U.S. airstrikes in Iraq have enabled allied ground forces to roll back the Islamic State insurgency on several key fronts, but with the clock almost up on stopgap unilateral action President Barack Obama has shifted gears. To “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State, Obama says, the U.S. will forge an international “coalition of the willing” to confront the extremists who have seized control of much of Syria and Iraq and declared war on every state in the Middle East.
“Our message to the entire region is this should be a wake-up call to Sunni, to Shia, to everybody that a group like [Islamic State] is beyond the pale,” Obama said last month. “We’ve got to all join together – even if we have differences on a range of political issues – to make sure that they’re rooted out.”
That argument resonates in capitals across the divided region. Iran is horrified by the group’s virulent anti-Shia ideology, and their wanton slaughter of Iraqi Shias. And Tehran's arch-enemies in Riyadh fear the Islamic State as an ideological challenge to the legitimacy of Saudi claims to lead the Islamic world — similar to their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. Iraq and Syria’s neighbors — Turkey, Jordan, and Iraqi Kurdish regions – fear spillover and even incursion.
While Washington appears to have already secured French and British support, other Western allies may be hesitant to sign onto an initiative that bears similarity in name and purpose to the “coalition of the willing” that backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which is blamed by some for the current turmoil. With NATO distracted by the crisis in Ukraine, the heaviest burden of the fight against IS would have to be borne by the Middle Eastern countries most immediately in its sights, the administration has argued.
Despite their common hostility to IS, however, those powers remain at odds with one another, their strategic rivalry reinforcing nearby conflicts from Libya to Afghanistan. Obama is now asking Saudi Arabia and Iran, the region’s Sunni and Shia rivals, to align on a regional initiative when they've taken opposite sides in numerous proxy wars over the past decade and more. He’s asking Turkey to join a fight on the same side as radical Kurdish militias with which Ankara has been at war for decades. And neither the Saudis, Turks or Qataris – or some Western powers – are comfortable with a military campaign whose effect may be to inadvertently prolong the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“The political vacuums that have opened up in the region are the battlefields of the new Middle East cold war," according to F. Gregory Gause III, a senior fellow with the Brookings Doha Center. "Iran and Saudi Arabia primarily, but other regional powers as well – Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt – support local groups in these domestic political fights and civil wars in order to increase their own power, balance against their rivals and advance their ideological agendas.”
The various players in this so-called cold war have “very different perceptions of what should go on in the region,” which makes rallying them to a common cause under the leadership of one regional power impossible, said Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Even though the UAE and Saudi Arabia have recently shown greater willingness to strike unilaterally, mainly against the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, they remain highly cautious over military action.
To be sure, Obama’s non-interventionist foreign policy doctrine will be put to the test these next weeks. In a speech at West Point in March, the president had indicated he would shy away from the unilateral action of his predecessor, the Bush administration, whose unpopular war on Iraq Obama formally ended in 2013, saying that in cases where U.S. interests are not directly threatened, “we should not go it alone.”
Analysts say that heeding those principles in the case of the Islamic State insurgency – acting through a coalition in Iraq this time around – won't necessarily negate the traditional risks of U.S. military action in the Middle East. In fact, it may pose unique pitfalls – not just today, but farther down the road, too.
As Obama admitted at a news conference on Wednesday, “This is not going to be a one-week or one-month or six-month proposition.” Crushing a resilient and well-funded uprising could take years, meaning that there will be ample opportunity for ulterior motives to supersede the coalition's expressed purpose.
“Because the regional actors are engaged in a cold war with each other, the temptation to switch focus from ISIS, if it suffers setbacks, to their mutual rivalries will be strong,” Gause wrote. Maintaining any coalition would require that Washington find ways to prevent the Shia-led government in Baghdad from reverting to its sectarian ways, and balancing the competing interests of a range of regional capitals. The U.S. may also face the temptation to undercut the interests of its regional antagonist, Iran, which could derail the greater goal.
Washington may be encouraged by its recent airstrike campaign, which came at the request of Iraq's government, and has made a vital difference in clearing the way for ground operations by Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
But striking Islamic State-held territory in Iraq is the simpler part of the equation. Wiping out the Islamic State will require expanding the campaign into Syria, where the group is headquartered – and there is little consensus about how such a campaign would relate to the Assad regime, which remains the strongest military force on Syrian territory.
Some military analysts believe that effectively bolstering the Assad regime is an unavoidable consequence of tackling the Islamic State on Syrian soil. The Obama administration has insisted on the “third choice” — funding Syria’s rebels as a means of pressuring both Assad and the Islamic State, but it has not been willing to commit to supplying that ill-defined category of "moderate" rebels with the billions of dollars of heavy weaponry required to shift the military balance. Iran, meanwhile, which has already emerged as a major player on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, remains Assad's most important foreign backer. Tehran has little incentive to facilitate a strategy that weakens its ally in Damascus.
Bridging regional hostilities may not be necessary to confront IS, however, according to Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. “Iran and Saudi Arabia don’t need to cooperate. It’s a matter of them pursuing separate tracks in their own interests, which may have in common the objective of weakening ISIS,” Itani said. By way of example, Saudi Arabia might share intelligence with the U.S. or help fund the campaign; Iran could pressure Assad to crack down on the Islamic State instead of continuing to play them off against other rebel factions.
Still, by spearheading this coalition the U.S. would be taking a plunge. Writing in the New Republic, former State Department Syria policy head Fred Hof noted that a perception of collaboration between Washington and Damascus could “drive wedges between the U.S. and every one of its regional partners.”
“Whether you go back over 25 years or 2,500 years, the reality is that foreign military intervention in the region is going to be a double-edged sword,” said the American University of Beirut’s Khouri. “Anything spearheaded by U.S. or foreign powers is going to be problematic for many in the region. They’ll wonder: what are the real motives, why partner with autocratic and dictatorial states where people are up in arms rebelling, why create a coalition of autocrats and tyrants?”
“It’s an occupational hazard in a way,” he added. “But at the same time, the Islamic State is such a real threat people will probably have to overlook all that.”