Kerry looks for regional coalition to take on the Islamic State

Secretary of State John Kerry faces a tough job crafting a regional coalition to confront the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria. For one thing, potential coalition partners don't necessarily trust each other – or the US.

Rob Griffith/REUTERS
Secretary of State John Kerry is headed to the Mideast, seeking coalition partners to fight the rise of the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria.

President Obama’s assignment to Secretary of State John Kerry to build a coalition of countries willing to join the United States in taking on the Islamic State extremist group in Iraq and Syria will be no cake walk.

If anything is lightening Mr. Kerry’s burden, it’s the shockwaves of the Islamic State’s stunning sweep to control of parts of northern Iraq that have reverberated through the region and begun to convince Sunni Arab governments in the region that the spreading organization poses a threat to them.

“Kerry’s is not an easy assignment by any means, but it’s been made easier by the conquests [the group] has made and what those conquests could mean for the region if allowed not just to hold, but to grow,” says Wayne White, a former State Department official and now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington. “For those reasons I think we’ll see some Sunni Arab countries sign up willingly.”

After Obama announced Thursday that he was tasking his chief diplomat with building a coalition to tackle the IS threat, the State Department announced Kerry would travel to the region following the NATO summit in Wales Sept. 4-5. No stops or dates were provided.    

Still, two reasons stand out in explaining why Kerry faces no easy task in cobbling together a coalition for what Obama says will be a long-term effort, diplomatic experts say.

The first has to do with regional perceptions of the US commitment to defeating the Islamic State (IS), or ISIS as it is also known. Doubts about Mr. Obama’s appetite for any kind of US-led campaign in Syria, are still fresh after last year’s abrupt calling-off of air strikes against the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, some experts say – and were hardly eased by the president’s statement Thursday that he has yet to settle on a “strategy” for tackling IS.

“One of the main difficulties Kerry will have to overcome is the disinterest the Gulf countries feel they’ve found in the Obama administration regarding their concerns over Syria,” says Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow and Syria expert at the Washington Institute on Near East Policy (WINEP) in Washington.

“They’ve been marked by what they see as a lack of concern over the slaughter of so many Sunnis.”

The Saudis in particular were “enraged” by Obama’s “walking back from his own red line,” Mr. Tabler says. The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs lost faith in cooperation with the US, and as a result may take some convincing that this time the US commitment is good.      

The other reason Kerry faces a steep road ahead is that gathering into one effort countries with divergent interests and often strong mutual mistrusts will be like herding cats.

As Obama said in his comments on IS and Syria Thursday, the first key to begin rolling back IS in northern Iraq will be formation of an “inclusive’ government in Baghdad – meaning a government that seriously and convincingly incorporates the Sunni minority. But after the campaign of ostracism carried out by the government of the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunni Arab countries are skeptical of real change.

Moreover, the Sunni Arabs suffer some intense rivalries and mistrust among themselves, some experts say. “Within the Gulf [countries] there are absolutely notorious rivalries, there are intense suspicions of Qatar” and its regional ambitions, MEI’s Mr. White says.

One result of the rivalries and mistrusts is that the US may end up working with countries more individually than as a true coalition, at least initially. “In some cases what we’re likely to see is that these countries will work more bilaterally with the US than they will with each other,” White says.

And on top of all this, WINEP’s Tabler says the Sunni Gulf countries in particular are suspicious of US efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, and could be put off by signs out of the US that it could also cooperate with Tehran in efforts to push IS out of Iraq.

Despite all these difficulties, Kerry will also be able to work with a number of substantial “opportunities” as he woos coalition participants, Tabler says.

The first of these is how IS and what Tabler calls “jihadism” are perceived as a common threat. “If [the Sunni Arabs] perceive a threat to their interests and security in the region – and I think they do – they’ll be more willing to work with the US on that threat,” he says.

White says the US can offer evidence – the success so far of its air strikes in Iraq – that it is committed to rolling IS back from the Sunni cites and fertile lands it has occupied in northern Iraq.

Indeed, White says, Obama’s statement Thursday that he doesn’t yet have a “strategy” for defeating IS was a “gaffe” mostly because “it’s not true – the strategy is to start in Iraq, both with a new government in Baghdad that offers a political deal to the Sunnis, and pushing ISIS out of its assets in northern Iraq.”

With those two steps, he says, “you can begin levering [the Sunnis] out of supporting ISIS,” and strengthen cooperation with Sunni tribes, some of which span the border into Syria, he says. “It makes sense to start from Iraq,” White says. 

The gravity of the situation in Syria also presents Kerry with an “opportunity” to enlist the Sunni Arabs by ensuring them that the US is committed to seeing a Sunni opposition alternative established in the Syrian territory that IS now controls, Tabler says.

That messaging to the region has already begun, Tabler says. He says Obama went out of his way in his comments Thursday to assert that Mr. Assad is not the answer to IS, despite a chorus of voices in Washington and Europe insisting the US will have to work with Assad to uproot IS.

 “He made it clear that the US will be working with its partners in the region, not with the Assad regime, and I’m certain those weren’t words spoken by accident,” Tabler says. “He was sending a message.”

Kerry has to be able to convince Sunni Arab partners that the US is committed not just to removing IS, he says, but to filling the vacuum resulting from its defeat in Syria with a “moderate Sunni force” with both military and political aspects.

“The issue for the Sunni Arabs is what replaces ISIS, both in Iraq and in Syria,” according to Tabler. “If in Iraq it’s another strong Shia regime, if in Syria it’s Assad hanging on and controlling the Sunnis again, there’s going to be blowback in the Sunni monarchies. So they’re going to want to hear how the US views this and what it’s really committed to this time.”    

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