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Derek Burney was Canada's ambassador to the U.S. from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson heads the Global Security Program at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.


As the federal government struggles with its military options in the allied campaign to defeat the Islamic State, it is time to ask whether military engagement can ever resolve the conflict with extremist terror, which embroils the Middle East and is spreading around the world. Military action alone is insufficient. Nor is phony diplomacy that fails to address the root cause of this problem, which lies in the tortuous internal politics of Saudi Arabia and the escalating rivalry between extremist Sunni and Shia factions of Islam.

The military track record in combatting uprisings in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan is not compelling. This is a result, at least in part, of unwieldy, inconsistent political oversight of military tactics and strategy, as well as the lumpy nature of the leadership of the coalitions involved. In each case, the protracted, inconclusive nature of such operations saps public support. A combination of frustration and fatigue is proving to be no match for the zealotry of those whose barbaric tendencies are being resisted.

Repeatedly, there are calls for a "political" settlement in the hope that diplomatic dialogue can bring about more constructive solutions. If only it were that easy, but, here again, history shows that convening meetings of foreign ministers in salubrious settings such as Geneva or Vienna often yields little more than agreements to meet yet again. The triumph of hope over experience.

For a wide variety of reasons – strategic and materialistic – the ideology and the source of financing that drives Islamic terror is seldom highlighted. Wahhabism, a messianic jihad extolling a branch of Sunni fundamentalism, is the epicentre, fuelled and promoted by oil-rich states, most notably in Saudi Arabia. This increasingly jittery Mideast kingdom personifies in some ways Churchill's description of Russia as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

But the mystery can no longer conceal the reality that Saudi Arabia is where the extremist ideology is most evident and from which most of the funds that feed the zealotry flow. The immense strategic power of Saudi oil is no longer a trump card; the United States is now the leading global producer of oil and the $35-a-barrel price is squeezing the feudal monarchy's grip on its own pampered public and presumably cramping its capability to bankroll jihadi madrassas, from which are spawned the followers of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and many in the Islamic State as well.

Once the United States' staunchest Mideast ally, second only to Israel, Saudi Arabia harbours sentiments of betrayal over the U.S. nuclear deal with its archrival, Iran; and it is desperately trying to cobble together a precarious coalition of predominantly Sunni states – as disparate as Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan – to hold back the increasingly powerful Iranian-led Shia forces.

The recent mass execution in Riyadh exposed the vulnerability of the kingdom. Intended as a show of strength both to stem internal dissent and to provoke Iran, it looks more like an act of desperation by a new feudal king trying to enhance his family's grip on power.

The new Saudi leadership is grappling with the consequences of the oil-price slump, while reforming some of its archaic political hierarchy. All this is unsettling to powerful princes long accustomed to positions of affluence with little effort or responsibility.

But the crisis building in Saudi Arabia – particularly its concern about becoming estranged from the bedrock alliance with the United States – may just be an opportunity to lift the veil and begin to squelch support for the most virile strain of jihad theology, one that thrives most evidently in Saudi Arabia. Something similar would, of course, be needed to counter blatant Iranian support for terrorist groups, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, especially now that Western sanctions are being relaxed and Iran will have more funds available for foreign "adventures."

What is clear is that by targeting assertively, financially and strategically the root causes of extreme terror in a more concerted manner, the West would do more to bring about some degree of stability to the Middle East morass than by convening more dinner dialogues among foreign ministers or by dispatching more foreign troops to the battle on the ground.

Eds notes: This version has been updated to clarify that Saudi Arabia is trying to put together a coalition of predominantly Sunni states, not Sunni Arab states.