In its excitement to trumpet the coalition against the Islamic State, the U.S. is outing partners before they're ready to go steady.
- By Gopal RatnamGopal Ratnam is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering the White House, the Pentagon and broader national security issues. A native of India,Gopal has covered topics ranging from child-labor law violations and the automotive industry to the international arms trade, the politics of weapons purchases, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has reported from dozens of countries, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently he was the Pentagon reporter for Bloomberg News., John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy covering diplomacy and national security.
The Obama administration insists that it has a large and growing coalition of nations arrayed to fight the Islamic State. If a new diplomatic blowup with Turkey is any example, though, the alliance may be far less robust than Washington says.
The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.
The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.
The Turkey dispute revolves around the use of the country’s bases by coalition forces to fly airstrikes and surveillance missions against ISIS (as the Islamic State is also known) in Iraq and Syria. But Ankara wasn’t the only capital to experience a fit of stage fright after its potential involvement in the anti-ISIS coalition went public.
In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.
"I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia," Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.
Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.
"I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge," he said. "We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus."
State Department officials did not respond to a question seeking comment on Slovenia.
Administration officials have said that at least 60 countries are part of the anti-ISIS coalition, but the vast majority aren’t contributing militarily.
In other cases, the United States has boasted about allied commitments of ground troops to fight ISIS, but the offers never materialized.
"We have countries in this region, countries outside of this region, in addition to the United States, all of whom are prepared to engage in military assistance," Secretary of State John Kerry told CBS last month. He insisted that the United States would not send ground forces but that other countries "have offered to do so." However, none of the Arab coalition partners, the nations most likely to provide ground troops, have yet to make such commitments in public. (In September, the Times of London reported that Jordan offered to send its Western-trained special forces to combat ISIS in Syria, but the Arab monarchy has yet to confirm the offer.)
The United States has also struggled to explain its relationship with another key player, Iran. The majority-Shiite country has a vested interest in eradicating ISIS from the region but Washington insists it is not coordinating directly with Tehran, though some discussions on the topic have clearly taken place.
"We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL," White House National Security Advisor Susan Rice said on Meet the Press on Sunday, using another name for the militant group. When pressed, she noted that "we’ve had some informal consultations" with Iran about regional issues on the sidelines of the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna, but did not elaborate. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, by contrast, said Sunday that the two countries had exchanged messages regarding the fight against ISIS. Outside of Syria, hundreds of Iranian troops have crossed into Iraq to fight against ISIS forces.
In the case of Turkey, the latest incident came after Rice said Ankara had joined Saudi Arabia in agreeing to allow its bases for training moderate Syrian opposition forces and had agreed that "facilities inside Turkey can be used by the coalition forces, American and otherwise, to engage in activities inside of Iraq and Syria." Incirlik Air Base, located about 50 kilometers inland from the Mediterranean Sea in southern Turkey, is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 39th Air Base Wing and about 1,500 American military personnel and is key to protecting NATO’s southern flank.
On Monday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied there was such an agreement on bases, according to state-run Anadolu Agency. "There is no decision at the moment concerning Incirlik or any other issue," the agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying in reference to the U.S. air base located in southern Turkey.
"I think the Obama administration is somewhat eager in wanting to show some progress” in beefing up the anti-ISIL coalition, said Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. That may have led to putting some "additional pressure on Ankara by saying we have an agreement."
While the United States wants to use the Incirlik air base for strike missions against ISIS, Turkey may be balking at allowing that, Cook said. Washington may still get Turkey to allow the use of the base for surveillance missions, as it has in the past, he said.
The White House insists that Rice’s comments weren’t contradicted by the Turkish government’s denial of a deal. Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said that Rice hadn’t named any bases or outlined what the bases would be used for as those details are still under discussion.
Although Rice didn’t name Incirlik, other U.S. officials have said access to that base is critical. During his visit to Colombia on Oct. 10, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters that the United States would like to get access to Incirlik as a base from which to launch strikes against Islamic militants, according to the Associated Press. Asked if Turkey had agreed to give the United States access to Incirlik, Hagel said only that "basing rights would be helpful" and that it will be part of the discussions, the AP reported.
U.S.-Turkey relations hit a rough patch more than a decade ago over another military operation to launch attacks on a neighboring country. Back in 2003, Turkey declined to allow a U.S.-led coalition the use of its territory for invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Unlike with the Iraq invasion in 2003, when Turkey’s parliament voted against supporting the U.S.-led coalition and opposed American involvement in the region, this time Turkey wants the United States to get involved but differs on the goals, Cook said. Turkey wants the coalition to focus on removing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while President Barack Obama wants to keep the focus on the Islamic State and preventing the fall of Baghdad, Cook said.
Obama’s envoys to the nascent anti-ISIS coalition, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk, just finished meeting with officials in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey, and are slated to travel to the Gulf Cooperation Council countries later this month. The purpose of the meetings was to explain the American strategy and assess the coalition’s potential contributions, according to State Department officials.
The Obama administration’s criteria about what it takes to be considered a member of the anti-ISIS coalition requires little effort on the part of coalition members.
Kerry and Hagel have listed five lines of effort against the terror group: providing military support to the coalition; impeding the flow of foreign fighters; stopping the group’s financing; addressing the humanitarian crisis in the region; and exposing ISIS’s "true nature."
Given the limited effort it takes to release a statement in opposition to the terror group’s ideology, which technically would merit inclusion in the coalition, it’s little wonder that the United States was able to boast a list of 60 nations. Still, such rosters do little to indicate the depth of commitment any one nation may be offering. Slovakia, for instance, said it won’t send soldiers to the effort, but that it would contribute $25,000 to the International Organization for Migration in northern Iraq — not exactly a game-changing move, but sufficient to merit inclusion on the list.
Click here for a list of coalition member commitments to date.