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Kerry Leading Coalition Drive to Confront Islamic State

Kerry Leading Coalition Drive to Confront Islamic State

Secretary of State John Kerry is now President Barack Obama’s point man for drumming up international support to fight the Islamic State, which the administration refers to as ISIL. 

Kerry will start his coalition-building tour next week when he meets with his foreign counterparts at the NATO summit in Wales, which starts Thursday, Sept. 4.

He will also head to the Middle East to build up support among regional partners, Obama said Thursday during a briefing at the White House. 

"The violence that’s been taking place in Syria has obviously given ISIL a safe haven there in ungoverned spaces, and in order for us to degrade ISIL over the long term, we’re going to have to build a regional strategy," Obama said.

Since Obama’s administration began humanitarian airdrops and launched airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq on Aug. 8, the White House has sought help from allies for the fight. Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and others have been working the phones to persuade allies to stand with America as it confronts the brutality of the Islamic State in Iraq.

Now that the Obama administration appears to be gearing up to target the Islamic State in Syria too, building an international coalition has become even more important. Unlike in Iraq, U.S. airstrikes will likely not be carried out at the request of or in coordination with the Syrian government.

"As I’ve said, rooting out a cancer like ISIL will not be quick, or easy, but I’m confident that we can and we will, working closely with our allies and our partners," Obama said.  

For an administration that shuns militarily intervention, the support of allies, from European to Arab nations, is critical. Some experts believe that if Obama sends additional troops into that theater of war, a variety of special operations forces from a number of countries could marry up with forces already deployed there. It would also make any extended mission all the more politically palatable for the White House.

But convincing partners to participate in an operation that could be viewed as benefiting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will be a difficult diplomatic task.

"A coalition is not a military coalition," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters Thursday. "It’s a coalition to take on the threat from ISIL. So, there are several components or several roles that countries can play: humanitarian assistance, diplomatic assistance. It’s a decision each country will certainly make."

In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron has taken fire from members of his own Conservative Party for his reluctance to intervene. But after American journalist James Foley was beheaded at the hands of a militant thought to be a British citizen, the British government has shown more inclination to support America, especially if it is part of a broader coalition. The German government has called U.S. airstrikes the only way to stop the Islamic State fighters, but that was in the context of the humanitarian crisis atop Mount Sinjar. Germany will send to Kurdish defense forces nonlethal military assistance, such as armored cars, protective gear, and sensors to detect improvised explosive devices.

The Obama administration reportedly will wait until after the Wales meeting to decide whether to launch airstrikes in Syria. By that point, the U.S. Congress will be back in session and have had time to weigh in.

But Psaki pushed back on the idea that there is a set timeline. "We want to get this right and make a decision that is right strategically for the United States."

In the meantime, Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been tasked by Obama to develop a range options to counter the Islamic State.

On Monday, Aug. 25, the Pentagon began surveillance flights over Syria, according to the New York Times, but it has yet to publicly confirm the mission.

That same day, the Pentagon announced that Albania, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, Italy, France, and the United Kingdom have committed to providing Kurdish forces arms and equipment.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said more nations are expected to contribute soon.

"This is a long-term mission that is going to involve a lot of heavy lifting, and you do need allies to stand shoulder to shoulder with you," the Heritage Foundation’s Nile Gardiner told Foreign Policy earlier this month. But, he warned, allies will only stand with Obama if he articulates a clear strategy for defeating the militant group.