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War on Islamic State or war on terror? Arab perspectives on the coalition

Middle Eastern partners have dubbed the US's 'war on IS' a 'war on terror'. Why the different names, and what could it mean for the mission?
An Iraqi soldier stands guard in Taiji, June 2014 (AFP)

In touting the planned joint military campaign in Iraq and Syria, US officials have so far shied away from using the loaded terminology of war. After much semantic wrangling in Washington last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry seemingly agreed to call the international coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria a “war.”

While right-wing US commentators like Bill O’Reilly have been calling on President Obama to go further and declare an all-out “war on terrorism”, Democrats have been more wary. For now, US officials seem united in dubbing the campaign, which could mean US boots on the ground and the involvement of around 30 countries, a “war” with Islamic State.

The picture among Arab states, though, looks very different. A slew of Arab states that have signed up to the US-led coalition have not hesitated to use describe the campaign not as an operation to root out Islamic State, but as a “war on terror.”

Explaining Jordan’s participation in the US-led anti-IS coalition on Tuesday, King Abdullah did not even mention the words “Islamic State”. Instead, he stressed that “Jordan’s position has been and remains firm with regards to confronting terrorism, extremism and terrorist groups.”

Coalition partner Lebanon seems to be taking the same line. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said after a joint meeting with other Arab coalition supporters that “Lebanon is the world’s partner in the war on terror.”

The head of Libya’s House of Representatives has also said that the country, which is facing a domestic crisis, “will try, in whatever way possible, to be part of the anti-terror coalition being formulated now.”

The six members of the Gulf Co-operation Council have so far been somewhat more reticent in their language. However, speaking after a conference in Jeddah last Thursday to discuss the US’s stated coalition against IS, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said that the assembled Arab countries had “agreed to deal with the phenomenon of terrorism from a comprehensive perspective.”

‘Mission creep’ in the anti-IS coalition

Arab states vocally supporting the coalition seem to be using their statements to paint the campaign as a wider “war on terror.”

But analysts are equivocal about “mission creep” in the fight against IS: whether participating Arab states will try to broaden the conflict and target other “terrorist” organisation, whether at home or abroad.

Toby Dodge, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told MEE that most of the Middle Eastern coalition partners are unlikely to be pressing for Washington to widen the campaign.

“The difference in terminology simply represents the Obama administration’s caution with language, and the domestic pressure they are under.

“But of course, most of their allies in the region have a different approach to domestic pressure and different concerns about it.”

Middle Eastern partners could be ratcheting up their counter-terrorism rhetoric in response to pressure at home to be seen to be dealing with perceived threats from extremist groups.

According to Dodge, though, this is unlikely to translate into military action alongside coalition partners.

“I don’t think the Arab coalition partners will attempt to broaden out this conflict.

“It is hard to overstate the contempt that the Gulf States especially, and most of the Middle Eastern states, have for the Obama administration. Their leverage has been very low since they failed to bomb Syria after it crossed their “red lines” on chemical weapons use.

“Mission creep is much more likely to come either from Washington or possibly from Amman in Jordan, rather than from Saudi Arabia and others. The Jordanians are very bullish – if creep comes from the region it will come from Jordan across the border into Syria.”

‘Exploiting’ the anti-terror fight

It seems unlikely, then, that the “war on terror” coalition will be able to take military action against groups designated as “terrorist” in the region.

Still, the ramping up of language is likely to signal that states are ready to

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was designated a terrorist group in the country in February 2014, has already accused President Sisi of “exploiting” the IS threat for domestic ends.

In a letter published on Tuesday evening under the title “War on Terror: Pretence and Reality”, the group condemned the “most extreme types of radicalism, cruelty and brutality” carried out by IS militants.

However, they accused President Sisi of “exploiting…events in the region to delude people into thinking that the Muslim Brotherhood practices terrorism.”

In a paragraph titled “Egypt’s Murderer: Trying to Ride the Wave”, the Brotherhood alleges that President Sisi is “exploiting these circumstances to demand that the world stands with him in his so-called “war on terror.”

Dodge explained that the using the terminology of “terror” can be a useful tool for governments seeking to discredit various groups.

“If you are able to call someone a terrorist, it means you can disavow that the groups have any link to the religion of the population.”

“It’s a way of deligitimising them.”

Human rights groups have expressed concern that the recent escalation in the war of words on terror could signal a coming clampdown and the loss of basic rights.

Alaa al-Shalabi, secretary general of the Egypt-based Arab Organisation for Human Rights, told MEE that he is worried about the effect this campaign could have on human rights.

“There are states participating in the coalition that have witnessed…huge violations [of human rights]. Groups like IS grew up in an environment that nurtured terrorism, especially in recent years…during Nouri al-Maliki’s period in power. So we are in a vicious cycle.

“We need regulated, affirmative efforts that comply with human rights regulations. [At present] we have a very unregulated context for a war on terror.”

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