Obama’s dysfunctional coalition of the unwilling
By: BOB RIGG /Open Security
September 20/ 2014
The US’ call for “the broadest coalition of nations” to fight ISIS is simply an invocation of past moral crusades. But other states’ willingness to commit to war is much different than 2003.
Initial statements by President Barack Obama, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel revealed that they saw a great need for a US-led military intervention in Iraq that would go beyond weapons supplies, advisers and airstrikes, and would hopefully include other people’s boots on the ground, as well as supplies, intelligence, and humanitarian assistance for refugees and displaced persons.
Although they carefully avoided the poisoned phrase ‘coalition of the willing’, they spoke of needing “the broadest coalition of nations” to prevent the “cancer of ISIS” from spreading to other countries. A new war on terror has been unleashed, this time against the ‘Islamic State’ (IS).
Recent US-led interventions in Central Asia and the Middle East have blown up in the face of these regions, arguably triggering the seismic political shifts now paving the way for the rise of IS and other militant Islamic organisations.
The first critical test of international willingness to support Obama’s initial vision of an international coalition, led by the US with non-US boots on the ground, came at the NATO summit in early September. John Kerry is now following up on this with a whistle-stop tour of Middle Eastern allies.
Just eight of NATO’s 28 members were willing to support the coalition, on the explicit understanding that there would be no boots on the ground. So far, although Saudi Arabia has agreed to host training facilities, with other Arab states offering to assist in other ways, not one of the 22 members of the Arab League has agreed to commit troops. This has been a source of great dissatisfaction to the US.
The next test will be the UN Security Council. Although the US is chairing the UN Security Council in September, the fraught option of inviting the council, including Russia and China, to legitimize a military intervention by the coalition has not yet been specifically mentioned. John Kerry announced that Obama will, during the September session of the UN General Assembly, lead a summit meeting of the UN Security Council to “put forward a plan to deal with this collective threat”.
Obama’s strategy: a moral crusade
Obama has seized on this new war on terror to enhance his popularity in the US. Although he strove to inspire with the soaring rhetoric of Martin Luther King, his words were instead sadly reminiscent of former President George W. Bush: the mission of the US is defined as erasing evil and vanquishing “hate and destruction” from the world through war and destruction. The aim is not simply to defeat this new enemy, but to eliminate it. The US has embarked, not simply on a global war on terror, but on a moral crusade: “If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.” The “highest priority” is not to bring peace and stability to the Middle East, but to protect “the security of the American people.”
Tellingly, Obama cites Somalia and Yemen as two examples of the success of US counter-terrorism efforts, seemingly unaware that militant Islamic groups are still alive and kicking in these two failing states. Just days after Obama’s strategy statement the CIA estimated that IS has, not 15,000, but 30,000 fighters. A key assumption on which Obama’s strategy was based has been shown to be incorrect. Other much higher estimates have materialized in the meantime.
Confusion and disunity
The new Iraqi government of national unity initially collapsed like a house of cards, only to be patched up just as hastily in a cosmetic reshuffle, with two key ministerial posts still being fought over. But military and state institutions are still completely dominated by Shia. Decades of distrust will not be disentangled overnight.
It is widely known that, in IS‑controlled areas of Iraq, IS can still reckon with significant support from disaffected Sunnis. The ability of the government to single‑mindedly support coalition activities on its territory is accordingly limited. The US is saying that it will provide advisers and funds to prepare Iraqi armed forces to take the battle to IS. This overlooks the unfortunate truth that, before the abject collapse of the Iraqi army in the face of IS, with much of its US equipment being handed over intact, the US had spent the colossal sum of $25 billion on training and equipping the same army.
At this early stage, cracks are already appearing in the coalition’s chain of command: for example, although Iraq recently instructed its own aircraft to stop bombing Sunni civilian areas occupied by IS to avoid driving Sunnis into the arms of IS, US aircraft persisted with their bombing.
Some US advisers have hinted that a degree of collaboration with Syria’s government may be unavoidable, while another stated: “Part of the broader strategy…is a political transition in Syria”. Syria has indicated that it is willing to accept US air strikes on IS forces on its territory, provided that it is consulted in advance. Yet certain US experts have claimed that, as with Pakistan in the case of bin Laden, the US may attack targets in Syria without the consent of Syria’s government. This alarmed the Russians, who stated forcefully that US airstrikes outside Iraq require the prior approval of the UN Security Council.
Need for inclusive regional security forum
Whereas the US insisted on an inclusive government within Iraq, it is arbitrarily excluding key regional players from its coalition, even though this will undoubtedly undercut a cohesive political and military response.
What this conflict-ridden region lacks most is an open-ended security forum of all states, including Iran and Turkey, to confront a shared existential threat. It could be modelled, not on NATO, but on the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which has played a little-noticed role in building bridges between the EU and Russia over Ukraine. Major international players like the US and Russia could participate as observers. All Middle Eastern states now have in common the same deadly enemy, creating a unique opportunity for regional cooperation.
It has also escaped Obama that Russia and China have already experienced significant problems with Islamic extremists. Russia’s Chechnya has been a major recruiting ground for battle-hardened IS warriors, while China’s Xinjiang province has recently experienced an upsurge of well-organised and violent Islamic extremism.
Russia has actively supported international moves to take on IS. Obama could have reached out to overcome post-Ukraine hostility by finding common ground on this single issue, with the UN Security Council in mind. He has neglected to do so, even though the stakes are high. Russia has long been a major geopolitical player with a core strategic interest in the Middle East. The US behaves as though this is of no consequence.
Arab neighbours such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are internally divided, frequently along Sunni/Shia lines. These divisions have been heightened by the admixture of large numbers of refugees, themselves often split along sectarian lines, whose presence is destabilising those countries that have taken them in.
The confused and chaotic refugee situation also plays into the hands of IS by providing an ideal opportunity for its activists to move and work throughout the region, establishing cells and identifying future “lone wolves”. Lebanon is a powder keg, internally divided, and overshadowed by the formidable military/political reality of Shia Hezbollah.
“The fight against terrorism requires collective determination and joint regional and international cooperation”. This pertinent statement is from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, attending the 14th summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Arab states must begin to work together with Iran and Turkey to fulfil these words. Can the Middle East overcome its own divisiveness?
Tremulous support from the Middle East
Western and Israeli military strategists have been saying for weeks that, without boots on the ground, IS cannot be decisively defeated. Yet so far all coalition members have emphatically ruled out boots on the ground. Body bags would not go down well with their domestic constituencies, and Arab states are most reluctant to involve their armed forces, although John Kerry has been doing the rounds, prodding them to step up to the plate.
Most states in the region are riven with internal differences exacerbated by deep sectarian splits. Although they feel profoundly threatened by IS, they are also fearful of the consequences of committing boots on the ground. Their support for Obama’s coalition can best be described as tremulous. Money and military resources, yes, but boots on the ground, no, strangling the coherent, broadly-based military and financial commitment that is a necessary precondition for the success of Obama’s global coalition.
Just a few examples: Turkey has so far declined to support the coalition, partly because it sees Obama’s strategy as legitimizing Syria’s Assad government, and partly because it has consistently refused to describe IS as a terrorist organisation. At the same time Turkey permits IS to illegally export oil for sale within the country at prices undercutting the international market. One of the most effective Kurdish groups, the YPG, which has distinguished itself in combating IS, has been designated by NATO as a terrorist organisation. And Turkey, Iran and Syria fear that the recent military and political successes of Kurdish forces will encourage renewed calls for Kurdish independence.
Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabist ideology overlaps to an uncomfortable extent with the ruthless IS creed; a majority of the 11 September terrorists were Saudi citizens, as was Osama bin Laden, and many wealthy Saudis are known to be supporting IS into the present. It can be contended that Saudi Arabia is the elephant in the room, in the sense that a link can be established between its Wahhabist creed and the core values of extremist Islamic organisations worldwide. No one dares to publicly raise this question. Without state‑sponsored Wahhabism, would there be an Al Qaeda or an IS?
NATO asserts its independence from the US
At the recent NATO summit in Wales EU states were unwilling to adopt formal NATO policy on Obama’s “broadest possible coalition of nations”. Before the NATO summit, Kerry wrote that US efforts had brought “dozens of nations to this cause”. In fact, only 8 of 28 NATO states were willing to provide conditional support for Obama’s resurrection of Bush’s now infamous coalition of the willing, which plunged Iraq and the Middle East into its present quagmire.
The eight NATO states were prepared to put their names forward only if boots on the ground were ruled out. The nature and financial extent of their commitment is still unknown.
Although Australia is not a NATO member, its hawkish government has just announced its readiness to send in about 600 armed forces personnel including black ops specialists, initially to the United Arab Emirates. The US is hoping that other wavering governments may follow Australia’s example.
In an entrepreneurial shift to a lean new paradigm of Pax Americana, Obama assumes that the US will lead the coalition, while others will come up with the lion’s share of its funding. All the assumptions on which the coalition is based are infused with the spirit of US exceptionalism.
The roles of Iran and Syria
The urgent need to combat IS in Syrian territory and the recent disintegration of moderate rebel groups as a cohesive military force increasingly leaves Obama with no alternative to some kind of cooperation with Syrian armed forces. For example, if US aircraft strike targets in Syria, will Syria activate its air defence systems? If US aircraft attack and disable Syrian air defence systems, will the US be at war with Syria? It should also be recalled that the Obama administration’s trust in so-called Syrian moderates was so limited that it refused to supply them with heavy weapons.
Although the US still seems committed to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue by November, with consequential warming of diplomatic relations on some levels, it is also imposing new sanctions on Iran while denying it recognition on the international stage. The US has even contended that Iran was violating the nuclear sanctions when it supplied Kurdish peshmerga forces with weapons to use against IS.
Although both sides deny that Iran and the US are cooperating in relation to IS, there is almost certainly quiet cooperation in some areas. Neither Iran nor Syria is comfortable with concentrations of non-Iraqi troops, black ops specialists, aircraft and drones in neighbouring countries, which could be used as springboards for strikes on their territory.
The speaker of Iran’s parliament has just warned the US that it can “not attack Syria on the pretext of fighting against the Islamic State.” He cautioned that, if the US attacks regional states, “no one will be able to control the region. The fuse will be lit.” Although the governments of Iran and Syria are powerfully motivated to support the US-led coalition in opposing IS, they want to ensure that it is not abruptly transformed into a Trojan horse directed at them.
Has the horse already bolted?
In his New York Times article which was the first comprehensive exposition of US views on an international coalition, John Kerry wrote that “the cancer of ISIS will not be allowed to spread to other countries” than Iraq and Syria.
This statement was remarkably ill‑informed. IS has already put down roots in South Asia, South-East Asia, and Africa. The concept of an Islamic state does not apply to Iraq and Syria alone, but is elastic enough to encompass the world.
In particular young unemployed Islamic men and women living in poor and corrupt political environments, with generations of poverty and hopelessness behind and ahead of them, see in IS a unique opportunity to make their mark on the world. They have nothing to lose. And IS has everything to gain from recruiting them.
IS has already begun to establish itself amongst Muslims in strategically important countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines. Kashmir, a no man’s land trapped between India and Pakistan, is also an obvious target. The IS message is already beginning to catch on. Given the pervasive poverty and alienation of young Muslims in these countries, IS is perceived as offering a unique perspective of hope and self-empowerment.
If the US fails to contain and defeat IS in the Middle East, as is likely, this will stimulate the rapid growth of IS worldwide. IS is known to be recruiting in virtually all states of North Africa, starting with Egypt, Libya, and Algeria and ending with Kenya, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia. At the same time, perhaps inspired by IS, Boko Haram and al Shabaab are rapidly gaining control of ever more territory.
In western marketing terminology, since 11 September Al Qaeda has been the dominant brand in the marketplace of international terrorism. Now Al Qaeda sees itself marginalized by IS, and is rising to the challenge by seeking out new markets not yet dominated by IS, or by trying to consolidate its market share where it is already established.
One unsettling example will suffice here: Al Qaeda has just announced that it is setting up a new entity called Qaedat-al-Jihad for operations in India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. One target for this group will be alienated young Muslims in India. The aim is to stimulate Muslim violence against Hindus, destabilizing India and leading it back into widespread communal antagonism and violence, and dramatically increasing hostility and paranoia between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan. The same Al Qaeda branch has just launched its first major operation–the hijacking of a Pakistani naval frigate which was to be used to attack US vessels in the region. The daring and ambitious operation, which clearly enjoyed support from within Pakistan’s armed forces, narrowly failed. Qaedat-al-Jihad has instantly established itself as a force to be reckoned with.
Before Obama’s not-so-grand coalition has advanced beyond the drawing boards, Al Qaeda and IS are already competing with each other to capitalize worldwide on the international unrest sown by IS successes in the Middle East.
Obama was first elected president on waves of public disaffection with US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, promoted by President George Bush Jr. and the neocon cabal. Embarrassingly enough, whereas John Kerry voted against the Senate resolution authorizing military force in Iraq in 1990, he is now praising it to the skies: “When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the first President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III did not act alone or in haste. They methodically assembled a coalition of countries whose concerted action brought a quick victory.”
In 2008 Obama and Kerry excoriated Bush for invading Iraq in defiance of the UN Security Council. Now they have both left open the possibility of once again sending armed forces into Iraq without Security Council approval. But whereas Bush could collect a significant number of unwilling coalition partners to boost numbers, Obama so far has only the conditional support of almost one third of NATO, and promises of finance, but no boots on the ground, from his Arab allies.
**About the author
Bob Rigg is former senior editor, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and former chair, NZ National Consultative Committee on Disarmament. He is a freelance researcher and writer specialising in nuclear issues, the Middle East, Central Asia, and US foreign policy.