An Impressive Coalition vs. the Islamic State - Just Get Ready for the Infighting

Sunnis and Shi’ites, Saudis and Iranians, Turks and Kurds, and don’t forget the Americans. The front against the 'caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq is a bit of a mess.

Zvi Bar'el
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A French Rafale fighter jet over Iraq, September 19, 2014.Credit: AP
Zvi Bar'el

“Are Americans afraid of giving casualties on the ground in Iraq? Are they afraid of their soldiers being killed in the fight they claim is against terrorism?” Iranian President Hassan Rohani told NBC News on Wednesday.

Such harsh criticism isn’t particularly surprising. After all, the United States and Iran have a mutual interest in uprooting the Islamic State, whose members, Rohani said, “want to kill humanity.”

“If they want to use planes and if they want to use unmanned planes so that nobody is injured from the Americans, is it really possible to fight terrorism without any hardship, without any sacrifice?” Rohani asked. “Is it possible to reach a big goal without that? In all regional and international issues, the victorious one is the one who is ready to do sacrifice.”

Surprising is that while Rohani is effectively inviting the Americans to attack the Islamic State, his boss, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has reservations.

Before the Arab-international coalition was established, Khamenei said the Islamic State stemmed from a Western conspiracy, with the Americans playing a key role. According to later news reports, Khamenei himself approved the cooperation with Washington.

This was quickly denied, but Iranian sources insist that it’s true. Rohani even said that if the Americans took steps against the Islamic State, one could think about cooperation with them.

This week, after Khamenei underwent prostate surgery — which raised questions about his successor — he said Iran was proud not to be part of the U.S.-led coalition. Khamenei called a mistake the Paris conference at the beginning of the week, to which Iran was not invited and at which the coalition was agreed on.

The road leads through Tehran

Iranian MPs described the coalition as an American conspiracy to return to Iraq and attack Iran from the rear. But Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it was possible to exploit Iranian cooperation to ease the sanctions on Iran. If the Americans want Tehran to do something, they must do something for Tehran — like ask the United Nations to remove the sanctions, said Zarif.

So the question is whether Iran is in or out in the battle against the Islamic State.
It’s clear to Tehran and Washington, which agreed to the Saudis’ request and refused to invite the Iranians to Paris, that in any campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Iran will play a central role. But when you’re building an international coalition including Arab states, even if there is full agreement on the goals, tensions could endanger the coalition.

As far as the Paris conference was concerned, Washington didn’t have any problems making a decision; the choice between the Saudis and the Iranians was clear. But if you want to drive the Islamic State out of Syria, you can’t forgo the Iranians as partners.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s war against the Islamic State is divided between two fronts, each with its own limitations that could hinder the campaign. On the Syrian front, Washington can’t act as long as Iran and Russia object to military operations. On Tuesday, an American drone was reported flying over Aleppo, and, separately, Obama noted that if there was a military need, he would attack in Syria.

The Syrian rebels, of course, are better off now that the U.S. Congress has approved a $500 million appropriation that Obama has requested to pay for training, but they won’t be receiving any game-changing weapons.

In any case, the West and the Arabs agree that foreign boots must not hit the ground in Syria; the campaign against the Islamic State must be conducted by rebel forces with the support of Western intelligence.

It’s hard to say more about the Syrian rebels’ limited military capabilities. The wars among them, let alone the lack of a united leadership, have played into the hands of the Assad regime, which is expanding its control around the country.

No third Iraq war

Iraq is less complicated, but when the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said this week that ground troops would be an option if the current strategy failed, he sparked outrage in Baghdad. The new prime minister, Haider al-Ibadi, stated unequivocally that American forces are not wanted in Iraq, while Muqtada al-Sadr threatened that his Shi’ite militia would fight any U.S. troops in the country.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered to take part in the fighting, but some Saudis object to the idea of Sunnis fighting Sunnis for the sake of Iraq’s Shi’ite government. The fear is that if Riyadh sends troops, so will Tehran, and the result could be an Arab-Iranian war rather than a fight against the Islamic State.

In Iraq itself, the coalition forces will try to encourage Sunni tribes to fight alongside the Kurds against the Islamic State. According to reports from Mosul, the United States has already started reviving the network of informants that it abandoned after it withdrew from Iraq at the end of 2011. These informants were kept secret from the Iraqi government.

The person in charge of re-recruiting them is Gen. John Allen, the leader of the coalition forces. Allen is known for his good ties with the Iraqi tribes, forged when he commanded U.S. forces in western Iraq.

New tribal alliances

But here, too, the coalition might find itself racked by infighting. This week, the media reported that the Iraqi army had asked residents of Diyala to fight against Kurdish peshmerga forces near that city in order to prevent the Kurds from seizing more territory.

Meanwhile, the governor of the province of Kirkuk said that some 5,000 people had volunteered to join the fight against the Islamic State. Just as in Syria, the war against the Islamic State is liable to produce new tribal alliances in Iraq that won’t necessarily support the coalition forces.

In recent days a new threat arose when Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is based in Yemen, published a statement urging all Muslim forces to unite in a war against “the Crusader onslaught.” This announcement represents a U-turn in the policy of Al-Qaida, which had viewed the Islamic State as a threat.

It’s not clear whether this will lead the Nusra Front, Al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, to join forces with the Islamic State, or at least bring about a cease-fire in the war between the two organizations. But it could result in a new front with which coalition forces would have to contend.

This web of organizations and militias greatly limits the Western partners’ ability to rely on local forces, but the West also suffers from a lack of cooperation with Turkey, which has not joined the coalition.

Granted, air strikes don’t necessarily have to be conducted from Turkish bases, but Turkey’s proximity to Iraq and Syria would be a major help in launching attacks. They would especially help the coalition send in ground forces, should that decision be made.

Erdogan irked once again

Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan has said the fact that the Islamic State is holding 49 Turkish hostages limits Ankara’s ability to contribute to the effort. Yet at the same time, about 1,000 Turks have allegedly joined the Islamic State’s ranks, and the organization reportedly sends its wounded to Turkish hospitals for treatment.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejects these charges; he has even lashed out at The New York Times for publishing a picture of Erdogan and then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (now prime minister) leaving the Haci Bayram-i Veli Mosque in Ankara.

According to The Times, 100 volunteers have joined the Islamic State from that Mosque. The paper apologized for publishing the picture, which was taken in August, but hasn’t retracted the accusation that Turkey serves as a recruiting base for the organization.

Given all the rifts, both open and hidden, most of the burden seems likely to fall on U.S. forces. True, the Gulf States have promised to help finance the campaign, but Uncle Sam will be the guy on the front line — both diplomatically and militarily — if the strategy doesn’t work out.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives for a press briefing in Vienna, June 20, 2014.Credit: AP
Martin Dempsey.Credit: AP

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