U.S. Attempts to Build Coalition of the Willing in Iraq Begin to Pay Off

This story has been updated. In his multiple press briefings since authorizing airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq, President Barack Obama has yet to make a vocal public case for allies to join the fight. But as the White House sets the stage for a drawn-out campaign against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, the ...


This story has been updated.

In his multiple press briefings since authorizing airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq, President Barack Obama has yet to make a vocal public case for allies to join the fight. But as the White House sets the stage for a drawn-out campaign against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, the president is quietly asking the leaders of other nations to stand with him.

Obama and members of his cabinet, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have been holding a flurry of phone calls and visits to drum up support for help in Iraq, not only for the humanitarian mission but, more quietly, for the military’s lethal one.

On Wednesday, the administration’s efforts began to pay off as France announced it would send arms to Kurdish soldiers fending off members of IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

"In order to respond to the urgent needs expressed by the Kurdistan regional authorities, the president has decided, in agreement with Baghdad, to deliver arms in the coming hours," French President François Hollande said. The decision followed calls by France’s foreign minister for the European Union to return from holiday to discuss assisting Kurdish fighters — a request that the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said would be met either this week or next.

On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation after facing pressure from his political left and right to join the U.S. bombing campaign. On Tuesday,  he ordered the deployment of Tornado GR4 fighter jets to improve the country’s surveillance capabilities there. The decision to deploy fighter jets has now fueled speculation that Britain, like the United States, will begin airstrikes in short time, but for the moment, officials insist the air campaign is purely humanitarian.

In the debate in Britain, Cameron took fire from members of his own Conservative Party for his reluctance to intervene. "It’s immoral that the only thing we are doing is dropping food and water and leaving these people in the firing line of slaughter," said Conservative MP Conor Burns on Monday.

The German government has expressed support for U.S. airstrikes as the only way to stop IS and open humanitarian corridors for the Yazidi community trapped on Mount Sinjar. So far, it has not committed to direct, lethal assistance for the effort.

In recent days, the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, put in a weapons request to German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to help his troops push back Islamic State militia members. But a key sticking point in Germany is whether to send lethal support directly to the Iraqi Kurds without the consent of Baghdad.

Historically, Steinmeier has been skeptical of arms sales to foreign countries, and over the weekend, German officials appeared unlikely to deliver any lethal aid. However, Steinmeier and members of the German parliament have appeared more supportive of providing arms in the last 48 hours, as the plight of the Yazidis has become even bleaker.

"In view of the dramatic situation, I favor going to the limits of what is politically and legally feasible," Steinmeier said Tuesday.

For the moment, though, German assistance has been limited to nonlethal aid, including millions of dollars in additional humanitarian assistance. A senior German government official told Foreign Policy that Berlin was preparing to send nonlethal military aid like armored cars, protective gear, and sensors to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

In reaching out to Europe, Obama — who staked his 2008 campaign on ending the war in Iraq — is now confronting the scope of an intervention that he does not want to handle alone. Building a new coalition of the willing will help protect Obama at home, especially among those on the left who fear he is slipping the country back into the war he ended in 2011, as well as among internationalists who believe the effort can only be strong if it is a broad-based one. But as Obama uses the threat of genocide to sell allies on the need to help in the effort, he’s clearly intent on getting other countries enthusiastic about supporting — and helping to conduct — military action.

The White House was mum on its efforts to build such a coalition, saying only that it’s working to get the United Nations, the Iraqis, and other allies on board to "secure the safety of the civilians on Mount Sinjar," according to a spokesperson for the National Security Council. But what it’s seeking beyond that remained unclear.

"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," said Nile Gardiner of the conservative Heritage Foundation. But, he said, as Obama looks to lure allies, especially in Europe, he will face friends who are war-weary. And his clear lack of enthusiasm for intervening in Iraq won’t help him, either. "Allies only follow when they have real confidence in American leadership and I think that’s lacking at the moment," Gardiner said.

But European nations and others must get on board, argues James Stavridis, the former commander of the Supreme Allied Command, Europe, who was in that post when an international coalition was assembled for Libya during civil strife there in the spring of 2011.

Stavridis, now the dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston, sees a role for allies to play to provide support for both air- and land-based airstrikes, drones, cyber-capabilities, logistics, and other equipment. While he doesn’t see the need for large troop formations, Stavridis said some allies should provide special forces troops to assist the United States. The Pentagon has a number of such troops supporting the Iraqi government there now, coordinating airstrikes and advising Iraqi forces as they fight against IS.

"NATO should recognize that the overflow of two or three different civil wars in Syria and Iraq should ultimately mean violent extremists coming back to Europe, and that means a threat to the alliance," he told Foreign Policy. "As much as we don’t want to be involved in this, we have a job to do here," he said, noting that "it will be a challenging sell," but it should be possible for NATO to buy into it.

The 28-nation coalition for Libya included France and the U.K., but also Canada and a number of other countries that supported the mission, like Qatar, Jordan, Sweden, and Ukraine.

For the current mission in Iraq, experts believe Great Britain would likely be the first to jump aboard, potentially followed by France, which took the lead in ousting the militants who controlled northern Mali last year. President François Hollande indicated earlier this week that his country would take part in any security plan sold under the United Nations Security Council. French officials have called on the European Union to support arming Kurdish forces with weapons and ammunition.

In the meantime, the United States has accepted financial contributions from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, the European Union, Sweden, Australia, and Canada. "We are talking to many of our partners, on the financial side particularly, about how we can bring more resources to bear here," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said Tuesday.

And for the first time, Harf hinted that the Obama administration is considering options to rescue the Mount Sinjar refugees beyond airlifting them out. She said that another possibility being considered was the creation of a "humanitarian corridor" to get refugees off the mountain. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is also pushing for such an approach, asking United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to create the corridor to evacuate Yazidis and other Iraqis trapped on the mountain.

"We’re looking at how it could possibly be done," Harf said, adding that she was unaware of specifics on talks with allies about the creation of a corridor.

Great Britain announced a number of new humanitarian airdrops, including water, water containers, and solar lanterns, to those stranded on Mount Sinjar. But it looked as if Great Britain envisioned a larger role for itself and others. "We continue to lead negotiations in New York on a U.N. Security Council Resolution that would make clear the shared determination of the international community to tackle the threat posed by ISIL; disrupt the terrorists’ financing flows; and sanction those who are seeking to recruit jihadists to ISIL," a spokesperson for the British government said after a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street.

Also Tuesday, Obama spoke by phone with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Iraq and the two men agreed to "work with other partners" to provide "additional, immediate humanitarian assistance," according to the White House. "They discussed efforts to counter the threat posed by ISIL against all Iraqis and agreed on the need for Iraqi political leaders from all factions to put aside their differences and to form an inclusive government capable of pulling the country together.

Outside of the United States, perhaps no country has as much as stake in Iraq as Turkey, which shares a border with Kurdistan. During past conflicts it was forced to deal with massive refugee crises as Iraqis attempted to flee.

Amid reports that Turkey was flying reconnaissance flights over northern Iraq — denied by the Turkish government — Turkey has nonetheless been actively engaged with the situation in Iraq. Ankara has already dropped supplies to the refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar, and last week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan summoned his top generals to Ankara to discuss the situation in Kurdistan.

Kamran Bokhari, vice president of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at STRATFOR Global Intelligence, Turkey has to act not just to protect its southern borders but also to win back regional influence. "They do not want to have two singular battle spaces for jihadists on [Turkey’s] southern flank," he said. Bokhari said that this fear, combined with Erdogan’s desire to change the perception of Turkey’s passiveness, could lead to the involvement of the Turkish military, alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga, in a campaign against ISIS.

But as the campaign against militants moves forward in Iraq, the call for allies to get more involved militarily will become more strident, even inside countries that are now on the fence. In a statement Monday, German Green Party leader Cem Ozdemir noted that Kurdish fighters armed with U.S. weapons were having significant success saving the lives of persecuted Yazidis — and argued that Germany should provide similar assistance.

"They didn’t do that with a yoga mat under their arm, they did it with weapons," Ozdemir said. 

 Twitter: @glubold

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