Reassessing U.S. Security Cooperation in the Middle East
By: Gabriel Coll
As the United States continues its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it is joined by a coalition of nearly 40 countries, including key states in the Middle East. This coalition demonstrates the value of past U.S. security cooperation to its regional partners. According to the Pentagon, Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have all “participated in or supported” the airstrikes on ISIS targets. Each of these countries had an extensive military relationship with the United States long before the threat of ISIS emerged. Notably, the United States approved the sales of arms, such as F-15s and F-16s, that allowed Arab states to make significant contributions where there was an alignment of national interests.
However, though the coalition against ISIS demonstrates the value of past U.S. security cooperation, this conflict also reinforces the need to (1) recognize the complexities of the regional security environment and (2) rethink the nature of security cooperation.
The United States will continue to be limited in its ability to shape the security environment; during the past 35 years, this has been a constant theme of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. Moreover, regional states will inevitability act in their own interests, whether seemingly parochial or against U.S. interests. For example, the extent of U.S. arms sales has had little discernable impact on the willingness of recipient states to comply with recent U.S. policies. Egypt and Turkey, two major recipients of U.S. weaponry, have been among the most resistant partners to get on board with the U.S.-led campaign in Syria and Iraq.
Furthermore, if the United States achieves its objective to “degrade, and ultimately destroy, [ISIS] through a comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy,” the underlying factors that allowed for the emergence of ISIS will continue to exist. The fundamental challenges that confront the Middle East include sectarian violence, political instability, high unemployment, and a growing number of refugees.
To confront the security issues that these challenges pose, countries must be willing to expand the level of international collaboration. One way that the United States can support this goal is to leverage and adapt its existing security relationships. By identifying shared interests and building integrated capabilities, allies and partners will be able to deal more effectively with transnational threats. The International Security Program, in partnership with CSIS’s Middle East Program, is currently working on such an effort. As part of our larger Federated Defense Project, we will design a set of actionable recommendations that rethink the nature of security cooperation in the Middle East.