On 9 September, the IISS-Middle East held a preparatory meeting ahead of the 11th IISS Manama Dialogue. The seminar brought together senior Bahraini officials as well as ambassadors and diplomats from various missions in the Kingdom of Bahrain. It served as an opportunity to brief attendees on the organisation of the conference and to explore the themes that will be examined in depth during the Manama Dialogue.
The Middle East after the Iran Deal
The 14 July 2015 deal between Iran and the major powers - known as the P5+1 - is a significant development in regional security affairs. However, participants agreed that uncertainty about its implementation and its regional repercussions raise questions about long-term prospects.
The deal, some argued, has strong proliferation and technical merits and served to defuse an international security crisis. Much now depends on its implementation and Iranian compliance with its terms. Reciprocation by the international community in terms of sanctions relief will also be key in establishing trust. Ultimately implementation will test the strength of the verification mechanisms agreed upon in Vienna.
It was unclear, however, whether the deal would necessarily translate into positive effects for regional security. Unabated regional competition fed the perception among Iran's neighbours of relentless - even escalating - Iranian intervention. Intensified conflict in Yemen and Syria and stalemate in Iraq suggested that the Iran deal had no direct influence on the behaviour of key regional actors.
There is hope among some in the West that the deal may strengthen reformists in the Iranian system and have a transformational effect on Iranian politics, however participants agreed that such calculations should not drive policy or constrain options. Others warned that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is beholden to hardline elements for the implementation of the deal and is therefore constrained in his ability to steer a new course for Iranian regional policy.
The deal, some argued, could facilitate economic interdependence and create incentives for Iran to moderate its regional behaviour. Yet there was consensus among the participants that a fundamental regional realignment was unlikely in the foreseeable future.
The Gulf States, which remain deeply sceptical of Iranian intentions, have nevertheless consented to the deal out of deference to their external security allies. At the same time they have focused on shoring up their defences and rolling back Iranian influence regionally. Cooperation with their security partners, notably the US, has increased following the Camp David meeting in May 2015: missile defence is now a high priority.
Regionally, the Gulf States have intervened in Yemen following the territorial and political expansion of the Houthi insurgency, which is seen as serving Iranian interests. In addition to testing military capabilities and cooperation amongst Gulf States, the unprecedented operation in Yemen is a trial of their capacity to stabilise the country on both a political and humanitarian level. Iran has proven unable or unwilling to increase engagement in Yemen, focusing instead on securing its interests in Syria and Iraq.
Navigating the region’s post-Iran deal landscape is a challenge for Western governments. To ease Gulf concerns, they have embarked upon a campaign of reassurance. They need, however, to adjust to new assertiveness by Gulf States, notably in Yemen, and deal with demands for more forceful policies to check Iranian reach.
A discussion followed about the various regional security models that could help stabilise the Gulf region. Attendees debated whether the GCC could be expanded and adopt the ASEAN model to promote non-interference in sovereign affairs. This, attendees noted, was unlikely in the short-term and the role of external powers remained essential to ensure a regional balance.
Can ISIS be contained or defeated?
The military expansion of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the growing ideational challenge it poses, illustrate the difficulty local and international governments face in understanding the nature and potency of the transnational jihadi threat and designing adequate multi-dimensional responses.
ISIS, the participants agreed, has proven to be adaptable and resilient, capable of sustaining local and foreign recruitment through a combination of persuasion and coercion and of conducting sophisticated military operations. The US-led coalition against ISIS has not made decisive gains against the jihadi movement. Despite the stated objective of degrading and destroying ISIS, the strategy pursued to date amounts to containment, rather than roll back.
ISIS suffered setbacks in Iraq and Syria at the hands of Kurdish Peshmergas, Iraqi security forces, Shia militias and coalition airpower, however these defeats have not debilitated the group. In Iraq, the seizure of Ramadi balanced the loss of Tikrit, while political progress in Baghdad has stalled, hurting the standing of Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi. In Syria, ISIS has lost considerable territory in the north but has expanded across the rest of the country.
ISIS, it was argued, needed to be defeated militarily and contained ideologically. Indeed, defeating ISIS on the battlefield is both possible and imperative for destroying the persuasive narrative of expansion and success, which has proven to be an essential source of mobilisation and recruitment. Such a feat, however, requires a comprehensive strategy that addresses the threat in both Syria and Iraq, creates incentives for local forces to join the fight and compels all regional states to prioritise the threat. A clear understanding of the enemy and a non-sectarian approach are indispensable pre-requisites.
In Iraq, it was explained, ISIS benefits from deep roots and a well-trained cadre, but it also faces challenges in terms of demography and geography. In Syria, demography and geography could work in its favour, however ISIS faces competition from other Islamist groups and is often seen as a foreign actor. It was also stressed that ISIS often benefits from acquiescence rather than ideological support
Combating ISIS ideologically does not lie within the power of the West; rather it lies in Muslim hands. Rejecting ISIS' ideological proclamations and presenting alternative religious guidance are best left to credible Muslim voices.
The IISS Manama Dialogue will convene 30 October- 01 November 2015.
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