Our Allies Have Their Own Ideas


Mohammed Ghanem urges the US to coordinate more closely with Syrian rebels in the fight against ISIS, arguing that doing so would help defeat the group in Iraq as well:

Airstrikes alone will not defeat the Islamic State. Despite nearly two months of strikes in Iraq, Islamic State fighters attacked Iraqi army checkpoints close to Baghdad last weekend, and reports this week indicate a strong Islamic State presence just a mile west of the city. Although Obama administration officials are correct that the anti-Islamic State campaign will take time, they need to accelerate and significantly modify the effort to prevent further advances toward Baghdad. Close coordination with Syrian rebels would accomplish this. By enabling rebels to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front, coordination would force the group to divert resources from Baghdad. And unlike the Iraqi army, moderate Syrian rebels have a proven record of rolling back Islamic State forces. But no coordination of any significance is occurring.

But Shane Harris questions Ghanem’s premise that Baghdad is at risk:

But if Baghdad were to fall, it would effectively put the Islamic State in control of Iraq and spell political disaster for the White House. That the Syrian rebels are connecting the fate of Iraq with their fight next door underscores how desperately they want help from the United States, and how unsuccessful they’ve been in securing it.

Dettmer attributes the Free Syrian Army’s growing disillusionment with the US to a clash of priorities:

While the Kurds see the American intervention as one that can be parlayed into their independence, the Sunni Muslims of northern Syria express deep anger towards America. They see themselves being set up as a sacrifice for a U.S. policy meant to prop up Iraq. They are furious with what they view as the cynical U.S. decision to enter this war not with President Bashar Assad as the target—not to help topple a dictator whose refusal to permit reforms triggered a conflict that has left nearly 200,000 dead—but to focus instead on ISIS alone. Across the dizzying, fragmented spectrum of rebel factions—from moderates to Islamists—commanders insist that since the start of the U.S.-led coalition’s air offensive on September 23 Assad has increased the tempo of his own airstrikes on rebel positions, reassured that he is not the butt of American rage and is now free to let the U.S. deal with ISIS.

The rebels aren’t the only ones quibbling with our choice of targets. In Sinan Ülgen’s view, Turkey’s hesitation in joining the anti-ISIS coalition owes partly to a belief that Syria’s problems can’t be solved without getting rid of Assad:

Turkey’s leaders believe that the international community’s response to the Islamic State should be far more ambitious, seeking to redress the underlying causes of the current disorder. Such a strategy would have to include efforts to compel Iraq’s new government to break with the sectarianism of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, while supporting the new leadership’s efforts to provide basic health, educational, and municipal services to all of Iraq’s citizens. As for Syria, the only plausible route to normalcy begins with forcing President Bashar al-Assad to cede power. To this end, the US and its allies should consider striking Assad’s strongholds in Syria, while establishing safe havens for the moderate opposition under the protective cloak of a no-fly zone.

Juan Cole sees Ankara’s recent moves in a similar light:

Turkey has gotten enormous pressure from President Obama, French president Francois Hollande and UK PM David Cameron to join. For their part, they need the region’s largest Sunni Arab country on their side to avoid having the campaign against ISIL look like a Christian-Shiite Jihad against Sunnis. Turkey values its NATO membership and will want to fulfill obligations to other NATO members. President Tayyip Erdogan also very much wants Turkey to be accepted into the European Union, and may figure that proving Turkey’s worth in fighting a Muslim extremism that seems threatening to Europe may gain him some good will in the EU. Also, Turkey fears that if the West does manage to inflict attrition on ISIL, the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad might benefit, but Turkey wants to see it overthrown. Being in the coalition allows Turkey to demand that pressure be kept on al-Assad to step down.

Discussing the potential pitfalls of military coalitions, Micah Zenko identifies such conflicting agendas as a major concern and concludes with an important question:

In the months after 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld often pointed out how 90 countries were participating in “the largest coalition in human history” in the global war on terrorism. That initial level of commitment dissipated as time passed and as the United States pursued its war on terrorism in a manner that many former coalition members fundamentally opposed. Rumsfeld also liked to say, “The mission determines the coalition; the coalition must not determine the mission.”

An easy prediction is that at some point, some members of this coalition will want to redirect their airstrikes against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. When that becomes the mission, what becomes of the coalition?

(Photo: Fighters loyal to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) pose with their weapons in a location on the outskirts of Idlib in northwestern Syria on June 18, 2012. By D. Leal Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)