At the NATO summit in Wales, a strategy for dealing with the growing ISIS threat was unveiled:
In his most expansive comments to date about how the United States and its friends could defeat ISIS, a once-obscure group of Sunni militants that has now upended the Middle East and overshadowed Al Qaeda, Mr. Obama said the effort would rely on American airstrikes against its leaders and positions, strengthen the moderate Syrian rebel groups to reclaim ground lost to ISIS, and enlist friendly governments in the region to join the fight.
Mr. Obama spoke after aides had unveiled what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the “core coalition” to fight the ISIS militants, the outcome of a hastily organized meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit talks. Diplomats and defense officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark huddled to devise a two-pronged strategy: strengthening allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, while bombing Sunni militants from the air.
“There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the start of the meeting. “They’re an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.”
But he and other officials made clear that at the moment, any ground combat troops would come from either Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters in Iraq, or the moderate Syrian rebels opposed to President Assad in Syria. “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Mr. Kerry said.
For Mr. Obama, assembling a coalition to fight ISIS is particularly important to a president whose initial arrival on the global stage was centered around his opposition to the war in Iraq. He is loath to be viewed as going it alone now that he has been dragged back into a combat role in the same country.
An administration official said the reasons for assembling a coalition went beyond any political cover that such an alliance might provide with a war-weary American public. For one thing, the official said, certain countries bring expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence and Saudi Arabia in financing.
American officials are hoping to expand the coalition to many countries, particularly in the region. Obama administration officials said privately that in addition to the participants at the meeting Friday, the United States was hoping to get quiet intelligence help about the Sunni militants from Jordan. Its leader, King Abdullah II, was attending the Wales summit meeting.
United States officials said they also expected Saudi Arabia to contribute to funding moderate Syrian rebel groups. In addition, Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States, said in a statement this week that the Emirates stood ready to join the fight against ISIS. “No one has more at stake than the U.A.E. and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path,” the ambassador said.
And like the comprehensive strategy to combat Al Qaeda that has taken years to develop and carry out, Mr. Olsen and other counterterrorism officials said on Friday that destroying the threat from ISIS could take a long time. Even if successful, they said, such a strategy would require maintaining pressure on any remnants of the group.
This plan is consistent with what I have called “The Obama Doctrine“, also know affectionately as the “don’t do stupid stuff” approach to foreign affairs. America cannot afford to get entangled in costly wars (both in economic and human costs). But the world cannot afford to do nothing while threats like ISIS further cement their control. To do nothing would be both morally unconscionable and tactically ineffective.
There are certain elements of this “Coalition of the Willing” that should make it more effective than it’s predecessor in the previous Iraq War:
1) No Boots on the Ground:
A war weary American public has no appetite for a ground invasion in the Middle East. Putting “boots on the ground” is costly in many different senses. Some costs are impossible to quantify, such as lives lost and the physical and mental ailments affecting surviving soldiers (costs which must be paid for the rest of their lives).
Other candidates to provide troops–“rich” countries–are dealing with recessed economies and difficult budgetary decisions; the resources simply do not exist to provide ground troops, even if the will was there. I have argued that Germany and Japan specifically must step up their global security contributions, bringing them more in line with their prominence in the global economy. But even so, these countries will not place troops on the ground, nor should they.
The new plan, a central tenant of the Obama Doctrine, is to provide support (intelligence, weaponry, training) to friendly and stable forces in the region. In the fight against ISIS, this includes the Iraqi Army, the Kurdish peshmerga, and moderate Syrian rebels (led by the Free Syrian Army).
The role of the Egyptian Armed Forces will be interesting to monitor. One on hand, the forces are well equipped and have a strong anti-terrorism mandate. On the other hand, human rights concerns have alienated Egypt from many of the members of the Coalition. We will have to wait and see what role the Egyptian Armed Forces play in this coalition. Update: It appears Egypt will not play a prominent role in this coalition; one could argue The Egyptian armed forces do no want to degrade ISIS–extremist groups provide the impetus for strong handed militaristic governance.
2) Enlisting The Help of Allies:
Any coalition, by definition, includes multiple partners. The Coalition of the Willing for the War in Iraq included 48 members. However, simply listing country names does not mean countries play a meaningful role; many of the members of that coalition provided little more than a vote of confidence.
It appears that members of this coalition will have more defined roles. Notably, ground forces will be provided exclusively by regional actors. This “capacity building” approach should lead to a more sustainable security situation in the region, leaving stable armed forces in place once this particular offensive has concluded (of course this is far from a guarantee; it is very difficult to tell how decisions like this will play out down the line, especially in a region as volatile as the ME).
It is important that the coalition do it’s best to function as a cohesive group. While dividing duties allows for specialization based on expertise and cost-sharing, it can also lead to disagreement and paralyze action. For all its many deplorable attributes, ISIS has proven itself to be well organized and capable of moving very quickly. The coalition must put in place representative leadership that allows for quick, reactive decision making.
The dearth of stable and capable regional allies further complicates matters. I already mentioned Egypt’s questionable role; two countries the international community cannot count on at all are Iran and Syria.
Iran provides a counterbalance to Sunni extremists, but fails in terms of the pluralistic, sectarian-blind solutions needed in the region.
Syria has began launching an offensive against ISIS. However, one cannot imagine an instance in which the coalition’s members–many of which have taken strong anti-Assad positions–would accept his regimes support.
Despite all these caveats, this new coalition is an important first step in the long-term fight against ISIS. The coalition has the advantage of resources, legitimate goals, and lessons learned from previous interventions in the region. In time ISIS will be defeated.
Update: The new coalition has gotten off on rocky footing , with many expected allies failing to agree to the strong, specific commitments America was hoping for.