- - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Much attention has been paid to the Islamic State offensive that seized control of the key Iraqi city Ramadi. However, what has garnered less attention yet, is potentially cataclysmic for the entire region, are the recent terror attacks carried out in Saudi Arabia by the Islamic State, also know by the acronym ISIS. ISIS has claimed responsibility for two deadly attacks on Shiite mosques in eastern Saudi Arabia. The carnage occurred in one of the few Shiite population centers in the Sunni-dominated nation. The attacks, though not reshaping the overall security situation of the kingdom, were orchestrated to create greater sectarian divisions. Most notably drawing Shiite-dominated Iran into a large-scale offensive against Sunni-led Saudi Arabia. This amid the backdrop of civil war in Yemen, which is now a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

ISIS hopes its latest attack on Saudi Arabia’s eastern province will lead to efforts from Riyadh to appease its Shia minority, thereby showing the kingdom to be hypocrites or worse in an effort to exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. An effective strategy indeed, when considering Saudi Arabia has been ground zero for terror activities for more than two decades. However, in the wake of systemic brutality and carnage on display by ISIS, Riyadh recognizes the error of its ways and has begun to take a more proactive approach at tamping down on extremist ideology and radicalism; namely Wahhabism. ISIS, keenly aware of these efforts and the potentially devastating impact it will have on its recruiting strategy, is striking back in order to maintain a robust pipeline of violent jihadis.

ISIS is following the Iran playbook — through its latest terror attacks in Saudi Arabia — of country interference by attempting to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia’s Shia population and Riyadh in an effort to draw Iran into a larger battle. The majority of the Gulf states — Saudi Arabia, Jordan and United Arab Emirates — view Iran’s hegemonic ambitions as a greater concern than perhaps the Islamic State, and the Islamic State is seeking to play on those fears. Iran continues to back Bashar Assad in Syria and continues to play a large role in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. Aside from Kurdish fighters, Iranian forces and its Shia-backed militias have fought valiantly against ISIS fighters in Iraq and the militant group has suffered numerous setbacks as a result.

The fall of the Iraqi provincial capital Ramadi in May marked a major defeat for Iraqi forces and was seen as a major prize for ISIS. However, Iraq has announced the launch of a military operation to drive the Islamic State out of the Anbar province and reclaim the city with the support of Shia militias. The Shia militias have proven successful against ISIS. However, accusations of brutality leveled against these Iran-backed fighters by Iraqi Sunnis could lead to greater turmoil and chaos or quite possibly civil war. ISIS, recognizing the potential threats to its recent gains, plans to exploit rising sectarian tensions by orchestrating a face-off between these two regional powers. This as Saudi Arabia steps up its efforts to combat ISIS in Iraq while contemporaneously collaborating with other Gulf states to reshape the region.

Aaron Zelin, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, suggests ISIS “is gambling that it can push Saudi Shiites into the arms of militant networks and possibly Iran.” ISIS is manipulating regional events in an effort to goad Iran and Saudi Arabia into a battle of epic proportions and when the dust settles ISIS will be left standing. Saudi Arabia sees Iran as the single biggest threat to the monarchy and is even working with Israel, albeit informally, to thwart Iran’s advances. This all suggests that ISIS‘ attempts at subterfuge could prove successful as these two Middle Eastern heavyweights begin to circle each other.

Meanwhile, Iran and Saudi Arabia have ISIS in the crosshairs. Still, ISIS is proving to be very skilled and adept in its quest to build a caliphate but its ambitious plan could backfire. Sectarian violence, Sunni-Shia tension, Iranian hegemony and a rising Islamic State all represent just a few of the geopolitical ingredients that make up a very toxic elixir, that when all blended together could lead to region annihilation. ISIS is betting on its survival in the aftermath of all the turmoil and chaos. Key nations are calling that bet but ultimately, it’s the entire region — ISIS included — that could fold.

Eric Ham is a national security and political analyst. He is Co-Chair of the Fragile State Strategy Group and Co-Author of S.O.S.: A U.S. Strategy of Statebuilding. Follow him @EKH2016.

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