Missing in Action: Where Are the Arabs in the Fight against ISIS?

Arab armies "lack the capacity for logistics, campaign planning, and all the supporting arms and assets needed to undertake an offensive campaign."

Some argue that ISIS in Iraq is an Arab problem. Ergo, it should be Arab boots on the ground that kick the land-grabbing insurgency from the field.

That argument has an undeniable appeal here in the United States. America is exhausted with wars. Leading from behind seems an attractive option. There is also the matter of the end game. A security framework requiring endless U.S. intervention in the Middle East doesn’t seem like a very sound strategy. A near constant drain on resources and attention might exacerbate America’s overstretch. Moreover, an overly intrusive U.S. presence might start as many fires as it puts out.

And then there are the cautions of history. “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly,” wrote T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia” nearly 100 years ago in his famous “Twenty Seven Articles.” “It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.”

Lawrence knew a thing or two about fighting in the Middle East. “Lawrence in Arabia,” a recent history of him and his times by Scott Anderson, offers a sober and demythologized version of Lawrence’s effort to galvanize Arab resistance against the Ottomans. The British effort to fuel the Arab insurgency worked in large part because Lawrence took the time to understand the people he was fighting with and shrewdly assessed what they could and would do.

In large part, however, the Arab rebellion would have been stillborn had there been no British Imperial Army to press the Ottoman forces to the wall. The Arabs didn’t get what they most desired—a homeland in Syria. But with the aid of British conventional forces, they did win a measure of independence.

But history also teaches us that there are limits to outsourcing military operations. When Dwight Eisenhower served as president during some the hottest days of the Cold War, he hit on a novel idea for having the Europeans defend themselves. He called it the Volunteer Freedom Corps.  The idea was to round-up all the male military-age expatriates who had fled Eastern Europe and form them into units to defend Western Europe. Eventually, he mused, they might serve as the core of a force to liberate their own countries. Needless to say, the West Europeans thought it was a dreadful idea. The notion of rootless, foreign, armed forces garrisoned in their shaky post-war states failed to appeal. Ike quietly dropped the idea.

There is nothing wrong with insisting friends and allies help themselves as long as there is a suitable, feasible, acceptable solution. The historical record is pretty consistent in this regard. In the case of asking “the Arabs” to drive ISIS into the sea, one question must first be answered: who are you talking about?  Who has the capacity and forces to rout ISIS? Certainly, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have substantial armed forces. Neither has an interest in having ISIS as a neighbor. But, both have issues of their own at present.

Egypt is dealing with a non-trivial transnational terrorist threat in the Sinai and a deteriorating relationship with Hamas. In early July, the government acknowledged Islamist militants had killed at least 50 soldiers in attacks on military outposts.

Further, Egypt is still muddling its way through the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Only a few weeks ago, the regime arrested over a dozen members of the Muslim Brotherhood for plotting an attack on the Suez Canal. To make matters worse, the Egyptians are very worried about what is happening in Libya and Tunisia.

Likewise, Saudi Arabia is anxious over the spiraling violence in Yemen—a witch’s brew of Iranian backed militias, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and an undependable regime driven from the capital. At home, the Saudis face an active terrorist network operating inside the country and the uncertainty of a national leadership transition.

The frontline Gulf states have issues of their own, from political turmoil in Bahrain to terrorism in Kuwait. As for the Qataris—well, no one is really sure what they are up to.

Then, of course, there is Jordan. The kingdom has witnessed the horrific killing of a captured Jordanian pilot by ISIS. It has been flooded with refugees fleeing ISIS. Meanwhile, the terrorist group is actively recruiting Jordanian youth. Certainly the kingdom would like to see the “caliphate” end sooner rather than later. But just keeping Jordan secure is a big enough challenge for the Jordanian armed forces.