Who's Missing From the Syria Coalition?
Two weeks ago, President Barack Obama vowed that the U.S. would work with its "friends and allies" to attack the terrorist group Islamic State. Last night, the world discovered exactly who those friends and allies are -- and while it is an impressive list, there is one glaring omission: Turkey.
The U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria against Islamic State included support from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. It is vital that the U.S. enlist the same Sunni states in the battle against Islamic State that have supported rebel forces battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Only Sunni participation stands a chance of convincing ordinary Arabs, and Sunnis in Iraq, that the fight against Islamic State is also their fight.
Not all of the coalition partners were involved to the same extent; Qatar's aircraft, for example, dropped no bombs. But the participation of rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- the latter notoriously lax in allowing its wealthiest citizens to fund jihadist groups -- was encouraging. Their leaders must now explain to their constituents why they need to act and join a campaign likely to be measured in years rather than weeks.
All this said, the coalition against Islamic State has to be broader. There were no European forces involved (although France bombed Islamic State targets in Iraq last week). Most alarming is the absence of Turkey.
As the only Muslim nation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has a special relevance in this fight. Until a few days ago, Turkish officials said -- not unreasonably -- that they were reluctant to participate because Islamic State was holding 46 Turkish citizens hostage. With the release of those hostages on Sept. 19, this explanation no longer holds.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan argues that his country is already doing its part, hosting a total of 1.5 million refugees from Syria at a cost of $1.5 billion so far, a burden too little acknowledged. His country is also especially vulnerable to retaliation by Islamic State, not only because of its proximity but also because it has for years allowed Syrian opposition fighters, from moderates to jihadists, to travel through or take refuge in Turkey. And, like Qatar's, Turkey's position is complicated by its support of Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, even as it eschews Islamic State.
Erdogan's position appears to be that the current mess is a result of the failure of the U.S. and its allies to intervene in Syria three years ago, when he was pushing for the creation of a no-fly zone in Syria, along the Turkish border. He is calling for that again now, as well as for the creation of a Syrian safe haven for refugees. In this case, Turkey might provide not just airpower, but also ground troops.
Erdogan makes some valid points -- but they do not excuse inaction. Turkey can and should do much more to seal its border to jihadists and crack down on Islamic State and its sympathizers in the country. It should also allow the coalition to use the U.S. airbase at Incirlik, less than 100 miles from the Syrian border. Most important, Turkey should shut down the cross-border oil-smuggling trade.
Islamic State controls about 60 percent of Syria's oil fields and several in Iraq, relying on the income to fund its war effort and nascent state -- to the tune of up to $2 million worth of oil per day. Although the Turkish military has begun to crack down on the trade, it can do more.
Obama's success in assembling this regional military coalition is impressive. But it is incomplete. Including Turkey in the military effort would send a signal to Islamic State that the world is not just united against the group but also committed to fighting it.
--Editors: Marc Champion, Michael Newman.
To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at firstname.lastname@example.org