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Beheading Aims to Shake Anti-Islamic State Coalition, But May Strengthen It Instead

The Islamic State’s beheading of a British aid worker has drawn condemnation from London and Washington, but that outrage may do little to boost an international coalition to attack the militant group. Video of the murder of David Haines, which appeared online Saturday, seems designed to try to splinter the coalition that President Barack Obama ...

WPA Pool / Getty Images News
WPA Pool / Getty Images News
WPA Pool / Getty Images News

The Islamic State's beheading of a British aid worker has drawn condemnation from London and Washington, but that outrage may do little to boost an international coalition to attack the militant group.

Video of the murder of David Haines, which appeared online Saturday, seems designed to try to splinter the coalition that President Barack Obama has made the centerpiece of his emerging strategy for countering the Islamic State. In an address to the nation last week, Obama said that an array of countries would aid in the anti-Islamic State effort and that the United States wouldn't have to shoulder the burden alone.

So far, though, it's not clear how large a coalition it will be, and how much of the load other countries will actually be willing to carry. Britain has been the only country besides the United States willing to consider airstrikes on targets inside Iraq, but it has yet to carry any out, and has already said that it would not consider strikes inside Syria. Germany and France, both of which are arming Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, have also ruled out carrying out strikes in Syria.

The Islamic State’s beheading of a British aid worker has drawn condemnation from London and Washington, but that outrage may do little to boost an international coalition to attack the militant group.

Video of the murder of David Haines, which appeared online Saturday, seems designed to try to splinter the coalition that President Barack Obama has made the centerpiece of his emerging strategy for countering the Islamic State. In an address to the nation last week, Obama said that an array of countries would aid in the anti-Islamic State effort and that the United States wouldn’t have to shoulder the burden alone.

So far, though, it’s not clear how large a coalition it will be, and how much of the load other countries will actually be willing to carry. Britain has been the only country besides the United States willing to consider airstrikes on targets inside Iraq, but it has yet to carry any out, and has already said that it would not consider strikes inside Syria. Germany and France, both of which are arming Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, have also ruled out carrying out strikes in Syria.

Arab nations signed a vaguely worded anti-ISIS declaration in Saudi Arabia last week, and Riyadh has promised to help train moderate Syrian rebels. Egypt and powerful Gulf states have ruled out direct combat, although on Sunday aides to Secretary of State John Kerry said that a number of yet-unnamed Arab countries have agreed to conduct airstrikes. Turkey, one of the strongest countries in the region, attended the conference but refused to sign on to the final formal declaration. Turkish officials have said that they won’t pursue stronger action against the Islamic State while the group holds 49 Turkish diplomats and members of their families who were captured when the armed group overran a Turkish diplomatic facility in northern Iraq earlier this year.

Still, Haines’s murder could push the government of Prime Minister David Cameron to take more direct action against the group, which officials say poses a threat to the U.K.’s domestic security and has prompted the country to raise its terrorism alert level to the second-highest level. London might feel even more pressure to act if the Islamic State carries through with its threat to kill another British captive.

"We will hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice, no matter how long it takes," Cameron said in televised remarks from London on Sunday, hours after the Islamic State released the video of Haines’s death. (The aid worker had been captured in Syria in 2013.) Far from stepping back from the fight with the Islamic State, Cameron said it was imperative to confront the group, including on British soil, where he said security forces will continue their efforts to disrupt any domestic terrorist plots. British security officials say that about 500 citizens have gone to Syria to fight with the Islamic State and could return home to plot attacks. And officials suspect the man who killed Haines is the same British citizen who executed American journalists Steven Sotloff and James Foley.

"There is no option of keeping our heads down that would make us safe. The problem will merely get worse," Cameron said. "We have to confront this menace."

Cameron made no announcement about conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq or Syria. While it’s too soon to know whether British public opinion will shift in favor of airstrikes following Haines’s grisly murder, a spokesperson for Cameron this week said the prime minister hadn’t ruled out direct military action against the militant group.

"The murder of David Haines at the hands of ISIL will not lead Britain to shirk our responsibility, with our allies, to deal with the threat this organization poses," Cameron said, using a frequent acronym for the Islamic State. "It must strengthen our resolve."

For now, though, Britain’s plans remain unchanged. London has so far contributed aerial surveillance to support U.S. airstrikes and weapons to Kurdish fighters, and Cameron repeated that no British combat troops would fight the Islamic State on the ground in Iraq or Syria. Cameron chaired an emergency meeting of Britain’s top security advisers, the so-called Cobra group, on Sunday morning, to discuss the country’s next steps.

Cameron’s next move will likely be influenced by the fate of another British hostage whom the Islamic State threatened to kill at the end of the Haines video. Little is known about the man, who has been identified as Alan Henning, another aid worker who’s been described in news accounts as working for a "Muslim NGO." A spokesperson for the British embassy in Washington offered no comments on Henning, in keeping with an official policy of not providing details about British hostages.

Cameron has faced a parliament skeptical of any legal justification for launching airstrikes against the Islamic State, absent a resolution from the United Nations. And he was humiliated last year when he asked for, and failed to secure, support for a plan to launch airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after the strongman used chemical weapons on his people.

But the video adds a new variable to Britain’s calculus. Haines’s killer addressed Cameron directly and said the aid worker’s death was retribution for Britain’s military alliance with the United States and for providing arms to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Cameron turned the rhetorical tables on the killer, declaring, "People across this country will have been sickened by the fact that it could have been a British citizen — a British citizen — who could have carried out this unspeakable act." While British authorities haven’t revealed the killer’s identity, he is believed to be a 23-year-old London rapper who traveled to Syria last year and joined Islamic radicals.

Terrorist attacks have helped to derail international coalitions in the past. On March 11, 2004, an al Qaeda-inspired terrorist cell launched coordinated bombings on the Madrid commuter train system. The attacks killed 191 people and helped fuel opposition to Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar, who had been a strong supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Aznar was defeated in Spain’s national election three days after the attacks. Many political observers have argued that Aznar’s reaction to the attack, which the government initially blamed on a Basque separatist group and not on al Qaeda-linked terrorists attacking Spain because of its alliance with the United States, led to his political defeat.

Senior administration officials took to the Sunday talk shows and assured that efforts to build a coalition continued apace. The administration had some good news to report: A number of Arab countries have agreed to participate in airstrikes, State Department officials told reporters traveling with Kerry, who is wrapping up a weeklong trip to gather allies. But the administration isn’t ready to say which countries have signed on, and some, including Egypt, have already said they have ruled out airstrikes.

It is ground troops, however, that will be essential to the administration’s stated goal of "degrading and ultimately destroying" the Islamic State. And on that front, American officials had nothing to say about whether any countries will commit to putting boots on the ground.

Speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough declined to say yes or no when asked whether any countries would send ground forces to Iraq or Syria. McDonough said he didn’t want to "front-run" any formal announcements from other officials. Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, Kerry said that the administration wanted to present all the contributions at once, as part of a package, rather than announcing them as they come.

But experts and longtime observers of the Middle East have been skeptical that any countries will take part in a ground assault. Marwan Muasher, who served as Jordan’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, told Foreign Policy this week that the United States would have to play the leading role in any military operations and that most Middle Eastern countries would limit their support to providing intelligence, logistics, and basing for U.S. military aircraft.

For now, the Obama administration has no plans to put large numbers of combat forces into Iraq, although more than U.S. 1,000 military personnel are on the ground advising Iraqi military and Kurdish forces. In Syria, Obama is counting on Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State and reclaim territory that the group has seized. Obama called on Congress this week to approve funding to train and equip Syrian rebels who’ve been vetted by the CIA and who will be trained in Saudi Arabia.

Twitter: @shaneharris

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