Obama's anti-Islamic State coalition: Who's in and what are they likely to do?

So far, it doesn't look like much. That explains why the US president was short on specifics when he vowed to take the fight to the jihadis.

Militant Website/AP/File
This undated file image posted on a militant website on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, shows fighters from the Al Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now called the Islamic State group, marching in Raqqa, Syria.

President Barack Obama last night called for a "broad coalition" to confront the self-styled Islamic State. And while he thankfully sought to downplay some of the more hysterical pronouncements about the threat posed by the takfiri jihadi group to the US, he insisted that action is urgent and necessary. He stressed, in particular, that regional states must play a role in the coalition.

So who are America's partners? And what are they really worth in terms of defeating IS? The president's speech was very short on specifics, for good reason. A close analysis of these potential members of a new "coalition of the willing" yields a far from rosy picture.

Let's start in Iraq, where the US is already fighting IS, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Obama and his staff are touting an "inclusive" Iraqi government in Baghdad that isn't remotely what it's being sold as. The key positions of defense minister and interior minister haven't been filled, and may not be to the satisfaction of all parties.

Nor could agreement be reached in 2010 on these cabinet posts, since both the police and the army were viewed as tools of a repressive Shiite policy towards minority Sunni Arabs. At the time, the Sunnis wanted two of their own in these spots as a guarantee against a repeat of the death squads and torture centers that the Interior Ministry, in particular, had been running. But they didn't get their way. Instead, they accepted a vague promise that appropriate people would be appointed later. A Sunni Arab defense minister was eventually appointed, but former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki retained a grip on the military, and served as de facto interior minister for 4 years, bending the army and police into just the sort of sectarian forces the Sunnis had feared.

The new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, hails from the same Shiite Islamist political party that Maliki belongs to. Mr. Abadi's first effort to fill the interior minister post was more than a little alarming. His nominee was Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Badr Organization (previously named the Badr Brigade), a Iranian-trained Shiite militia reviled by Iraq's Sunni Arabs for running death squads during the height of Iraq's last civil war. His nomination sparked dark jokes in Baghdad that there would be a shortage of power drills. Badr was accused of using them to drill into the heads of their captives. I saw a number of such victims in Baghdad's morgues in the mid-2000s. That method of murder seems to have been used by both Sunni and Shiite militias. 

Naturally, Sunni politicians weren't keen on Mr. Ameri as interior minister. So the posts are empty, with another vague promise that acceptable candidates will be found.

Perhaps this time will be different – or not. Obama initially stressed that US aid to Iraq was contingent on a new way of governing. As Wayne White, a former senior Middle East analyst at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research put it:

Airstrikes were cleverly withheld for a while to force Baghdad’s Shia politicians to get rid of discredited Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. However, with Washington now so heavily invested in the anti-ISIS struggle, Iraq’s majority Shia politicians could feel less need to go the distance toward a refreshingly inclusive government.

Mr. White's comment, ahead of Obama's speech, seems accurate. Consider this briefing one of Obama's aides gave to reporters in Washington last night:

Back in June, the President said that he would be prepared to do more, only after Iraq’s political leaders made the decision to form the kind of inclusive government that would unite that country so that they could face the existential threat that they had been confronted with. 

Earlier this week, the Iraqi cabinet was appointed, and we saw a functioning, inclusive, diverse, central government take hold.  And the President all along has set that up as the key to the next step of our strategy.

This claim of a "functioning, inclusive, diverse" central government at the moment is drawn more from hope than experience. However, Obama's team appears to be betting that Ameri will cede major power over Iraq's military to Sunni Arabs. The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that a senior Obama official said Sunnis in Iraq "are in a more advantageous position because of programs Mr. Abadi said he would put into place, including decentralized security forces that would be run by provincial governors instead of the central government."

Does this mean Abadi is going to give the governor of Anbar province, say, control over his own army? That would certainly assuage concerns in that overwhelmingly Sunni Arab province, where IS is particularly strong. But for Abadi's constituents it would amount to ceding military assets to Sunni Arabs they see as implacably hostile to Shiite dominance of Iraq's politics.

Finally, Iraq's government is on shaky footing. The Kurdish bloc in parliament voted Abadi in – with the proviso that they'll pull out of the government in three months if their demands aren't met, most importantly ratifying their control of the disputed city of Kirkuk. A Shiite prime minister might find it politically awkward to cede more territory to the Kurds, whose ultimate goal is independence.

Pro-American peshmerga

The Kurds are part of Iraq, at least formally, but their interests are entirely communal. Roughly 150 US airstrikes on ISIS forces in the past month have helped the Kurds hold onto their autonomous region. Preventing IS from overrunning one of the most stable, not to mention pro-American, parts of Iraq made sense. But Kurdish peshmerga forces aren't particularly interested in the non-Kurdish parts of Iraq. The likelihood that they will throw their limited resources into bloody fights for the Sunni and Shiite Arab parts of Diyala or Nineveh Provinces, not to mention Anbar, is very slim.

And then there is Turkey. There are Kurds with separatist inclinations in both Turkey and near that country's border with Syria, and Ankara isn't going to be too happy about a flow of weapons to potential threats to its own territorial interests. And where are the Turks in all this? Pretty much on the sidelines.

You will search in vain for a mention of Turkey, a NATO member, in Obama's speech amid all the talk of a "broad coalition" and regional "partners" (that word appears 8 times). The US military has long trained with the Turks, and has logistical supplies pre-positioned at Turkey's Batman and Incirlik air bases, which are the best platforms for a sustained air campaign against IS. But Sunni Turkey and its Islamist government doesn't seem remotely as worried about the jihadi group as Obama is. And a Turkish government official told AFP today that the country will provide no military support to the US-led campaign.

There's a precedent for this: Turkey refused US permission to use the airbases or to station part of its invasion force ahead of the March 2003 assault on Iraq. The country is a staunch opponent of Syria's Bashar al-Assad, and has been providing support to some of the Islamist militias fighting Damascus, though officials insist they've provided no support for IS. Nevertheless, Turkey's border with Syria remains the principal entry point for foreign jihadis into Syria and Iraq. And while Obama stressed the need to "stem the flow of foreign fighters" last night, there are as yet no signs of a substantial Turkish effort to seal the border. 

Syria and "the moderate" opposition

Obama made it clear last night that regime change remains his policy for Syria, and asked for more money from Congress to train and arm anti-Assad rebels that are palatable to the US:

Across the border, in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight, I again call on Congress to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its people; a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria's crisis once and for all.

Who exactly is this opposition? The president didn't say. A senior aide to Obama was also vague on this point when briefing reporters in advance. "We need to bolster the Syrian moderate opposition to enable it to be able to take and hold ground, pushing out both ISIL and the Assad regime." 

During Syria's bloody, three-year-old civil war, the most effective fighting forces have been IS and fellow takfiri jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, which have occasionally fought IS. Supporters charge that's because while money has flown to jihadi groups from wealthy donors in Persian Gulf states, support from the "moderate" rebels has been halting and tepid. Now Obama is promising to reverse this, with money and training for a force that presumably would be strong enough to challenge Assad.

Will that work? Ret. Col. Pat Lang, a former senior official for the Middle East at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency, is skeptical.

Obama also intends to increase arms deliveries to 'moderate Syrian guerillas. IMO these groups never amounted to much militarily. They were always the "unicorn army," and could never had defeated Syra's government no matter what you gave them. And in fact the "moderates" have among them many pro-jihadi people.

For Assad, fear of jihadis among the rebellion has been something of a trump card. He belongs, as do many of his closest aides and generals, to the minority Alawite sect, an early offshoot of Shiite Islam. The country also has Shiite and Christian and Druze minorities that are terrified of what might happen if the current order falls and a Sunni Islamist government takes power. Many Sunni Arabs in Syria, as in Iraq, also fear that groups like IS would replace Assad if he's deposed; the calculation, rightly or wrongly, is "better the devil you know."

The Syrian army retains many Sunni Arabs, a group that makes up about 70 percent of Syria's 25 million people. If that entire community had abandoned the regime, the war would be over now with Assad defeated.

Friends and foes

Assad also relies on foreign friends like Iran, and this is where the regional maze for Obama gets even trickier. Iran is a staunch backer of Assad, the man the US wants to go. Iran also backs the Iraqi government in Baghdad, which the US wants to retain. Iranian military advisers have been thick on the ground, as can been seen in this picture of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani surveying the scene outside the Iraqi town of Amerli last month, where US airstrikes helped Iranian-supported fighters repel IS. 

The involvement of the Quds Force, the external unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard corps, is an inconvenient fact. In 2011 the Obama administration accused the group of plotting the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to Washington (it also trained the Badr Brigade, the power-drill folks.) In addition to providing military support to Baghdad, the Iranians have also been providing military support to the Kurdish peshmerga. And while both Washington and Tehran insist they won't work together directly in Iraq, de facto they already are, despite their wildly divergent agendas for Syria.

Then there's Saudi Arabia, the homeland of the takfiri jihadi ideology that drives ISIS. Thirteen years ago today, 15 out of 19 Al-Qaeda hijackers were Saudi nationals. Their country's aggressive promotion of its austere Wahabbi brand of Islam across the globe in recent decades has contributed to the rise of jihadi thinking from the Philippines to Chechnya.

Buffer state

In 2003, the Saudis were furious at the US decision to toss out Saddam Hussein. While no friend of Saudi Arabia, he was more palatable to the House of Saud than the Shiite-dominated government, close to its old enemy Iran, that the US brought to power. Iraq had previously served as a buffer and counterbalance to Iran. Suddenly an ally of Tehran was on the Saudi doorstep. So the question remains: Will the Saudis really join an effort that will strengthen Tehran's friends in Baghdad, at the expense of Iraq's Sunni Arabs?

The counterargument is that IS seeks to unseat the Saudi monarchy, as did Al Qaeda, hence its willingness to align with Washington. But the Saudis still see Iran and its nuclear program as a bigger threat. Moreover, they are committed to deposing Assad in Syria, and will be wary of any effort to weaken IS that could end up strengthening his regime.

The Obama administration says it has a commitment from Saudi Arabia to host a training program for the new Syrian rebel army that the president mooted last night. If the Saudis are involved in vetting participants and in the training, they are likely to chose fighters more aligned with their own interests than with long-term American ones.

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