If the Sunni-Shiite divide persists, it is thanks largely to outside reinforcement.
Turkish tank brigades are stationed along the country's borders to generate a buffer zone against jihadist attacks. Yet Turkey remains a major transit point for jihadist fighters and destructive resources into Syria and Iraq, as well as the sale of oil from Islamic State-controlled territories to generate revenue for further jihad. Turkey's government is playing both sides of the struggle because the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria and of the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Iraq would weaken its political and religious rival, Iran. Turkey may stand to gain territory as well, by holding onto parts of northern Syria and Iraq after its troops push out Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah.
State-sponsored Saudi writers claim in op-eds that Islamic State and other jihadists represent "the absolute opposite" of the kingdom's version of Islam. Yet Saudi schoolbooks are standard teaching fare for jihadists in Iraq and Syria, just as previously they were used by the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Bahraini generals issue statements dismissing their nationals' participation in Islamist militancy as "very few and limited." Yet that monarchy's spokeswoman tweets: "ISIS is a name that is being thrown around ... to silence the will of the Iraqi people." In Kuwait, the former minister of justice had ties to jihad movements, and the ministers of oil and justice still do. Gulf regimes gain politically from the weakening of the pro-Tehran Shiite government in Baghdad and the ousting of the pro-Tehran Alawite dictatorship in Damascus. In pursuit of this goal, they have moved through groups such as Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusrah.
The United States has expended more than $1 billion on the current engagement in Syria and Iraq, but jihadists still hold the same territory, and Islamic State fighters are moving steadily toward Baghdad. Even optimistic estimates don't foresee strong yields from Western efforts to reinvigorate the Iraqi army or to arm moderate Syrian rebels. Worse, as U.S. and EU involvement has escalated, Islamist groups that have been rivals until now are finding common cause. Sunni tribal and village leaders in Iraq and Syria view Western involvement negatively too - they see it as propping up the Shiite government in Baghdad and buttressing Assad's forces.
The jihadists in Iraq and Syria are Sunnis. They draw a majority of recruits from other Sunni countries. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are slowly acknowledging that the Islamist forces they nurtured now threaten their own homelands. Kuwait, Qatar, and the Emirates have introduced more stringent rules for the oversight of waqfs, or charities, in order to curb funds destined for jihad. The House of Saud has begun erecting five-row barriers along the kingdom's border with Iraq to keep jihadists out. The Grand Mufti, the top Wahhabi cleric, finally declared that "ideas of extremism, radicalism and terrorism ... have nothing to do with Islam."
Those nations now are joining airstrikes and providing logistical support, but their participation is not equal to the mess they created. Rather than non-Muslims from the West taking on jihadists, troops from the Middle East's Sunni countries should be the vanguard of the forces who put down the terrorists whose ideology they helped spawn. Working with local moderates within the Iraqi and Syrian populations, their soldiers can root out the jihadists not just militarily, but ideologically - by demonstrating that Sunni leaders and Sunni institutions will not abide extremism.
Ground involvement would force the Sunni nations to look beyond sectarianism as well. They would have to work with Abadi's Shiite-led government in Baghdad to stabilize Iraq, while convincing a skeptical Iran to accept Assad's removal from Damascus to bring peace back to Syria. Tehran has plenty of reasons to join the fight alongside the Sunni countries. Islamic State regards Iran as its most bitter enemy, and militants have traded fire with Iranian troops inside Iraq and Syria and have struck at Iran's border posts.
Biden correctly recognized that the counteroffensive has to be led by Sunnis. It's time to make that absolutely clear to our Arab and Turkish allies - they have indeed been the largest problem in the war on terror.