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Anti-ISIL coalition drags feet as US struggles to secure Sunni partners

In Paris more than 30 countries make vague commitments to military action in Iraq but not in Syria

Diplomats from the United States, European Union, and the Arab League said on Monday they were committed to taking military action against the Islamic State (ISIL) insurgency in Iraq, but their silence on what to do about ISIL in the group’s home base of Syria suggested the U.S.-led “united front” was still hitting snags.

Compounding that dilemma is the absence of firm commitments from crucial Sunni allies in the region about who will take an active role in military strikes, something President Barack Obama had said would underpin any U.S. military action against the extremist-led insurgency.

At a meeting in Paris on Monday, delegates from over 30 countries said in a vaguely worded communiqué they were “committed to supporting the new Iraqi government in its fight against [ISIL] by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance.” 

But there was no mention at all of Syria, the more politically complicated arena in the fight against ISIL. And with the exception of France, which has sent fighter jets on a reconnaissance mission to Iraq, none of the countries meeting in Paris has publicly agreed yet to join in airstrikes against the insurgents in either country.

Foot-dragging from the anti-ISIL coalition casts further doubt on President Barack Obama’s promise to a war-weary American public that the U.S. will secure the active support of U.S. allies, especially the region’s Sunni powers — especially Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Washington, analysts say, would like to avoid the pitfalls of the last U.S. war in Iraq, which is seen as contributing to the current chaos.

“Ultimately this is a fight within Islam, within Sunni Islam,” White House chief of staff Denis McDonough told Fox News over the weekend. “We’ll build, we’ll lead, we’ll undergird, and we’ll strengthen that coalition. But, ultimately, they’re going to help us beat them on the ground.”

The U.S. does not believe that Sunni Arab states alone hold the answer to the Sunni problem of ISIL, said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center in Washington, D.C. “They don’t, and in fact, Sunni Arab states have contributed to this problem,” he said. “What the U.S. wants is diplomatic cover to what will be a very sensitive campaign, which could be seen as targeting Sunnis.”

Progress has been slow on that front in large part because the region's Sunni powers are disinclined to help wipe out extremists who threaten to destabilize their region if it will undermine their greater strategic interests — against the Syrian regime and its foremost backer, Iran.

Even in Iraq, where those interests are more or less aligned in the short term, U.S. efforts have been hampered by varying levels of commitment to the problem, and about questions of which ground forces to partner with in such a sectarian landscape.

The road climbs steeply uphill in Syria, where countries like Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are even more concerned than the U.S. that strikes against ISIL will inevitably bolster President Bashar al-Assad. Those states have pleaded with Washington to strike the Syrian regime since long before ISIL consolidated control over one-third of Syria and staged its astonishing takeover of huge swathes of Sunni territory in Iraq this summer.

The U.S. is finally acquiescing to calls for military intervention in Syria – but the campaign Washington envisages might have exactly the opposite impact to what its Sunni allies wanted. In Iraq, hardline Shia militias are likely to push the front line against ISIL on the ground; in Syria, barring a dramatic reversal in U.S. policy, the ground forces that retake ISIL territory could be the Syrian army. Hence the apparent ambivalence.

Turkey, perhaps the most critical Sunni state to any U.S.-led effort, remains unwilling to take an active role in any action that would turn Syrian land over to the regime. For years, the Turkish government has been accused of turning a blind eye as extremist fighters from ISIL and the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, stream across its porous border with Syria. Those groups, Ankara apparently believed, were a necessary evil in the fight against Assad.

While it has changed course on that policy, Turkey is also wary that clearing ISIL-held territory in Iraq will hasten Kurdish separatism in that country as well as across the border in its own Kurdish region. ISIL, meanwhile, is holding 50 Turkish diplomats hostage, putting Ankara in a very delicate position.

Likewise, Qatar, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on a visit on Sunday to discuss the ISIL threat, has also emphasized that the U.S. and its allies must not lose sight of their mutual professed desire to see the Assad regime fall.

“Terrorism is not just beheading — it is that, and it is ugly — but it is also throwing barrel bombs at women and children,” Qatar’s foreign minister, Khaled al-Attiyah, told the Financial Times, referring to the Syrian regime’s use of the internationally prohibited weapon. “We have to be clear and not derailed from the right track,” he said.

The Obama administration, however, has no intention of forcibly overthrowing Assad and instead has thrown its support behind Syria’s so-called “moderate” rebels, the weakest faction on the ground in Syria. But it has been unwilling to front the huge sums of money or heavy artillery required to actually shift the military balance in their favor, to the chagrin of its Sunni allies.

In a commentary for the New Republic, Frederic Hof, the State Department’s former head of Syria policy, said Obama needed to ensure Assad went the way of Iraq’s hardline Shia ex-prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, if the coalition has any hope of eradicating ISIL. Ousting Maliki, whose sectarian policies alienated Iraq’s Sunni minority, paved the way for a more representative government in Baghdad, which was trumpeted as a “cornerstone” of the anti-ISIL campaign. Through his brutal crackdown on Syria's largely Sunni uprising, Assad “is the face of Islamic State recruitment around the world,” Hof wrote.

The White House, however, has hinted that containing the extremist threat — as Obama says the U.S. has "successfully" done in Somalia and Yemen — is a more realistic goal than eliminating it altogether. That strategy has the advantage of only requiring the region’s power players to briefly align against an insurgency that has effectively declared war on the entire region.

Such an alignment could even include Iran, which unlike its Sunni rivals has already provided substantial military support for the Shia-led Iraqi government as it combats ISIL. Though Tehran was not invited to the Paris meetings, Kerry made a point on Monday of not ruling out cooperation with it in the future.

As long as the U.S. reins in its fiercely anti-Assad allies, and continues to skirt around direct confrontation with the Syrian army, even Iran might have no choice but to allow the Western and Sunni coalition to carry out strikes in sovereign Syrian territory.

“They’ll make noises, but at the end of the day, what are they going to do?” Itani said. “They can’t take on ISIL alone.”

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