Pro-Iraq coalition challenged to turn talk into action
Source: Bloomberg News , Author: Posted by BI-ME staff
Posted: Tue September 16, 2014 10:50 am

INTERNATIONAL. The U.S. has assembled an unlikely coalition of more than 40 nations with a shared stake in defeating Islamic State, an effort that’s counting on Iraqi troops and moderate Syrian rebels to retake and hold territory the extremists have seized.

That’s something they haven’t done well in the recent past.

Iraqi government troops fled in the face of the extremists’ advance in northern Iraq this year, and moderate Syrian rebels have lost ground to Islamic State. These are the ground forces the U.S. is calling on to play a critical role -- with the help of American and perhaps other airpower -- in President Barack Obama’s campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” Islamic State without sending American ground combat forces back to Iraq.

“This is something that we will do using our precise airborne capabilities, supporting non-U.S. -- that is to say Syrian opposition or Iraqi -- soldiers on the ground, taking the fight” to the militants, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said Sept. 14 on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Even with the support from European allies, Sunni Arab states and other coalition nations as far away as Japan, defeating the extremists will be a daunting task that Obama has said will extend beyond his presidency.

U.S. Airstrikes

U.S. attack and fighter aircraft struck Islamic State fighters in a new area of Iraq yesterday, expanding an air campaign that began last month, according to the U.S. Central Command. It was the first strike southwest of Baghdad since Obama in August called for attacks to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, support humanitarian efforts and bolster Iraqi security forces.

Secretary of State John Kerry, wrapping up a week of coalition-building travels, said yesterday that the military element is only one piece of the administration’s strategy.

“It’s a critical component, but it’s only one component,” he told reporters in Paris, the last stop in his six-nation swing. “And the truth is, probably far more important than the military in the end is going to be what countries are able to do to help Iraq” handle its problems and “start drying up this pool of jihadis who get seduced into believing there’s some virtue in crossing into Syria to fight.”

Rebuilding Iraq

The international effort includes raising aid to rebuild Iraq and meet humanitarian needs, help integrate Shiite-led Iraq into the predominately Sunni Arab region, cut off Islamic State’s revenue from smuggled oil and thwart the movement of foreign-born fighters to the conflict, said Kerry.

“Something as simple as preventing somebody from signing up and going is a better mechanism than having to go chase them down in the battlefield,” he said.

Defeating the extremists in Iraq will be difficult, particularly in cities such as Mosul, where they’re surrounded by civilians. U.S. airstrikes have helped force extremists from the Mosul Dam across the Tigris River, and hit them in open country away from population centers.

The problem is even more difficult in Syria, a magnet for radicalized foreigners, where there’s widespread chaos after more than three years of civil war.

“Defeating the Islamic State on the ground in Syria may well be impossible,” wrote Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Boosting Moderates

Airpower and boosting moderate rebel factions such as the Free Syrian Army “may force the Islamic State to mutate or merge,” he wrote in a Sept. 11 commentary. “The end result, however, is still likely to be a Syria divided between a murderously repressive Assad faction” and a rebel-dominated faction in the east that “still has a strong Islamist and jihadist character.”

The Central Intelligence Agency has more than doubled its estimate of the number of Islamic State fighters to between 20,000 and 31,500 in Iraq and Syria, although intelligence officials have said they have low confidence in that assessment. That reflects the dearth of reliable intelligence on the extremists, which is essential to targeting them.

Islamic State’s strength -- especially its foreign recruiting and ability to hold territory -- has alarmed the U.S. and allies, including the Sunni Gulf states, which remain wary of Iraq’s Iran-backed government.

New Government

The Sunni militants’ advance, and the danger that they could break up Iraq, led Iraqi Shiite leaders under U.S. pressure to agree to form a more inclusive government in hopes of siphoning off Sunni support for Islamic State. That effort is just getting under way; some key positions remain unfilled; and many Iraqi and other Sunnis, as well as Kurds, remain skeptical that real change is coming.

The strategy the president announced “has a good chance of meeting half of his goals: seriously degrading the Islamic State,” Cordesman wrote. “And ‘degrade’ may well be enough to destroy its ability to function as a protostate and secure base for violent jihadism and extremism. Destroy, however, is probably far too ambitious a goal.”

Kerry said there’s strong international support for the U.S.-initiated coalition, with U.S. officials saying several unidentified Arab states have offered to join in airstrikes. Those and other nations are offering weapons, humanitarian aid and non-military measures, according to the U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss diplomatic negotiations.

Denouncing Actions

Kerry said a key non-military element is for Sunni Muslim leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah to help delegitimize Islamic State by pressing clerics and scholars to denounce the group’s actions and interpretation of Islam.

He plans to send Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel, who traveled with him this week, back to the region later this month to work with governments and news organizations, according to a U.S. official, who asked for anonymity and wasn’t authorized to discuss the mater publicly.

To coordinate the international effort, Obama has named retired Marine General John Allen, a former top commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan who’s well connected with Middle East military and intelligence officials from his days as deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command. He’s due to meet today at the White House with Obama, who later flies to Tampa, Florida, for a military briefing Wednesday at Centcom.

Coalition Commitments

One of Allen’s first tasks will be to get specific commitments from coalition members. That doesn’t include ground combat forces since Obama and other leaders have ruled out a direct combat role “unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changed,” Kerry said in Baghdad Sept. 10.

“Iraq has not asked for American forces on the ground, nor other forces, and Iraq doesn’t want those other forces here, and we understand that,” Kerry said after talks with Iraqi leaders.

Still, the U.S. footprint in Iraq is expanding. Obama last week authorized the deployment of 475 additional troops, bringing the total number of U.S. troops there to about 1,600. The new troops will advise and assist the Iraqi Security Forces; conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights; and coordinate U.S. military activities such as airstrikes with the Iraqis, according to the Pentagon.

The Iraq military has some strong units, mainly special operations forces trained by the U.S., and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia has done well helping target U.S. airstrikes around the Mosul Dam, according to a second U.S. official, who also spoke anonymously to brief reporters.

Syria Airstrikes

New Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi asked Kerry for U.S. airstrikes in Syria, which now provides a safe haven for Islamic State, a plea repeated yesterday by Iraqi President Fouad Masoum at a conference in Paris. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, also urged action along the Syrian border area in a Sept. 13 telephone call with Kerry, according to State Department officials.

Obama, who’s been wary of being drawn into Syria’s civil war, hasn’t announced a decision on ordering airstrikes there, though officials indicate that could happen soon.

Many foreign ministers at the Paris conference “said voluntarily it is impossible to defeat” Islamic State without attacking it in Syria, Kerry said.

How soon local Iraqi and Syrian forces can be strengthened enough to battle Islamic State is a different matter.

Abadi, in a gesture to alienated Iraqi Sunnis who’ve aligned with Islamic State, has proposed establishing a national guard that would give them government salaries and some autonomy. That will take time to implement.

Training Needed

Many Iraqi military units have had poor leaders since the Bush administration and then U.S.-backed former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki purged their Sunni officers. They also need training, which Kerry discussed with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

In Syria, strengthening the rebels is contingent on Congress approving $500 million for a train-and-equip program, and on Saudi Arabia proceeding with what U.S. officials said was a commitment to allow thousands of Syrian fighters to be trained at bases in the kingdom, OPEC’s largest oil producer.

Kerry said this coalition effort should be judged on its merits and not compared to what former presidents George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush did in Iraq.

“This is not the Gulf War of 1991; that’s just not what it is. And it’s not the Iraq War of 2003,” Kerry said yesterday. “We’re not building a military coalition for an invasion. We’re building a military coalition together with all the other pieces for a transformation, as well as for the elimination” of Islamic State.

© 2014 Bloomberg

 

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