As U.S. jets pounded Islamic State positions north of Baghdad this week, diplomats pondered their options in Paris. U.S. President Barack Obama has stressed the importance of a collaborative global effort to combat the Islamic State (commonly known as ISIS and ISIL) which has been rampaging across much of Iraq and Syria, slaughtering as they go.
The president said, “American military power is unmatched, but this can't be America's fight alone.” He want to build an international coalition which will come together to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State. But based on the reactions of international leaders, he has yet to receive any concrete commitments to take an active part in the military campaign against the Islamic State.
Representatives from 26 countries attended a conference in Paris on Monday to discuss the planned coalition. The conference included diplomats from Western counties, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada as well as the EU representative. Arab countries including Iraq itself Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE attended, as did the Arab League representative. The presence of Russia, China and the United Nations underscored the global nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State.
The representatives issued a joint, 10-point statement condemning the Islamic State, expressing their full support for the new Iraqi government and their grave concern at the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Iraq. They also committed themselves to joining “appropriate military action” in support of the Iraqi government.
For all this activity, there has been remarkably little offered in the way of concrete support. Here are five reasons why forming a committed coalition willing to donate troops has proven so difficult:
1. Arabs and Muslims Do Not Trust America
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry visited Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt in an effort to build much-needed support for the coalition among the U.S.’s key regional allies. Although he reported encouraging conversations, none of these three counties agreed to commit troops. Leaked reports from an anonymous Western diplomatic source said “there is a very real possibility that we could have the Saudi air force bombing targets inside Syria.” However, no such possibility has yet been made public.
Arab and Muslim nations regard Western policy, in general, and American policy, in particular, with great suspicion. One commentator on Al-Arabiya called the coalition “late, weak and badly planned” but still “better than nothing.” Middle East analyst Khaled Abu Toameh writing for the Gatestone Institute said that most reactions from Arab Muslims on joining the US led coalition against the ISIS was that, “This is not our war and we should not be fighting it.” They regard Obama’s foreign policy as vacillating and unreliable and not truly committed to the fight. They also blame America for creating the situation that led to the rise of the Islamic State in the first place, because of the 2003 Iraq war and the support for Nouri al-Maliki's divisive government in the aftermath of that conflict.
In addition, Egypt’s government regards the U. S. as a Muslim Brotherhood ally that is not committed to fighting Islamists. Toameh argues that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi will never forgive Obama for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood.
2. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar Actively Support Jihadists
Saudi and Turkey are both Islamist states with much to lose by being associated with an American-led coalition to destroy the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is worried about an internal uprising should it pursue an alliance with America against a group fighting for a very similar brand of Salafi Islam to its own state-sponsored Wahhabism.
Thousands of Saudis are serving in the Islamic State in all sorts of positions, and the Saudis have arrested recruiters for the Islamic State within its borders.
Turkey is slightly different, having been far more active in aiding the Islamic Sate and Sunni jihadists. Turkey's porous border with Syria serves as a conduit for fighters, supplies and money headed to serve the needs of the self-declared caliphate.
Oil from the Islamic State is smuggled the other way, from Syria into Turkey. A former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey said in the Wall Street Journal that Turkey is a “non-ally” that has been funding and arming Jabhat al-Nusra. Erdogan has stated that Turkey will provide only logistical and humanitarian support against the Islamic State and take no aggressive action whatsoever.
3. Conflicting Loyalties in the Syrian Civil War Make Unity Difficult
Assad has been an ally of Russia for years, to a large extent due to the Russian naval base at Latakia. Russia will not join any U.S.-led coalition without the involvement or support of Assad. Sunni and Western allies, on the other hand, will not be part of any coalition that does support Assad. Public opinion and government policy prohibit any action in Syria that could inadvertently help President Bashar al-Assad. Obama’s promise to arm the moderates leads to the question of who exactly those moderates are. The majority of the forces aligned under the banner of the Free Syrian Army have been destroyed or have defected to other groups. The remnants openly cooperate with Islamist factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front. Finding an existing non-Islamist rebel army to support at this stage will be very hard.
4. The EU Does Not Want to Get Involved
Western countries other than America are perfectly happy for America to bear the lion’s share of the cost, trouble and fallout for any Western involvement. Feared backlash from Muslim populations are part of the reason why European countries do not want to get involved in what is now a regional Middle Eastern war.
France and Britain, in particular, have large Muslim minorities and have had serious problems with home-grown terrorism in the past. Europe is in the grip of austerity measures, and there is intense domestic pressure to reduce spending. France’s budget is already triple what the government predicted it would be, and thus has little appetite for further expenditures.
Britain is still scarred by the war in Iraq, which faced fierce opposition. Any attempt by Prime Minister David Cameron to put “boots on the ground” will face accusations of pandering to American adventurism. Furthermore the British parliament voted against conducting airstrikes against the Assad regime last year in a stunning rejection of the idea of liberal interventionism.
It is symptomatic of a viewpoint increasingly common – that the current Middle East conflict, however terrible, is none of Europe’s business and that involvement in any capacity will only make things worse. This attitude was succinctly summed up by Guardian columnist Giles Fraser, who wrote, “We are witnessing a shift in the political tectonic plates throughout the whole of the Middle East and beyond into Africa, and the west’s apparently surgical involvement will probably do little more than generate some short-term satisfaction that we are doing something. It is not that I am morally squeamish about bombing IS fanatics. Rather, I think we ought to recognise that we are little more than bystanders to a war that is so much bigger than we ever imagined, and so much more complicated than the rhetoric of terrorism or limited conflict allows.”
5. No One Wants to Risk Their Own Soldiers
France has agreed to join U.S.-led airstrikes, but not to send ground troops. The UK may join airstrikes but may not. It certainly will not be sending ground troops. The only country so far to commit openly to sending troops is Australia which has already begun sending 600 soldiers to Iraq. They will be performing a variety of roles including logistical support, providing strategic and military advice assisting in training, and Super Hornet aircraft. No frontline combat soldiers were included in the contingent.
When taken holistically, the coalition seems to consist of the battered remnants of the Iraqi army and the Kurds bolstered by Shiite militia groups sponsored by Iran. U.S. and French air strikes — and a firm commitment from the United States, France and Britain not to put their own troops on the ground — are so far the extent of Western intervention.
It seems that everybody wants the Islamic State destroyed, but nobody wants to have to do it themselves. The coalition is fraught with mistrust before the campaign even begins.
Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.