iraq. And, therefore, I think a political process, that of forming a truly inclusive Iraqi government, getting the Sunni tribes to cooperate against ISIS, instead of with them, is really the core of the issue, and not just a military option.

And that is something that, frankly, the United States is not going to be able to do, particularly if it is not physically on the ground. That is something that the countries of the region, Iraq and its neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and others, have to rise up to the plate and help put in place a political process that tries to address the underlying causes that have led to the emergence of radical groups like this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Nader Hashemi, I want to ask you, one of the prongs of the administration’s approach is to try and delegitimize the sort of religious place that the Islamic State is trying to occupy right now. There are clerics that are trying to issue fatwas against some of their actions. Does this have any impact?

NADER HASHEMI: Well, I don’t think if the United States does it, it’s going to have much impact, but I think there is a deeper sort of necessity here to try and delegitimize and provide ideological alternatives to ISIS.

It’s not a coincidence, I would argue, that we’re seeing the rise of ISIS in the immediate aftermath of, you know, the broad failure of the Arab spring to provide democratic alternatives, political openings. I think the two are deeply connected.

And I think, you know, this issue has to be sort of dealt with quite seriously. There’s sort of deep problems here in the region, you know, rooted in, I think, fundamentally a broad crisis of legitimacy among most of the states in the region of lack of effective governance, lack of sort of, you know, hope that there could be alternatives to violent revolution.

And so, you know, the United States can’t really play that role. That has to come from within the region and among forces that, you know, can provide ideological alternatives to ISIS. And that was tried during the Arab spring. It was crushed by the existing states. Predictably, they would push back against democratic openings.

And, sadly, the United States really just stood on the sidelines when the deep state and the ancien regimes tried to crush those political openings. And then it effectively embraced those same regimes that are responsible for trying to de-democratize the region.

So, I think this all plays into a very messy picture. And it doesn’t really bode very well for attracting young people in the Arab Islamic world away from the ISIS project and program.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, Robin, this week we have heard the administration talk about arming the Syrian opposition faster. Will that part work?

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, if you look at the two militaries involved on the ground, you have the Iraqis, which we trained over eight years, which lost four divisions in a matter of days when ISIS swept into Northern and Western Iraq.

And now the projection is it will take three years to retrain and arm enough to be able to fight, that half the forces are ineffective and the other half have to be retrained. Well, think of that when you compare it to the rebels, who are farmers and pharmacists and so forth in Syria and that were never a unified fighting force, never had — or few of them had regular military training.

And so what we — we already know the daunting task we face in Iraq. Just imagine how long it will take to craft a force that is comparatively small, very poorly trained, very inexperienced, and it doesn’t have a very good track record over the past three years. That’s why ISIS has done so much better.

And, of course, the danger, as we discovered in Afghanistan, was you can give arms to one side, but then they are stolen or sold to the other, and that you end up having to buy your own weapons back to prevent them from us becoming a target, that this is a much more complicated, a much longer, much more painful, and much more dangerous challenge.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

Robin Wright, Marwan Muasher, and Nader Hashemi, thanks so much.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Thank you.

NADER HASHEMI: Thanks.

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