COLUMN

The Coalition of Convenience

The U.S. needs to take a cold, hard look at the ulterior motives of its partners in the war against the Islamic State.

Getty Images/ Wesley Harper / Contributor
Getty Images/ Wesley Harper / Contributor

In an effort to avoid any parallels to Bush 43’s war in Iraq, the Obama administration has studiously avoided the use of the term "coalition of the willing" in its campaign to line up allies in the fight against the Islamic State (IS). It’s just as well.

The Europeans and NATO allies may well be able to bring real assets to the table. After all, they are real, functional countries — and actually are allies of the United States. That, of course, is not necessarily the case for the regional parties across the Middle East that the Obama administration is trying to enlist. Far from a coalition of the willing and enabled, these partners represent more of a coalition of the semi-willing, the constrained, and the self-interested. Perhaps, over time, they will prove their worth. And indeed, they will have plenty of time do so. The fight against IS may prove to be a long one.

But reading the fine print, I’m not entirely sure the group of recruits the Obama team has assembled will prove to be all that effective. Part of the problem may be the nature of the administration’s strategy against IS — which depends heavily on finding effective allies on the ground in Syria to fight the jihadists and on pushing for a stable political future in Iraq (and Syria) to reduce the Sunni grievances on which IS feeds. Right now both of these appear to be long shots. More to the point, many of America’s regional allies question the feasibility of both of these objectives, wonder about U.S. staying power, and have different agendas in Iraq and Syria from both one another and Washington.

Let’s take a quick inventory of the regional coalition against the Islamic State. I’d divide the members into four groups:

The Not-So-Willing: Turkey and Qatar

These two Sunni Muslim countries could be of immense help in weakening IS … if they were prepared to give it their all. The Turks could be better controlling their long border with Syria, monitoring and intercepting foreign fighters, and preventing weapons and assistance from making their way to jihadist forces. And they might be able to help staunch IS’s illegal oil sales through Turkish brokers and prevent additional recruits to what are estimated to be 1,000 Turkish citizens who have joined the jihadi ranks in Syria. To be fair to the Turks, they are already engaged in doing some of this, including allowing the United States to use Incirlik Air Base to quietly fly surveillance drones over Iraq and facilitate humanitarian assistance to Syria. The idea that the United States could use the base for active combat missions or stage high-profile operations out of Turkey for attacks against IS in Syria, though, has so far been a bridge too far.

There are many reasons Turkey will at best be a backseat driver in the coalition. Erdogan’s conservative Sunni base is opposed to a lead role; the president is worried that arms delivered to the Peshmerga might end up in the hands of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and thus increase the militant group’s leverage in the so-called peace process. And then there are those 49 Turkish diplomats IS has taken hostage in Mosul. Ankara’s "zero problems" foreign policy might not be a raging success, but trying to be friends with everyone in the region — particularly the Islamists — is a clear constraint. There is also a very real fear that a lead role in striking IS could make Turkey a direct target of terrorist attacks. Paradoxically, it was the fear of internal blowback that prevented Erdogan from playing a stronger role against Assad as the Syrian dictator oppressed and killed scores of thousands of fellow Syrian Sunnis. The fact is that the administration will take what it can get from the risk-averse Turks. And right now, there isn’t all that much there.

The Qataris are another potentially useful but reluctant partner. For a start, the Qataris could stop doing bad things, specifically the funding of jihadist groups through private sources. Al Jazeera, their powerful media empire, could stop praising Islamists and mount a campaign to create an anti-jihadist narrative to counter much of the Islamic State’s propaganda. You’d think — given the Qataris’ close relations with the United States (weapons sales, the giant Al Udeid Air Base) — that there would be a little more reciprocity. They do allow combat missions and drone surveillance to be flown out Al Udeid, but try to put a tight lid on public exposure.

Qatar, as a tiny state in a dangerous neighborhood, has a strategic approach to foreign policy that has much to do with buying insurance and hedging its bets against attacks by enemies. It seeks to maintain its independence from Saudi Arabia, punching above its weight with billions in petrodollars to buy as wide an array of regional influence as possible, particularly with Islamists. And that, by definition, makes it an unreliable partner subject to changing regional winds. This means that Qatar won’t take orders from Washington and is likely to continue to support a range of Islamist groups, from Hamas to the Taliban to Syrian jihadists (who claim not to be IS). Bottom line: The Qataris will go with a winner. And right now, they’re not quite sure who’s going to come out on top: the United States, their Sunni neighbors, or the Islamic State. And they’ll continue to hedge their bets until the situation becomes clearer. That means not taking steps against IS that are likely to make them an object of attacks.

The Weak-Willed: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE

Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE clearly see a significant threat from the Islamic State. After all, this was the very coalition that sought to pressure Hamas during the recent Gaza war and to counter Qatari and Turkish efforts to support it.

The administration will have the greatest success in mobilizing these Sunni countries to support their anti-IS campaign (within limits). Jordan is already providing intelligence and backing moderate Syrian opposition forces; it has also provided staging grounds for possible U.S. action in Syria. The Saudis, meanwhile, have offered to host — and pay for the training and equipping of — the 5,000 Syrian opposition forces the Pentagon believes it can train during the first year. Likewise, the UAE has already offered to host Australia’s contribution of eight fighter aircraft and 600 forces for the anti-IS campaign.

It’s critically important for the United States to demonstrate that it has mainstream Sunni support to counter a jihadist Sunni group like IS. This regional buy-in is extremely important: If the real antidote to IS is creating a new political structure in Syria and Iraq, these Arabs states will be critical.

But we have to get real. This group of nations is too diverse, weak, and preoccupied to provide the necessary traction to aid the war against the Islamic State in a measurable way — either from the air or ground. The notion that Arab state forces will be mobilized in large numbers to fight IS in Syria, or to fly hundreds of sorties above Iraq, is a real stretch.

The Saudis are much more concerned about Iran, which they consider a 50-year problem. Let’s be clear. If you look at all previous Middle East coalitions (Bush 41 in Iraq; Bush 43 in Iraq; NATO in Libya), it was the West — not the Arabs — that took the lead and was the most effective on the military side. And all of those efforts (pushing Saddam out of Kuwait, overthrowing him a decade later, and toppling Qaddafi in 2011) were relatively brief affairs. The fight against the Islamic State promises to be much longer. Meanwhile, the shifting fortunes of the region could easily make this putative coalition come apart. That’s not to say the Arabs aren’t willing to fight the Islamic State. They are — but primarily to the last American.

The Unwilling (Wink): Assad and Iran

One of the cruelest ironies is that two of the best fighters in the campaign against the Islamic State come with price tags that are just too prohibitive for the United States to afford and with conflicting agendas too incongruous for Washington to accommodate.

Iran is probably willing to do more against IS; indeed, its Shiite militias and the Iraq Army (long supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps) are already doing battle up near Mosul. The United States has already said that it will "deconflict" attacks with Iranian forces, but it is unlikely to go much further. Were the United States willing to recognize Iran as a major player in this fight and include it in bilateral dialogues and multilateral conferences as a full participant and co-equal, there might be greater and more effective cooperation. But, for many reasons (not least that the mullahs support Bashar al-Assad and fund Hezbollah), Washington can’t give Tehran the impression that it has leverage — particularly when the nuclear negotiations are reaching a critical phase.

For Iran, the potential that the Islamic State could expand its control in Iraq or bring Assad down is a real threat. But it’s also a lever to remind the Shiite community that they are dependent on Mother Iran should the Sunni threat expand. The U.S.-Iranian cooperation on IS is at best a short-term marriage. While both have a stake in maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity, Tehran’s vision for Iraq is one that’s dominated by a Shiite government, though admittedly one with more inclusive tendencies than former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s. Washington, meanwhile, wants more ethnic and religious balance in government: Shiite triumphalism will only feed Sunni jihadists and further more instability.

Assad represents the other bargain with the devil. I’d bet that for some recognition and a get-out-of-jail-free card, the Syrian dictator would agree to a temporary cease-fire with the more moderate members of the Syrian opposition and focus the regime’s effort to defeat the Islamic State. Of course, whether the moderate rebels would ever agree to this is another matter. And clearly, that’s not a deal Washington is prepared to cut. It would be politically unpalatable not just at home and among Syrian opposition groups, but with the Saudis and other Arab states too. Indeed, it is the sub-conflicts in Syria — between Assad and IS; between Assad and the moderate opposition; between the moderates and IS; and between IS and other radical jihadists like al-Nusra Front — that constitute the greatest challenge to an effective strategy.

The All Too Willing: Israel

The one country that wants into the coalition is Israel. And it’s the one nation that most of the others, including the United States, want to keep out. Rewind the clock to 1990 to 1991, when American diplomats spent months trying to persuade Jerusalem that it was better to have the conflict with Saddam Hussein presented as a battle between Iraq and the world, rather than having it get mixed up with the Arab-Israeli conflict. For some Israelis, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joining the coalition would allow him to argue that the Islamic State equals Hamas — and thus to suggest that the international community and Israel are in the same boat.

Problem is: Israel doesn’t have an IS problem yet. It does have an al-Nusra Front problem, though. Still, the odds that Israel at this stage will do anything more than share intelligence and remain behind the scenes are pretty good. The truth of the matter is that, one day, the Islamic State may be a global problem. But right now — at least in its regional dimension — it is largely an Arab problem. And getting the Arabs to take ownership, however difficult or unlikely that may be, is critically important.

The Bottom Line

Herein lies the inherent difficulty with Obama’s coalition. The struggle against IS, its affiliates, derivatives, and other Sunni groups will be a long one. It will outlive the Obama presidency. And thus it’s critical that the United States assemble a regional coalition with legs (even while it understands the limitations of any such gathering).

The Islamic State’s real power flows not from its ideology, but from the fact that it’s operating in a beneficial environment. Its advantage is not the purity of Islam but that it’s opposed by weaker forces within two failing states — one locked in civil war, the other highly decentralized and dysfunctional.

And that problem won’t be fixed by a coalition of hangers-on and the not-so-willing — nor, frankly, by the superwilling. This is ultimately a Syrian and Iraqi problem; it will require the kind of local buy-in that doesn’t exist now and perhaps has never existed.

The regional coalition the Obama administration has assembled is not to be dismissed as a failure. But it’s not to be overestimated or trumpeted, either. Together with U.S. military power, it’s a way to help keep the Islamic State off balance and to degrade it, certainly in Iraq and perhaps in Syria. But it cannot destroy it. Only Syrians and Iraqis can do that.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. @aarondmiller2

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