The summit for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders hosted by President Obama at Camp David that commenced on Friday has made the news due to the fact that the Kings of most of the participating nations have not made an appearance. Seen potentially as a snub of the Obama administration’s policies in the Middle East, vis-à-vis Iran and Syria in particular, this latest strain in relations between Arab leaders and Obama is symptomatic of a wider distrust in the Arab world of long-term Western allies including the US, UK and France.
While much focus has been directed at the deal being struck by the P5+1 and Iran on the nuclear issue, and the strong opposition it has among Gulf countries in particular, the collapse of Syria and the ongoing civil war in Iraq have in some ways been even more definitive in shaping the growing distrust amongst Arab leaders of the West. Certainly the tacit alliance that now exists between Iranian ground forces, which are supporting the Shia-led Iraqi government and Western coalition airstrikes, is a concern for the Sunni Arab states. Any step towards greater coordination with Iran or a normalisation of relations with the Ayatollah is treated with great suspicion among Sunni Arab states, particularly those with Shia minorities.
The current lesson being demonstrated repeatedly by Western policy towards Syria and Iraq, however, is a much more insulting one than the potential dangers the Arab states see from a deal with Iran. The best way of understanding it is by considering the plight of a group of people who in many ways have come to symbolise the brutalised victims of Islamic State: the Yazidis.
In August 2014 Western newspapers were plastered with pictures of huddling Yazidis desperately trying to escape the advance of Islamic State. This small ethno-religious group had been declared to be infidels by IS and were slated for mass-execution and enslavement. Almost immediately Western leaders responded and airstrikes – largely by the US Air Force and RAF – drove the IS forces back and helped avoid (at least to some degree) another vicious massacre. The liberal interventionists and the hawks were united for once in their certainty that the last minute air assault had been a moral and successful mission for which the Western powers would rightly be applauded for in the Arab world.
As Elliott Abrams, a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has pointed out, however, the intervention raised its own set of problems. In his conversations with Gulf officials he hears the same refrain which has been carried by Arab newspapers since the intervention to save the Yazidis. The reality is that there were no more than a handful of people in the West who knew what a Yazidi was or could even estimate their beliefs. Despite their virtual anonymity the West rushed to save them.
What is a Sunni Arab to conclude, therefore, regarding Western policy in Syria? There the massacres have been much larger and sustained over a considerably longer period of time. The Western world is not as ignorant of what a Sunni Arab is as they are regarding the finer points of Yazidi identity. The only sensible conclusion that a Sunni Arab could come to is that the Western powers do not put much value in the lives of their civilians. This belief – that the West does not care about innocents dying if they are Sunnis – is not only widespread but also crippling to the hopes of Western powers to project confidence and support for their policies in the Arab world. The Arab street does not believe the humanitarian rhetoric anymore, and the Yazidis are just another example of why that skepticism is well founded.
For those who believe that Islamic terrorism and extremism are the product of Western intervention in the Middle East this example should serve as a cautionary tale. The growth of Islamic State would have been impossible without funding from the Sunni Arab countries surrounding Iraq and Syria. When the West shows itself to be indifferent to the massacring of Sunnis, then inaction has a cost as well.
To the Arab world the saving of the Yazidis was not some great act of altruism on the part of the West, but rather the perfect example of the complete hypocrisy and double-standards that belie Western indifference to the deaths of Sunni Arabs.