How Willing Is Obama’s Coalition?
The president is desperate not to go it alone against the Islamic State, but he may not have any choice.
Less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama announced that "America will lead a broad coalition" into his new war with the Islamic State, it’s already becoming clear that the coalition may not be as broad as he had hoped.
In returning American forces to combat operations in the Middle East, Obama emphasized that he will sign up key allies to aid the expanding military effort against IS, provide humanitarian support, and help stem the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria amid fears that militants with Western passports will fight there and then return home to carry out new attacks. Obama has often spoken of the importance of ensuring that the United States doesn’t fight distant wars on its own, absorbing the vast bulk of the human and financial costs, as part of his broader belief that the Bush administration acted too unilaterally in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the long arc of the Syrian civil war, Obama has worked desperately to avoid committing U.S. forces to another open-ended conflict in the Middle East. Now, he finds himself confronted with the kind of messy, unpredictable war that he has predicated his presidency on avoiding. Signing up allies to share the load of fighting in Iraq and potentially Syria would soften the political blow of returning to war, even though U.S. military planners are focused on an expanding air campaign and have no plans to send combat troops into either country. To help assemble the coalition, Obama has recruited retired Gen. John Allen, a highly regarded officer who commanded all U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 and was the president’s initial pick to be the top military commander of NATO.
Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Saudi Arabia Thursday for a summit meeting in Jeddah, where he secured support from a group of key Arab countries for a communiqué that declared a "shared commitment to stand united against the threat posed by all terrorism, including the so-called Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to the region and the world." ISIL is another name for the Islamic State.
That communiqué was signed by representatives of the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council — which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — as well as Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United States. Turkey, which possesses one of the strongest militaries in the region, notably did not sign the document. Israel was not invited.
Turkey, which shares a border with Syria and Iraq, has emerged in recent years as one of the primary entry points for foreign fighters and extremists seeking to join Syrian anti-regime forces. Their role in supporting the U.S.-backed military effort is viewed by American military planners as critical in ensuring the success of the mission.
But Turkey has signaled that it will provide only limited support to the coalition, opening its airspace to military transport planes but stopping short of participating openly in military action, according to diplomats involved in discussions about the international response to the Islamic State.
Ankara remains deeply concerned about the fate of the 49 Turkish citizens who were snatched from its consulate in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul three months ago and remain in the hands of Islamic State fighters. Those concerns have only been magnified by the videotaped beheadings of a pair of American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and the militants’ continued threats to others in their custody if the Western-led bombing campaign continues.
Officials from the United States and other coalition partners say they are sensitive to Turkey’s concerns but believe Ankara will be willing to provide support discretely.
"What they told us is what they are willing to do is open their airspace for potential flights, humanitarian flights and military transport, and strengthen border control in Syria and Iraq," one coalition diplomat said, adding that "our assessment is that they won’t want to use their own military infrastructure to actively fight ISIS."
Several key countries that could make up the coalition looked less than eager Thursday to join the American air campaign against the Islamic State. The British government appeared divided on the issue after Foreign Minister Philip Hammond said early in the day that his country would not participate in airstrikes in Syria. Hours later, he was reversed by a spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron. "In terms of airpower and the like, the prime minister hasn’t ruled anything out, and that is the position, but nor are we at the stage of taking decisions," the spokesman said.
The German government also appears divided on the issue. Hammond’s comments were made alongside German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who also ruled out German participation in airstrikes in Syria. "We are neither being asked to do that, nor will we do it," he said. Germany has pledged to deliver weapons to Kurdish fighters in Iraq’s north, and Steinmeier called that "the right amount of responsibility for us to bear." Steinmeier, a Social Democrat who was brought into the Merkel government as part of a coalition agreement brokered last year, made his comments after a foreign affairs spokesman for Angela Merkel floated the possibility of German participation in airstrikes in support of the United States.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Wednesday that France would participate in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq but stopped short of committing to take the air campaign to Syria, citing legal challenges. Iraq has invited the United States, France, and others to help its struggling military defend the country against ISIS. But Syria has provided no such authorization for a foreign air campaign against the Islamist movement. The United States, meanwhile, has made it clear it sees no need to secure a U.N. Security Council authorization for military strikes.
France, which is already sending arms to Kurdish fighters in Iraq, said it is seeking other ways to confront ISIS and the Syrian government. Laurent said Wednesday that France would continue to provide support to a faction of more moderate Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad.
The White House has secured at least one early victory in its efforts to build a coalition. Saudi Arabia has agreed to host a base that will train moderate elements of the Syrian opposition, strengthening their position vis-a-vis groups such as the Islamic State. "There is no limit to what the kingdom can provide," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Jeddah.
Meanwhile in New York, U.S. diplomats at the United Nations are huddling with their Turkish counterparts for intense discussions about how to stem the flow of foreign fighters across Turkey’s border into Syria. Those talks have focused on a U.S. draft resolution that seeks to criminalize many of the activities of foreign fighters and to strengthen international laws aimed at restricting their ability to travel to and from the war zone.
The coalition diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kerry’s trip is primarily focused on galvanizing political support in the Persian Gulf for new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Saudi Arabia, in particular, had a chilly relationship with Iraq’s outgoing prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Saudis viewed as too close to their chief regional rival, Iran.
"The trick is to mobilize the region to actually be supporting Abadi, to get the Saudis, Emiratis, and Qataris in a single coalition focusing on threats that ISIS poses," the diplomat said. "At the moment everyone is saying nice things about Abadi." Kerry is trying to "make sure behind the scenes that behind the nice words there is an actual change of policy by these governments towards Iraq."
Still, the meeting in Jeddah underscored the challenges Kerry still faces. The Gulf countries pledged support for the fight against ISIS but weren’t specific as to what they were willing to provide. Their joint communiqué, which committed countries to confronting the Islamic State, was long on rhetoric and short on details.
"The participants resolved to strengthen their support for the new Iraqi government in its efforts to unite all Iraqis in combatting ISIL and discussed a strategy to destroy ISIL wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria," according to the communiqué. The signatories also agreed on a number of steps to thwart the Islamic State, including by halting the flow of fighters into Syria and Iraq, taking steps to crack down on financing for the Islamic State, and "joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign against ISIL."
Turkey, whose diplomats were present at the meeting, conspicuously avoided signing on to the document, raising immediate questions about how far it was willing to go to counter the Islamic State. Indeed, following his visit to Jeddah, Kerry heads to Ankara, where he will meet with Turkish leaders and "discuss bilateral and regional issues, including how to promote security and stability in Syria and Iraq," according to a State Department press release.
The White House has long urged Ankara to step up its efforts against the militants. Speaking to reporters ahead of a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the Sept. 5 NATO Summit in Newport, Wales, Obama expressed "appreciation for the cooperation between U.S. and Turkish both military and intelligence services in dealing with the issue of foreign fighters, an area where we still have more work to do."
National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said following that meeting that Obama "exchanged views" with the Turkish leader "on how best to cooperate in the struggle against ISIL and violent extremism in Iraq and Syria, and on the need for strengthened measures against foreign fighters transiting to and from the battlefield."
With Ankara wavering over how deeply to involve itself in the American war against the Islamic State, Obama and his Turkish counterpart will surely be exchanging views much more frequently in the weeks and months ahead.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch