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When will Arab states step up and face ISIS?

Saudi Arabia, with nearly $60 billion in defence spending each year, is the world's fourth largest military spender after the United States, China and Russia. In the Middle East, its arsenal is second only to Israel. Their military has over a thousand tanks; its top-of-the-range air force boasts over 650 aircraft.

Just behind Saudi Arabia is the United Arab Emirates – spending $14 billion annually and maintaining 65,000 active frontline personnel, over 500 "tanks" and nearly as many aircraft. They have recently boosted their numbers with compulsory conscription. Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE is a buyer of some of the most advanced aerial weapons systems available, largely provided by Western defence companies.

Last week, the Saudi foreign minister called for "troops on the ground" to combat the Islamic State (ISIS). He said defeating ISIS would never happen without these troops. He spoke in Brussels before representatives of 80 countries. The call is partly to delegitimise claims that the Saudi establishment (excluding the monarchy itself, who are frankly terrified of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi) might be more aligned with the Islamic State than they officially admit. It's a view that also aligns with the neo-conservative establishment of Washington – a group Riyadh has traditionally shared a bed with. But it also belies a typical habit of Gulf states – getting others, mainly the US and the UK but also many other European countries, to fight their wars.

To be fair – a push into Iraq itself is off the cards – Baghdad doesn't need the help and has effectively forbidden Arab states from getting directly involved. Since July, Riyadh has stationed at least 30,000 troops along the border – but their role is to protect the Saudi people from any direct attack, not to advance.

Yet Syria, where ISIS' fulcrum of control is at its strongest, presents a clear problem for the "US-led coalition". As they slowly degrade ISIS capabilities, Al-Assad grows stronger. Moderate Syrian rebels are complaining their hopes of toppling Al-Assad have been seriously hit by the Western bombing campaign.

Saudi Arabia has been committed to the fall of Al-Assad since the war began, recently taking over from Qatar as lead sponsor of the rebels. Qatar was pushing for an Islamist replacement government, while Riyadh prefers a secular future for Syria. Both preferred to fight via proxies – Qatar because their military is ill-equipped and poorly sized to take on any serious military campaign, Saudi Arabia because incursion would represent a major escalation and provocation of Iran. Still, though Riyadh is currently in a mode where it would never accept a deal with Al-Assad, it hasn't committed troops to fight against him.

Completely destroying ISIS cannot, and should not, be done by Western military forces. Iran is now also flying sorties, and has, unlike the Arab allies or the West, been on the ground from day one. Her role is welcomed, but her credibility in rejecting the Islamic State is not clear cut – they have a responsibility to protect Shias, and ISIS' hatred and mistrust of Shias is not unique to the region.

So, only Sunni regional neighbours have the credibility – being both Muslim and of the same sect as ISIS, to comprehensively reject the Islamic State. Only they can discredit the ideology long-term. (This is the exact reason the Obama administration sought to stress their involvement). The Islamic State, upon its inevitable disintegration, will have a far stronger recruiting cry if it goes underground thanks primarily to Iran or the West – claiming that either the heretic Shia or the Western Crusader led to their downfall.

The Saudi air force is, at least cautiously, making some bombing runs. Eight Saudi pilots have received death threats because of their role after a photo was released to the press. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Jordan also claim to have taken part in the air campaign. While the Saudis can't moan for lack of equipment – they fly the same F16 Fighting Falcons as the US Air Force – they do lack experience. That lack of experience is strange and telling – given Riyadh likes to position itself as a superpower in a region that has not been short of wars. Its relative absence; duly noted.

But beyond rhetoric in Brussels and a "you go first" attitude from Saudi's monarchy – none of the Arab states seem prepared to commit ground troops. This leaves it to the Iraqi security forces, the Kurds, the Iranians and the Free Syrian Army to defeat ISIS. Basically anyone but the Arabs, and anyone but the Gulf countries who must, at least in part, bear responsibility for the heretic ideology behind ISIS.

One factor in the crisis appears certain – beyond Special Forces, no conventional Western troops are likely to enter Iraq on foot or sweating inside a Humvee, and certainly won't be entering Syria. Another certainty is that without a surge in ground troops, ISIS will remain resilient. If Riyadh is so determined to see ISIS fail, perhaps it's time it puts its considerable money where its mouth is and starts using that incredibly expensive army a little more usefully. This is their war, their region – and in many ways, they stand to lose the most if ISIS succeeds. The young men and women of the West have suffered enough.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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