The Shape-Shifting Coalition

America's allies in the fight against the Islamic State may seem willing now. But what happens when they want to start bombing Assad?


On Sept. 19, six weeks after the United States began airstrikes on Islamic State targets, France announced that a Rafale fighter jet had destroyed a terrorist supply depot in northeastern Iraq. From that one airstrike, the multinational military coalition attacking the Islamic State emerged. Since then, eight other countries have either bombed suspected Islamic State targets in Iraq or Syria, or declared that they will in the future. The relatively sudden formation of the coalition — a group that otherwise agrees on little else — participating in the kinetic military element of the international campaign against the Islamic State is remarkable, though unsurprising. Many of these governments had been eager to intervene in Syria’s civil war for years and, more recently, to attack the Islamic State directly. Yet it was only once U.S. President Barack Obama authorized the first airstrikes that the rest signed up, having secured the full weight of U.S. military power to backstop the effort.

The White House has touted the emergence of this military coalition as evidence that it is avoiding the mistakes of the George W. Bush administration’s more unilateral approach to the Iraq War. (Although 38 countries deployed soldiers to Iraq, most served in noncombat roles — 93 percent of all coalition fatalities were American.) The American people have been promised that this time will be markedly different. As Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel declared, "A broad coalition has been and will continue to be a cornerstone of our strategy against [the Islamic State]."

Obama deserves credit for pursuing this approach. If he believes military intervention is a good idea, then sharing the burden and broadening its political legitimacy is wise. U.S. officials even acknowledged that Syria would not have been bombed without the overt participation of other countries.

That said, given that Pentagon officials now say openly that the military component of the war against the Islamic State will take several years, Americans should view the praise that the administration has showered on this coalition with caution. The contributions and commitments of partners inevitably dwindle over time as they recalculate their national interests, perceive a diminishment in threats, or run out of money and bombs. There is every reason to believe that this will be the case with the United States’ nine military partners as well.

First, while the Obama administration rightly emphasizes that airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State, the commitment of kinetic military power is the most meaningful and consequential action that coalition members can take. The effect of bombing people and things is immediate, graphic, and easy to document. Unlike with less concrete activities, such as preventing the spread of extremist ideology, each country should be responsible and accountable for any collateral damage caused or noncombatants harmed by the bombs it drops. Thus, while the State Department has emphasized the nonmilitary contributions of 55 countries in countering the Islamic State, pay particular attention to those that willingly participate in actual combat operations — the current total is nine.

Second, watch for military participants to scale back their commitments or leave the coalition altogether. In April 1991, a U.S.-Britain-France coalition formed to enforce a no-fly zone over the territory of Iraq north of the 36th parallel; one year later, it established another no-fly zone south of Iraq’s 32nd parallel. However, in practice, only U.S. aircraft attacked Iraq’s air-defense radars and surface-to-air missiles when the coalition was threatened. Moreover, in 1996, when Washington and London announced that the southern no-fly zone would expand to the 33rd parallel, France refused to patrol within this area. Soon after, France quit both no-fly zones altogether, on the grounds that what had begun as a primarily humanitarian mission had become a tool to punish Saddam Hussein.

Similarly, the March 2011 air war over Libya began with eight countries participating in airstrikes against the security forces of Muammar al-Qaddafi. But five of the countries had to reduce the tempo of their airstrikes at various times when they ran out of munitions. Denmark was limited in what it could bomb, as it lacked targeting intelligence. France and Italy withdrew their aircraft carriers after five months, and Norway stopped participating after six months because, as its defense minister, Grete Faremo, announced, its forces could not "maintain a large fighter jet contribution during a long time." On March 28, 2011, Obama declared, "The United States will play a supporting role — including intelligence, logistical support, search and rescue assistance, and capabilities to jam regime communications." Unsurprisingly, given its vastly superior military and intelligence capabilities, the United States would eventually play both the supporting and lead roles — and we should expect this with regards to the Islamic State campaign as well.

Third, beware of the national caveats — those rules of engagement that restrict what militaries can do within a foreign country. In Afghanistan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) countries were deployed with an elaborate set of instructions about where, when, and how they could operate, which included: no night operations, no combat patrols beyond a certain distance from bases or hospitals, no airstrikes, and no joint patrols with Afghans. A U.S. Army colonel who commanded a brigade combat team in the eastern part of Afghanistan in 2009 later explained to me how his staff labored to carefully craft narrow tasks that ISAF militaries could actually perform. Because these were largely noncombatant roles by design, this significantly increased the risks faced by U.S. ground troops — some of whom rebranded ISAF as "I Saw Americans Fight."

As expected, there appear to be national caveats built into the anti-Islamic State coalition. European countries have declared that they will only conduct airstrikes in Iraq, while Arab countries bombing Syria, so far, have almost exclusively attacked static targets, such as storage buildings, training compounds, and oil refineries. If the bulk of Islamic State resources and fighters retreat to Syria, will European air forces agree to attack them there? As the Islamic State becomes more mobile and widely dispersed, the targets will become more dynamic and time-sensitive. Will the Arab governments agree to commit additional combat aircraft and assume additional risks to noncombatants by bombing the adaptive Islamic State forces?

As Sarah Kreps, a professor of government at Cornell University, found in her excellent book on this topic, two primary factors determine why states assemble and participate in military coalitions: "(1) a state’s time horizon, which is a function of the directness of threat, and (2) the operational commitment, or how resource-intensive the intervention is expected to be." If one considers this, it was no coincidence that only the United States bombed the Khorasan group, because none of the other coalition members apparently perceived these handful of militants as a threat.

Americans should welcome, but be skeptical, about what Obama described as "an unprecedented international coalition." In the months after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often pointed out how 90 countries were participating in "the largest coalition in human history" in the global war on terrorism. That initial level of commitment dissipated as time passed and as the United States pursued its war on terrorism in a manner that many former coalition members fundamentally opposed. Rumsfeld also liked to say, "The mission determines the coalition; the coalition must not determine the mission."

An easy prediction is that at some point, some members of this coalition will want to redirect their airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When that becomes the mission, what becomes of the coalition?

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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