WASHINGTON — The United States faces no small task in drumming up allies to fight the Islamic State as part of a new coalition that foreign policy analysts already are criticizing as a hollow effort unless the Obama administration proves a commitment to wading into a conflict it’s largely avoided for three years.
Offering few specifics, U.S. officials this week announced that they were assembling an international coalition that could offer military, intelligence and humanitarian support in a joint campaign to dislodge the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, from the Iraqi and Syrian territories that make up its vast, self-proclaimed caliphate.
President Barack Obama didn’t elaborate on the plans Thursday during a brief address in which he stressed that it would take time and deliberation to come up with a broad-based, international response to the threat posed by ISIS. He’s dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to nudge along the coalition-building. The president also pledged there would be a “military aspect” to the still-developing plan, but dismissed reports that suggest such an intervention is imminent.
“We don’t have a strategy yet,” Obama said.
European and Arab nations aren’t exactly lining up in response to the U.S. battle cry against ISIS, for a variety of reasons. They haven’t forgotten the lampooning of the so-called “coalition of the willing” in the Iraq War. They still doubt the U.S. commitment to intervene in Syria, or they simply don’t share the U.S. panic over the Islamic State, according to foreign policy analysts who monitor the Syria conflict.
Some partners are skeptical about throwing in with the Americans because they blame the U.S. for inadvertently helping ISIS to flourish by abandoning the more moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria. Others are still upset with Obama’s eleventh-hour scuttling of planned U.S. strikes against regime targets nearly a year ago, after a deadly chemical weapons attack.
The waffling has left would-be coalition members in Europe and the Middle East confused as to how far the Obama administration is willing to go in tackling the Syrian conflict and its spinoff nightmare, ISIS.
“There’s a leading, following problem,”said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and the author of “Temptations of Power,” which traces recent Islamist political movements. “Arab allies are going to be very reticent to expose themselves if the Americans aren’t serious. Various countries in the region prefer to wait and see because they’ve been burned in the past by American pledges and promises.”
At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed U.S.-British talks about joining the coalition and said Kerry “will spend a great deal of time on the phone” to enlist other nations. She swatted away skepticism about the progress of the effort.
“We certainly think that the coalition is building,” Psaki said.
So far, only a handful of Western allies – Britain, Australia and France – have been floated as potential partners in striking ISIS positions, but no formal announcements have emerged and there were signs of reluctance to any commitment beyond humanitarian and diplomatic help. A representative of the British embassy in Washington, speaking only on the condition of anonymity as per diplomatic protocol, said: “There’s been no request for us to deliver airstrikes and this is not something under discussion at the moment.”
Turkey, which shares a 560-mile border with Syria, gives refuge to more than 1 million Syrian refugees and belongs to NATO, would appear to be crucial for any anti-ISIS action. However, it, too, is unlikely to take a prominent role because its increasingly autocratic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has fallen out of favor with Washington over a number of issues, including U.S. reluctance to get more involved in Syria.
Even if the diplomatic tensions eased, however, Turkey still could be hamstrung from a visible role against the Islamic State because the group is holding 49 Turkish diplomats, their families and other personnel. The Turks were seized from Mosul just after the Islamic State conquered the northern Iraqi city. Sources close to the Turkish government say its hands are tied by the hostage crisis.
Two U.S. allies in the Arab world – Egypt and the United Arab Emirates – have shown their priorities by carrying out airstrikes not against ISIS but against targets in a different war zone: Libya. And for Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, some analysts argue, ISIS is scary, but the far more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is still considered a broader, long-term political threat to the region’s kings and autocrats.
Tarek Masoud, who teaches at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and has written extensively about Islamist movements, said the Jordanians are “spooked” by ISIS and that the Egyptians would be game for any action that weakens Islamists, the arch-enemies of the military regime in Cairo. Still, he said, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were far more crucial to any anti-ISIS effort.
“I can see the three tightening up controls on fund raising for ISIS,” Masoud said. “But I don’t see a 1990-style coalition to fight ISIS.”
The case for a coalition is an especially hard sell for the Gulf states if there’s no component to strengthen what the Obama administration refers to as the moderate Syrian opposition, or the Free Syrian Army, a hodgepodge of rebel militias that’s long complained of a lack of resources in the two-pronged fight against the ISIS extremists and Assad’s forces.
“I think the U.S. will likely use FSA fighters on the ground but I don’t think that they will be enough to do the necessary ground battle,” said Leila Hilal, a senior international security fellow and former director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. “The U.S. may be then anticipating having to supplement forces with international ground troops, in which case they may turn to others for that role.”
Another potential obstacle to the coalition project, analysts said, is freezing out Iran, which wields enormous influence with the governments of Syria and Iraq. That raises the question of how effective any plan can be if Tehran isn’t at the table, although bringing in the Iranians means losing Sunni Muslim Arab partners.
“Working with an ‘adversary’ that supports other groups employing terrorist tactics will not be easy,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran Initiative at the New America Foundation research institute, told The Weekly Wonk blog. DiMaggio said the U.S. and Iran already had discussed ISIS on the sidelines of nuclear talks; she said they should continue exploring cooperation on “carefully selected shared objectives.”
“As shared interests go,” she said, “degrading ISIS is as compelling as they come.”