DUBAI — The advances of Sunni militants in Iraq have re-ignited fears of instability spreading throughout the Middle East, with questions being raised as to how far the spillover from Syria’s civil war might extend.
Iraq’s southern neighbors, the Arab Gulf states, are increasingly concerned over the direct threat posed by the militants, and also over the possible implications regional unrest could have to their power.
In 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) breathed a sigh of relief when its forces managed to quell an anti-government uprising in member state Bahrain.
The group of Sunni-ruled monarchies-which also includes Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates-has since remained the most stable corner of the Middle East. But analysts say the developments in Iraq could present the bloc with its biggest security challenge in recent years.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants have overtaken a large area of Iraqi territory and continue to battle with Iraq’s security forces as they attempt to seize control of the capital Baghdad.
Video and other online content posted by the group appears to show members encouraging sectarian violence and committing what the United Nations has described as “cold-blooded executions.”
Although belonging to the same Islamic sect, ISIL views the Gulf’s ruling families as illegitimate rulers of Muslims who should be replaced. A recent map released by the group of land it intends to claim includes part of the GCC.
Myriam Benraad of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris says the ISIL agenda is clear.
"The Islamic State’s ultimate objective is to restore the historic Sunni caliphate over the Muslim world," she said. "And I am not surprised that they are making more and more references to the Gulf since they are extending their territory."
ISIL’s goal of claiming Gulf territory would be extremely difficult to achieve, given the Arab states’ allies - including the United States - would almost certainly get involved, says Michael Stevens, Deputy Director of RUSI Qatar. He adds that an armed conflict over land is not the GCC’s only concern.
"It’s not all about military threats. It’s also about ideological issues and general stability issues, prosperity issues…for the Gulf it’s a threat in many ways," he said.
Indeed, a major worry among Gulf rulers is likely to be growing sectarianism within their borders and an increase of local jihadists.
ISIL has reportedly started a recruitment drive in Saudi Arabia, and in recent weeks made a number of references to Shi’ites in the Gulf, saying they should be eliminated.
The group’s words are finding some appeal.
Last month, Saudi officials arrested 62 suspects, including 35 Saudi nationals, accused of being part of an ISIL cell and planning to assassinate officials and target government installations.
Christian Koch, Director of the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center Foundation, says recruits from other Gulf countries are also fighting with ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
"You have the problem of an extremist group that is able to attract people from the region, gain experience on the battlefield and ultimately possibly come back and take the fight back home," said Koch. "I think it’s an extreme worry of the GCC states.
Adding to the complexities was a recent announcement by the United States that it was considering working with Shi’ite powerhouse Iran to prevent the spread of ISIL.
Most Gulf nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, view Iran as a significant threat to Sunni influence in the region. On Monday, Riyadh rejected the idea of foreign interference.
Lori Plotkin Boghardt, a fellow on Gulf politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Saudi Arabia and its neighbors are extremely wary of the US cooperating with the Iranians.
"This feeds into their ultimate concern of the stability of their own rule in their own states and the strengthening of Iranian influence in the region can directly impact their stability at home," said Boghardt.
Experts say it is difficult to tell what Gulf leaders view as the bigger threat, the spread of ISIL or Iran’s growing influence in the region. But for the moment it, looks like they will have to find a way of dealing with both issues