Building a coalition to degrade and destroy ISIL in the Middle East

After generations of religious and political strife in the region, can the US create a united Arab army against ISIL?

Secretary of State Kerry is corralling commitments from governments in Paris this week as the United States figures out how to, as President Barack Obama put it, "degrade and destroy" the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the rebel force that took over swaths of Iraq this summer.

However, the task is turning into a complicated flow chart. The Saudis and the Qataris both have good relations with the United States but have been snarling at each other over the future of the Muslim Brotherhood for years.

U.S. leaders despise the government in Tehran, but both the U.S. and Iran are friends with the Shia-led government of Iraq and are giving Iraq a range of military aid in fighting ISIL.

The U.S. and Iran are also on different sides next door in Syria, where Washington would love to undermine the government of Bashar al-Assad, while Iran supports it.

NATO ally Turkey wants to defeat ISIL, too, but is cautious about assisting Iraq's semiautonomous Kurds, for fear of emboldening its own restive Kurdish population. 

In a speech to the nation last week, Obama told Americans he would pull together an international coalition against ISIL, and Americans would not have to send ground troops. That committment relies on coalition members that are going to have to learn how to trust one another long enough to defeat the Sunni militants. Is it going to work? 

We asked a panel of experts for the Inside Story.

Inside Story: Should the US embrace Assad and Iran as least-worst options?

Joshua Landis: The U.S. needs to work with Iran. Assad, politically, is impossible to work with in Washington. Of course, we will be helping Assad by destroying ISIS [an acronym for another name for ISIL], depending on how closely we will be working with the rebels. For example, in Deir Azur, the provincial capital ruled by ISIS, if we drive them out, the regime has a major air base on the outskirts and will be poised to run it. The last people to run it before ISIS were Al-Qaeda, and they will try to take it back too. That leaves us with the question of what to do and who we would prefer? These are conundrums that will face us in Syria. It is all well and good to say we will not work with the regime.

Is that devil's bargain limiting Sunni enthusiasm for participating in an anti-ISIL coalition?

Absolutely. And it is because we do not embrace Islamists, which are by far the biggest among Syrian rebels. We are asking them to destroy Assad and ISIL but also to shove aside 70 percent of their partners [the Islamist rebel groups]. Already the Islamic Front, which dominates the Aleppo region, has said they do not want America to intervene. They don’t want America to put the Free Syrian Army on steroids to drive them out. We are asking for an intrarebel civil war — and they do not want that. America has not named one rebel group it wants to partner with because as soon as they do, they will get clobbered by other militias.

Obama needs Iran. Iran can scuttle things pretty quickly in Iraq. There is little reason we cannot work with Iran. We need them to help make an Iraqi government that is somewhat Sunni-friendly.

What's your hoped-for outcome at the end of this?

We will contain ISIL. I do not believe we will be able to destroy it. To destroy it, it will take boots on the ground in Syria. We can contain ISIL and push it out of Iraq, largely, but President Obama cannot fulfill this destruction in a year and a half.

Inside Story: Do you sense reluctance among traditional allies in joining the anti-ISIL coalition? And if so, why?

Lawrence Korb: They are less enthusiastic about Syria. They are more enthusiastic about Iraq because you have a ground force there and new inclusive government. In Syria, you do not have good ground forces there, and you have the whole thing about aiding Assad. If you win, it's against his main enemy.

What about Turkey?

Turkey has two considerations — the fact that ISIL are holding Turkish hostages and the other is the whole question of the Kurds and the PKK [Kurdish separatists in Turkey]. There are Kurds in there fighting already. They are fighting Assad, but Turkey does not like the Kurds who have been fighting for independence. We are aiding the Kurds in Iraq who want independence. If they get it, the Kurds in Turkey will want to join them.

Is this coalition robust enough? Should the U.S. be throwing alliances to the wind and embracing tacit ties to Iran?

We already worked with them in Afghanistan. If it was not for Iran, the Kurds would not have taken Amarli. Baghdad could have fallen, and that would have been a huge problem.

In World War II, who did we ally ourselves with to beat Hitler? Stalin. If you think Assad is bad, look at what Stalin did.

If you wait for the Free Syrian Army to be ready, you are going to be waiting a while.

This panel was assembled for the broadcast of “Inside Story.” 

For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.

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