Why the US-Syria coalition doesn't look that impressive

President Obama says that the participation of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the Syria strikes 'makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,' but the depth of their involvement is not clear.

Jason DeCrow/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry, here delivering remarks during an event on human rights in North Korea at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel Tuesday in New York, will continue his coalition-building efforts in the fight against the Islamic State this week in New York, senior administration officials say.

As the United States expands its fight against the Islamic State into a new front with air strikes in Syria, President Obama is emphasizing that the bombing campaign he launched overnight Tuesday is the work of a “strong coalition.”

But Mr. Obama is finding out that taking the air war on the Islamic State (IS) into Syria is more complicated and fraught with pitfalls on the diplomatic front than was the air campaign against IS militants in Iraq.

The risk for the US is that the “coalition” Obama vaunted in White House remarks Tuesday morning about the Syria strikes starts to look more like a fig leaf – reminiscent of the “coalition” that President Bush declared was behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq. That would leave this war looking increasingly like an American war on IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL, despite the president’s insistence from the outset that this had to be the world’s and, in particular, the region’s battle against a menacing terrorist threat.

Obama said in his remarks that the participation of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the Syria strikes – he did not offer details of how they participated – “makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone.”

The five Sunni Arab countries that sent war planes to fly along with the US in the Syria strikes gave the operation an international aspect “that more than meets [the] objective” set out by Obama of building a “broad coalition” to take the fight to IS, a senior administration official said Tuesday. 

But the depth of those countries’ involvement is not clear. The foray into Syria lacked the participation of some key regional and Western partners, notably Turkey and France. And the Arab governments that did join the US could face dissatisfaction at home, if it starts looking like they are the few, and not part of a vast coalition joining the US in Syria, some regional analysts say.

At the same time, some allies and adversaries alike are suggesting that strikes inside Syria lack legitimacy because the Syrian government has not authorized nor requested them. 

France, which has joined the US in launching air strikes on IS positions in Iraq, was noticeably absent from the Syria strikes lineup – and that probably won’t change soon. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in New York Monday that, while France is bombing IS in Iraq, “We do not have the intention to do the same in Syria.” 

Senior French officials say the difference for France is one of legitimacy and authorization. The Iraqi government requested France’s participation in air strikes in Iraq, they say, while strikes in Syria are backed by neither a national authorization – the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – nor by international authorization, for example a UN Security Council resolution.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also weighed in against the Syria strikes Tuesday, calling them “illegal” and criticizing the US for bombing inside a sovereign country backed by countries that he said have until now encouraged the growth of terrorist elements in Syria.

“We can in a way interpret that [Syria strikes] as an attack,” Mr. Rouhani told a group of American media executives and journalists he met with Tuesday on the margins of this week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York. “To be legal,” he continued, the country in whose territory the strikes occur “would need to request such actions.”

Rouhani, whose Shiite Muslim country has strained relations at best with its Gulf Sunni Arab neighbors, also suggested that the US was working at cross purposes by teaming up with the Gulf states to fight IS. “How can countries that helped support and nurture the terrorists say they are now going to join the fight against them?” he said.

The Gulf states, Qatar in particular, have for years been accused of  supporting extremist rebel forces in Syria, including the ISIS militants who have evolved into IS. The governments say such support has stopped as IS emerged as a threat to more than just the Assad regime, and US officials back those assertions. On the other hand, support from individuals in the region continues to flow to IS, US officials and regional terrorism experts say.

Rouhani also questioned the US approach of opposing both IS and the Assad regime at the same time, but, on the other hand, the Iranian leader spoke in generally supportive terms of the objectives Obama has set for the war on IS. The group’s social media campaign “can be considered terrorism” for luring “young people from other countries into terrorism,” he said. He also appeared to endorse Obama’s efforts to stanch the flow of foreign fighters into Syria.

The way Obama has enlisted a variety of countries in the fight with IS is likely to blunt criticisms that the US is acting on its own or with only nominal international cooperation, some regional experts say.

“Complaints about a lack of consultation with the Assad government and American unilateralism are not more likely to be seen as obstructions in the broader and vital effort to create more unity in dealing with the threat posed by the Islamic State,” says Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a commentary on the CSIS website.

At the same time, the Obama administration is not taking anything for granted. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was instrumental in enlisting the countries that did accompany the US in the Syria strikes, will continue his coalition-building efforts this week in New York, senior administration officials say.   

And in something of a with-us-or-against-us exercise, Obama will chair a meeting of the UN Security Council Wednesday at which he’ll seek a binding resolution requiring countries to take steps to stop the flow of and support for foreign fighters in Syria.

A unanimous vote for the resolution would bolster administration assertions that a “broad coalition,” and not America alone, is taking the fight to IS.

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