Moving to end the Islamic State’s reign of terror in the Middle East, several nations are weighing hard-power, military options as well as soft-power propaganda tactics to dismantle the extremist army, discredit its ideology and discourage foreign recruits from its influence.
And Arab leaders will be key to the effort, analysts say.
After meeting Thursday with Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, representatives of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, as well as Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, said in a joint statement that they will work to stop the flow of fighters and funds to the Islamic State and join in parts of a “coordinated military campaign” against the group.
“While the U.S. may provide the leadership, it is important in terms of both resources and legitimacy for Arab states to be seen to be leading the process on the ground,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, who specializes in Middle East affairs at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Britain. “A key element would be in terms of mobilizing, training and arming Sunni fighters [in Syria].”
President Obama announced plans Wednesday night to increase the military effort against the Sunni-led Islamic State, including intensified airstrikes in Iraq, sending military advisers to Baghdad, arming Syrian rebels and expanding airstrikes in Syria.
Saudi leaders exert enormous influence over Sunni Muslims, and Egypt — the most populous nation in the Middle East — is home to the Sunni world’s most prestigious Islamic scholars, who have spoken out against the Islamic State. Their opposition to the Islamic State is an important step in peeling away some of the extremists’ self-declared religious credentials, say analysts.
“The key goal of this coalition is to basically deny [the Islamic State] social oxygen, to drive a wedge between [it] and the Islamic Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor in international relations at the London School of Economics, who previously led the university’s Middle East department.
Western powers, meanwhile, considered hard-power means, with British Prime Minister David Cameron saying his administration has not ruled out airstrikes against the terrorist army, and Germany opting to arm Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq to oppose the Islamic State.
In addition, France has invited officials from Europe, the U.S., the Arab region and Russia to meet in Paris on Monday to discuss strategy against the group, The Associated Press reported. And German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has invited his Group of Seven counterparts to discuss the issue on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later this month.
Earlier this week, the 22 members of the Arab League agreed to launch a campaign that would include limited military involvement — with no details provided so far — and other measures to crack down on the group, including a public relations campaign to split the jihadists from their fellow Sunni Muslims.
Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League, called on member states to make a “clear and firm decision for a comprehensive confrontation” against what he called a “cancerous terrorist” group.
Some countries have been cracking down on extremists in the past few months.
Jordan, which borders Iraq and Syria, and hosts more than 1 million Syrian refugees, has arrested supporters of the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda-affiliated group. Jordan won’t likely join U.S. military action against the terrorists, but its intelligence services are likely to work with U.S.-led forces launching strikes from its airfields, analysts say.
“Any kind of operation inside Syria or Iraq has to start from Jordan — the U.S. has one of its closest relationship [in the region] with the military and the intelligence community in Jordan,” Mr. Gerges said.
Western allies want Turkey to ramp up its role in fighting the Islamic State, even though the terrorist group has threatened to kill dozens of Turkish diplomats it took hostage this summer.
Turkish officials said Thursday the country would not participate in operations against the terrorist army or allow the U.S. to use its air bases to launch attacks, an official told Agence France-Presse.
Even so, it’s key that Turkey tighten up its porous borders.
“You have to really establish multiple checks and balances to prevent young European men from migrating to go to the new land of jihad in Syria,” said Mr. Gerges. “You do it by convincing Turkey to clamp down, to shut the borders.”
The battle against the Islamic State also involves controlling the mobilization of extremists within the West, especially Europe.
On Tuesday, French Muslim leaders issued an appeal asking their followers not to join the Islamic State as a way to stanch the flow of young Europeans who have joined the group — about 700 from France, 500 from Britain and 350 from Germany.
“Barbarians are perpetrating the worst crimes against humanity and now threaten the stability and peace of the entire region,” the imams wrote. “[We] denounce the terrorist acts that constitute crimes against humanity, and solemnly declare that Islam does not advocate such groups, their supporters and their recruits. This calling for jihad and reckless campaigns indoctrinating young people are not true to the teachings of Islam.”
In Britain, Mr. Cameron has proposed giving police temporary power to seize passports of suspected terrorists planning to go fight for the Islamic State.
“Passports are not an automatic right,” he told the House of Commons last week.
London Mayor Boris Johnson thinks anyone returning from Iraq and Syria should be assumed a terrorist.
“Do nothing now, and the tide of terror will eventually lap at our own front door,” he wrote in an editorial in The Daily Telegraph last month. “We need to make it crystal clear that you will be arrested if you go out to Syria or Iraq without a good reason.”
Denmark has taken a gentler approach to dealing with Islamic State sympathizers, even as a mosque in Aarhus in western Denmark has called for its followers to support the group. The Scandinavian country’s social services offer rehabilitation classes to fighters returning to the country from Syria.
Danish police arrested three people this month for selling stickers supporting the Islamic State and conducted raids resulting in the arrest of the Humanitarian Hearts group behind the sales.
Still, some say efforts to combat the Islamic State are doomed to backfire, especially expanded military action — to which no country in Europe has firmly committed.
“U.S. intervention in Iraq has led the country into a sectarian and ethnic quagmire in which groups like [the Islamic State] thrive,” said Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Britain-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, a nongovernmental agency that advises the U.N. “The strategy of bombing them into oblivion hasn’t worked before, and there is no reason to believe it will work now.”
And building a broad coalition with Arab states is likely to have repercussions on the perception of the West in the Muslim world, analysts add.
“The involvement of the U.S. government is going to exacerbate the sense that the West is prepared to take action against Sunnis, whereas it would not move against either [Syrian President] Bashar Assad or [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki,” said Mr. Barnes-Dacey of the European Council of Foreign Affairs.
“It will feed the narrative being spread by the Islamic State that they are the only viable option in terms of defending Sunni rights,” he said. “Many Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia and Jordan, may not be willing to publicly and fully engage in this process. They are worried about the challenge to their own legitimacy of fighting other Sunnis.”
• Luigi Serenelli in Berlin contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.