The Anti-ISIS Coalition And Obama’s Strategy

by Jonah Shepp

At the NATO summit in Newport, Wales today, US officials announced that they had formed an international coalition to wage war on ISIS:

President Barack Obama sought to use a NATO summit in Wales to enlist allied support in a campaign to destroy the Islamist militants but as the summit drew to a close it remained unclear how many nations might join Washington in air strikes. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told foreign and defense ministers from 10 nations at a hastily arranged meeting that there were many ways they could help, including training and equipping the Iraqis. … Hagel told ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark that they, with the United States, formed the core group for tackling the Sunni militant group.

In his press conference, Obama stressed that the coalition-building effort isn’t over and that John Kerry would continue to seek partnerships with other countries in combating the ISIS threat. He also stressed the importance of engaging Arab states, particularly those with Sunni majorities, in countering ISIS not only militarily, but also—or even primarily—politically. He rightly pointed out that any international effort will only succeed in the long term with the support of local actors in Iraq and Syria, and compared the coming effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS to the fight against al-Qaeda.

That fight looked very different under Bush and under Obama, so what that means is unclear. If I had to guess, I would say that he is signaling a plan to fight ISIS as he has fought other jihadist militant groups: i.e., primarily through targeted killings of its leadership from on high (cf. today’s announcement that Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of Somalia’s al-Shabaab, was killed in a US airstrike on Monday) and by degrading their capabilities until they are weak enough for local partners to finish them off. We could surely do this all by ourselves, but having an international coalition behind the effort enhances its legitimacy and reinforces the principle of multilateral responsibility for global security to which Obama clearly adheres.

Hayes Brown compares this coalition (which, again, won’t necessarily be limited to these ten countries) to the Multinational Force Bush formed to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

Conservatives have already begun to pan the announcement of the core coalition, drawing unfavorable comparisons to 2003. … While there are clearly some overlaps between the two groups, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Denmark and Poland, the “core” group lined up against ISIS has a few advantages over those assembled in 2003. In 2003, Germany and France were both strongly opposed to action in Iraq, depriving the U.S. of key support in Europe. Adding in those countries gives the group the support of two of the most militarily powerful states in Europe. Canada’s support adds to the cohesion among the most capable members of NATO and Ottawa’s support will also translate over into the G-7. Most strikingly, the group announced on Friday includes Turkey, which not only neighbors Iraq but serves as a Muslim-majority country that can be put forward as a defense against claims that the campaign against ISIS isn’t yet another Western invasion of a Muslim country.

But Juan Cole doubts our NATO allies are very enthusiastic about this mission:

My reading of the reporting from Wales is that most NATO states have little intention of intervening directly in Iraq and most of them have no intention to get involved in Syria. The US and Britain (and, far from Europe, Australia) are the most likely to commit to the Iraq front. The NATO country closest to ISIL territory, Turkey, seems reluctant to get involved in directly fighting ISIL (and critics of the religious Right party, AKP, which is in power, suggest that behind the scenes President Tayyip Erdogan is supporting the hard core Muslim rebels in Syria. Despite all the vehement talk, the US likely will have few allies in the air in Iraq as President Obama seems to be stampeded (by the Washington hawks and fear of losing the midterms for looking weak) into a wide-ranging new Iraq war that seems likely to spill over into Syria. The biggest problem the US faces, however, is the lack of effective allies on the ground in Iraq.