Islamic State Pushes U.S. Mideast Allies Into Rare Show of UnityGregory Viscusi and Terry Atlas
Iraq’s neighbors displayed a rare unity in support of a U.S. plan to confront the Islamic State, joining a coalition that may be harder to keep together than it was to assemble.
Ministers from 10 regional countries met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on Sept. 11 and agreed to join the broad assault on Islamic State that President Barack Obama outlined earlier this week. Contributions will range from blocking the flow of money and fighters to the militants to training their local opponents and joining air strikes against them, though it’s not yet clear who will do what.
“There is a broad agreement that the Islamic State has reached a point where it’s clearly negative to these powers’ strategic interests,” James Fallon, senior Middle East analyst at Control Risks in Dubai, said by phone. “All the regional powers that need to be at the table recognize that it’s in their own national interest to be at the table.”
The challenge for the U.S. will be to ensure that the pledges of support go beyond the negotiating table to the battlefields, border posts and bank accounts where the struggle to contain Islamic State will unfold. The mostly Sunni nations who signed up to the Jeddah declaration have different agendas for the future of Syria and Iraq, and varying reasons for distrusting the U.S.
‘Lot of Distrust’
The allies have been split since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 over which rebels were best placed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and some turned a blind eye as men and cash flowed to the more radical elements. There’s concern that action against Islamic State, which emerged as the strongest of the anti-regime fighters, will strengthen Assad.
There’s also a contrast between U.S. backing for a Shiite-led government in Iraq, even one that has vowed to be more inclusive after the ouster of Nouri al-Maliki, and the ties of nations such as Saudi Arabia with the Sunni community there. Iraqi Sunnis say they’ve been marginalized, and some have sided with Islamic State.
“Among the Sunni regional powers there is still a lot of distrust” of the Baghdad government and its ability to unify the country against Islamic State, Fallon said. “In Syria, I think we are even farther from that.”
Kerry told the BBC on Sept. 11 that the region “recognizes the danger that has been unleashed” and is “full-throatedly ready to deal with that.” He’s also made it clear that the Arab nations, like the U.S. and its NATO allies, don’t intend to send ground troops and will rely on local forces.
Iraq’s army, the recipient of billions of dollars of U.S. support since the American invasion of 2003, was routed by Islamic State during its June breakthrough. The Iraqi Kurds, who have regained some ground from the militants since the U.S. began bombing their positions in Iraq last month, are viewed with suspicion in Baghdad and elsewhere as would-be separatists.
Kurdish groups from Turkey and Syria who have been among the most effective fighters against Islamic State are classified as terrorist groups by members of the coalition, including the U.S., said Douglas A. Ollivant, a former Iraq director on the U.S. National Security Council.
“We should expect to see in Iraq a coalition of the weird,” Ollivant told a panel discussion in Washington yesterday.
So far, the U.S. is the only country carrying out air strikes, though France and Britain have indicated they could join the air campaign. The Islamic State is active in an area 700 kilometers (435 miles) long, stretching from Aleppo in Syria to near Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the U.S. has flown more than 2,700 missions to drop around 250 bombs and missiles, U.S. Central Command says.
France has Rafale jets at a military base in the United Arab Emirates, and Britain has bases in Cyprus and the U.A.E. No other European forces are based in the region, and no Arab country has expressed a willingness to use air power.
Saudi Arabia has agreed to host U.S.-backed Syrian rebels for training, according to U.S. officials, though the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal declined to directly address the question at a joint press conference with Kerry.
Kerry praised the Saudi engagement with the campaign against Islamic State, saying he spoke with King Abdullah for more than two hours and “you could not have heard a more fulsome commitment to doing anything that is necessary.”
The top U.S. diplomat was speaking late yesterday in Ankara, the next stop on his tour of regional allies to drum up support. Turkey was the only Jeddah attendee not to sign the conclusions, partly because the Islamic State has held dozens of Turks hostage since June after seizing the country’s consulate in Mosul, northern Iraq.
“This doesn’t mean that Turkey will not cooperate with the U.S.,” said Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara. “Turkey is already in cooperation with its allies against this threat.”
U.S. officials say Turkey, while avoiding public statements that could put the hostages in danger, has stepped up controls on its border with Syria, the main conduit for supplies and fighters to Islamic State, and is taking steps to curtail the smuggling of oil from fields seized by the militants.
Other countries to attend the Jeddah meeting include Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies. Their closing declaration contained vows to help rebuild regions hurt by Islamic State, undermine the group’s religious legitimacy, and shut down channels of financing.
“We all know that Islamic State continues to be funded by people in the Gulf, not by the ruling families, but by people via cover charities,” Jean-Louis Bruguiere, France’s former top anti-terrorist magistrate, said in an interview. “These countries now realize that they have put themselves in danger.”
The Jeddah closing statement declared a “shared commitment to stand united against the threat posed by all terrorism, including the so-called Islamic State.” Prince Saud, the host, said there was “total unanimity and clarity of purpose.”
The meeting was just one step in putting together an alliance against Islamic State. Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization met to discuss the threat in Wales on Sept. 5, and the European and Middle Eastern wings of the coalition will converge at a Sept. 15 summit in Paris.
Obama, in his address to the nation, suggested that the struggle against Islamic State could take years.