Wary Arabs join U.S.-campaign against ISIS

The U.S. battle may be an uphill one considering the challenges it faces in garnering the support of its supporters

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The United States signed up Arab allies on Thursday to a "coordinated military campaign" against Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militants, a major step in building regional support for President Barack Obama's plan to strike both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi frontier.

After talks in Saudi Arabia's summer capital Jeddah, Secretary of State John Kerry won backing from 10 Arab countries – Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and six Gulf states including rich rivals Saudi Arabia and Qatar – for a coalition to fight the Sunni militants that have seized swathes of Iraq and Syria.


Turkey, a non-Arab Sunni power, also attended the talks. But two other powerful regional players – Shi'ite Iran and Syria itself - were excluded, a sign of the difficulty of building a coalition across the Middle East's sectarian battle lines.

The Arab states agreed in their communique to do more to stop the flow of funds and fighters to Islamic State and help rebuild communities "brutalized" by the group.

"The participating states agreed to do their share in the comprehensive fight against ISIL, including ... as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign against [ISIS]," they said, using the acronym for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Kerry said the Arab states would play a critical role in the coalition, although he added that no country in the alliance was talking about sending ground troops.

He met the Arab leaders to drum up support a day after Obama announced his plans to strike fighters in Iraq and Syria. U.S. officials said Kerry also sought permission to make more use of bases in the region and fly more warplanes overhead, issues that were not mentioned in the communique.

The Saudis, who support other Sunni armed movements in Syria but consider ISIS a terrorist group, have also promised to help Obama's campaign by providing training camps for moderate Syrian Sunni fighters.

But Iran, the main Shi'ite power in the Middle East and supporter of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, said it had severe reservations over the new U.S.-led coalition, and doubted it would fight "the root causes of terrorism," which it blames squarely on Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia.

Obama announced his plans in a prime time address on Wednesday to build an alliance to root out Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, plunging the United States into two conflicts in which nearly every country in the Middle East has a stake.

The region has been galvanized since June when Islamic State fighters, already in control of much of Syria, swept through northern Iraq, seizing cities, slaughtering prisoners, and proclaiming a "caliphate" that would rule over all Muslims.

The White House says the group is a threat to the West as well, attracting fighters from around the world who could return to carry out attacks at home.

ISIS is a Sunni group that embraces a radical vision of a Middle East ruled along 7th century precepts. Its fighters are battling a Shi'ite-led government in Iraq and a Syrian government led by Assad, a follower of an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. They are also fighting against more moderate Sunnis in Syria and against Kurds on both side of the frontier.

An alliance against Islamic State is bound to require cooperation from countries that consider each other enemies. Washington itself supports the Shi'ite-led government in Iraq but opposes Assad in Syria; it is allied to most Sunni Arab states while hostile to Iran.

A State Department official traveling with Kerry said the top U.S. diplomat would the ask allies to make room for U.S. military activity: "We may need enhanced basing and overflights ... there's going to be a meeting soon of defense ministers to work on these details."

But already there has been some reluctance in joining what could prove to be an extremely costly campaign.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond initially said Thursday that the United Kingdom would not participate in airstrikes on Syria.

His remarks were later overruled by prime Minister, who said nothing was off the table.

Meanwhile Germany said it had not been asked to take part in airstrikes in Syria and would refrain from doing so. Germany often avoids getting involved in combat operations.

And Turkey, apparently in fear of aggravating a hostage situation, is reluctant to take a stronger role in the coalition against ISIS militants.

A Turkish government official told AFP Thursday that it would refuse to allow a U.S.-led coalition to attack militants in neighboring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, and will not take part in combat operations against militants.

“Turkey will not be involved in any armed operation but will entirely concentrate on humanitarian operations,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“Our hands and arms are tied because of the hostages,” the official told AFP. “Turkey will not take part in any combat mission, nor supply weapons.”

He was referring 49 Turkish hostages, including diplomats and children, abducted by Islamist militants from the Turkish consulate in Mosul in Iraq on June 11.

Turkey can open Incirlik Air Base in the south for logistical and humanitarian operations in any U.S.-led operation.

But the United States problems grow even more complicated when it comes to its Middle Eastern allies.

"Because of American leadership, we have, I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem," Obama has said.

But while he seems certain that he can put together a broad coalition of Arab and regional leaders to combat the extremist group, he may not have not taken into account the fact that some Arab leaders for political reasons do not wish to be seen following America’s lead.

For example, although Jordan has reportedly boosted its intelligence sharing with the U.S., a group of lawmakers have circulated a memo urging Amman to keep out of the international campaign against ISIS.

"This war is not our war. Accordingly, we reject categorically any Jordanian contribution in a battle that is not ours," wrote the 21 MPs, who represent different factions in the 150-seat parliament, according to AFP.

And Tom Sanderson, a terrorism expert, Center for International Studies told CBS News that traditional U.S. allies like Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and others that Obama should look to as leaders in the fight against ISIS “are afraid to and lack the capability.”

The coalition-building efforts could also be hampered, by differences among Washington's allies in the region. Such rifts include, for example, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt in a faceoff with Qatar and Turkey over the latters' support for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in the region.

Also critical would be support in the need for a base from which to stage airstrikes, and hesitation from regional powers could impede those efforts..
Outlining what Kerry would seek from regional partners at a meeting of Arab powers and Turkey in Jeddah, a senior State Department official said: “We may need enhanced basing and overflights ... there's going to be a meeting soon of defense ministers to work on these details,” Reuters reported.

Also of concern is the fact that some Arab states might hesitate to work with others, particularly those who have allegedly have actively supported some radical Islamist groups.

There is also the risk that some Arab states may start to hinge their cooperation on concessions from the U.S., particularly as they will be the ones burdened with the fallout from a broad offensive against ISIS.

Such consequences could include refugees in even greater numbers, as well as more radicalization and terrorist attacks on their territories.

(With AFP, Reuters and the Associated Press)

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