“We’re going to build the kind of coalition that allows us to lead, but also isn’t entirely dependent on what we do,” said US President Barack Obama at a fundraiser at the home of former AIPAC head Howard Friedman in Baltimore Friday, Sept. 12. One wag translated this as meaning that the Middle East could go its own way so long as it retained a “US flavor.”
That was one way of defining the turbulent cross-currents set off in the Middle East by the US president’s launch last Wednesday of his strategy for defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant with a broad coalition.
That was also exactly the kind of ambiguous comment, which the governments America is wooing to join the coalition, find so off-putting. The response of 10 Arab and Muslim leaders to Secretary of State John Kerry’s recruitment bid in Jeddah last Thursday, Sept.11, was therefore just as equivocal.
The “participating states agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight against ISIL, including… as appropriate joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign against ISIL,” they said.
Obama spoke of a “silver lining” in describing how Arab neighbors were focused for the first time on the “need to completely distance from and effectively snuff out this particular brand of Islamic extremism.” But the lining is not all that bright.
Iraq has no army left to speak of after ISIS’s rampage, and its small air force can hardly make a difference in the battle against the Islamists’ territorial sweep.
Turkey has opted out – and not just out of military operations against jihadists. Ankara has closed its territory and air bases to the transit of US and coalition forces for striking the Islamists in northern Iraq.
Jordan has renounced any part in the military operations against the Islamic State – and so has Egypt, as Kerry learned before he landed in Cairo Saturday, Sept. 13.
Germany, while sending arms to the Kurdish army fighting in the front line against the Islamists, refuses to take part in combat action in Iraq or Syria.
Britain, which sent a shipment of heavy machine guns and half a ton of ammunition to Irbil for the Kurdish Peshmerga, refuses to join the US in air strikes over IS targets in Syria.
French President Francois Hollande, who flew to Baghdad Friday with four arms shipments and 60 metric tons of humanitarian equipment, will host the founding of the coalition in Paris next Monday, Sept. 15 – in competition to the American initiative. He has crossed Washington by inviting Iran.
Kerry said publicly that it would be “inappropriate” for Iranian officials to be invited to the Paris conference, since Iran is “a state sponsor of terror” and “backs Syria’s brutal regime.”
Friday, Obama appointed Gen. John R. Allen, former commander in Afghanistan and western Iraq, to lead the coalition forces in the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levan.
It is hard to see what combat forces he will lead, in view of the mixed international responses so far to Washington’s appeals for a global coalition to combat terror.
In the years 2006-2008, Gen. Allen commanded the US II Marine Expeditionary Force, which successfully fought Al Qaeda under Musab Zarqawi’s leadership in western Iraq’s Anbar province. He led what was then dubbed the “Awakening” project, which rallied the region’s Sunni tribes to the fight.
President Obama appears to be hinging his campaign against the new Islamist scourge on Gen. Allen repeating that success.
DEBKAfile’s military experts find the prospects of this happening in 2014 fairly slim, because the circumstances are so different:
1. To support the Sunni Awakening venture, President George W. Bush authorized the famous “surge” which placed an additional 70,000 US troops on the Iraqi battlefield. However, Obama has vowed not to send US combat troops back to Iraq in significant numbers, and has approved no more than a few hundred American military personnel.
2. In 2006, Iraqi Sunnis trusted American pledges. They agreed to turn around and fight fellow Sunni Al Qaeda after being assured by Washington that they would not lose their status and rights in Baghdad, and that the US would give them weapons and salaries.
In 2009, they realized that the Obama administration would not stand by the Bush administration’s assurances. Their disillusion with America and the rise of a Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad pushed them into the arms of ISIS.
3. Since then Iraq’s Sunni leaders have learned not to trust anyone.
Today, they are hedging their bets, their tribal leaders split into two opposing camps between Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and the Islamic State, on the other. For the first time since the US invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein 11 years ago, Iraq’s Sunni leaders feel they are in the saddle and in a position to set a high price for their support.
All this leaves President Obama and Gen. Allen on the threshold of a war on Islamist terrorists, which everyone agrees needs to fought without delay, but without enough political leverage for going forward or much chance of mustering the right troops to lead – even into the first battle.