Coalition of the not-so-willing

Washington and its Arab allies have launched air strikes on IS targets in Syria. But the coalition remains as divided as ever about what to do next. Salah Nasrawi reports
The United States has expanded its air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and is now taking the offensive into neighbouring Syria, using cruise missiles, drones and warplanes.
But as the US-led international coalition to fight IS takes shape, differences are emerging between Iraq’s feuding factions over the effectiveness of Washington’s strategy to defeat a group that controls large swathes of territories in northern and western Iraq. The mood among Iraq’s neighbours is anything but celebratory.


In Iraq, the US campaign has been restricted to air strikes against IS targets to help Iraqi forces retake lost territory. The first air strikes against IS targets in Syria early on Tuesday, however, involved the US acting in partnership with the military of several Arab states, according to the Obama administration.


Whether this signals a major shift in the US-led war against IS or is merely a symbolic action on the part of the Arab nations involved remains to be seen.


Washington has declared its intention to build a long-term “holistic, global campaign that is committed and capable of degrading and destroying” the terrorist group. But its bid to involve Iraqi and Arab partners has exposed fault-lines in the putative international alliance.


Political and sectarian factions in Iraq are deeply divided over US involvement. Iraq’s Kurds, desperately seeking international support for their independence drive, have welcomed the US-led coalition, while the country’s Shia and Sunnis are far from sanguine about Washington’s new adventure in Iraq.


Shia leader Muqtada Al-Sadr has warned the government against cooperating with the Americans, whom he describes as “occupiers.” His powerful Sadrist Movement held a huge demonstration on Saturday to protest against further US involvement in Iraq.


Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, has warned that the “external assistance” offered by Washington could become a prelude “to breaching Iraq’s independence.”


“Cooperation with the international effort must not be taken as a pretext for the imposing of foreign decisions on Iraq, especially when it comes to military events,” one of Al-Sistani’s representatives said on Friday.


Suspicions are rife among Iraqi Shia that the US sowed the seeds of IS and is now using the fear the group has created as a pretext to turn Iraq into a testing ground for its Middle East policies. Al-Sadr has explicitly accused the CIA of fostering the extremist group.


The Shia-led government — officially, at least — welcomes the growing international effort to battle IS, though it has stressed that Iraq sees no need for other nations to send troops.


Haidar Al-Abadi, Iraq’s new prime minister, and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, his foreign minister, say help in fighting IS should be restricted to military, economic and financial assistance to the Iraqi government. At the same time, they insist that international efforts to combat extremists in Syria be expanded.


Washington’s strategy in Iraq involves creating a paramilitary Sunni force — the National Guard — similar to the Awakening Councils that it set up to fight Al-Qaeda during its occupation of the country. Washington believes the new National Guard will give Sunnis autonomy in policing their provinces.


Several factors are shaping the Sunni response to US policy in Iraq. From the Sunni mainstream’s perspective, there are two reasons why the US intervention might be welcomed: to find a way out of the ordeal of IS control of their provinces, and to end what they perceive as their persecution by the Shia-led government.


Yet many Sunnis view the Awakening Councils as a failure and see the dramatic expansion of IS into their provinces as a useful tool in their fight against the Shia-led government. On Monday, Ali Hatem Al-Soleiman, a prominent Sunni tribal leader in Anbar province, said tribes will not turn their backs on IS until the Baghdad government complies with Sunni demands.


The Baghdad government has signalled its intention to establish National Guards in Shia provinces. If established, the new force will create yet another potential flash point in Iraq’s lingering sectarian conflict.


Beyond Iraq’s borders, the conflicting agendas and interests of Iraq’s neighbours make any regional agreement on a broad strategy for stability and development in Iraq nearly impossible.


Iran, a key player in Iraq and a powerful ally of its Shia-led government, rejects the US coalition. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused Washington of seeking a “pretext” to interfere militarily in Iraq “without authorisation”.


Iran’s foreign minister, Mohamed Javad Zarif, blasted the alliance as “based on American constituencies rather than what’s best for the people of Iraq and the region.”


Tehran’s main concern is that the alliance against IS will come at the expense of its Shia allies in Iraq and the Allawite regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, and halt Iran’s growing regional influence. During the latest round of talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry in New York this week, Zarif made it clear that Iran is willing to work with the US and the coalition it set up against IS, but not before its demands for nuclear flexibility are met.


Turkey, Iraq’s powerful northern neighbour and a NATO member, has shunned US-led efforts to fight IS. Ankara declined to sign a communiqué calling for a military campaign against IS, and has refused to contribute to the international alliance against the group or allow the US to use Turkish air bases for military operations.


Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned of the risks of launching air strikes against IS in Iraq. Ankara appears more interested in securing its strategic interests in Iraq, and strengthening its position against Iran in the battle for regional hegemony, than in confronting IS. This week, IS attacks forced tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee their villages in what amounts to ethnic cleaning. The move came amid reports that Turkey is mulling the prospect of establishing a buffer zone along its border with Syria and Iraq.


Turkey has been accused of tacitly supporting IS by turning a blind eye to recruiting, allowing its territory to be used by jihadists for passage into Iraq and Syria, and facilitating the export of oil from IS-held territory in Syria and Iraq. This week’s release of Turkish hostages held by IS was mediated via the group’s Iraqi Sunni allies — including Baathists and tribal leaders — based in Turkey.


Saudi Arabia’s position is also ambivalent. The Sunni powerhouse has made no clear commitment to help Iraq’s Shia-led government, though it could easily weaken IS by shutting off the flow of money to jihadists in Iraq and Syria and stopping Saudis from joining the terrorist group.


For Saudi Arabia, along with other Sunni Gulf states, the coalition is less about IS than regional realignment and confronting rising Shia influence. They also see the coalition as a potentially useful tool to help end Syria’s Allawite regime.


In his address to the Security Council on Friday, Saudi Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi put the blame for the rise of IS squarely on the shoulders of Damascus. “Both represent exclusion and sectarianism,” he said.


Jordan, meanwhile, is pursuing a cautious policy towards its turbulent eastern neighbour. On Monday, King Abdullah II blamed the expansion of IS on the hesitation of the US and the international community to take action against the extremist group earlier.


Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Jawda told the Security Council that the IS crisis is being fuelled by the floundering of an “inconclusive political process in Iraq and Syria,” a reference to the perceived exclusion of Sunnis by the Shia-led government in Iraq and by Al-Assad’s Allawite regime in Syria.


In July, Jordan hosted a meeting of Iraqi Sunni leaders and militia commanders who called the jihadist-led insurgency sweeping parts of Iraq a “popular revolt.” Jordan is reported to be planning a second meeting of tribal Sunni leaders in Amman. Like Iraq’s other Sunni neighbours, Jordan, whose monarch coined the term “the Shia Crescent”, is deeply suspicions of Baghdad’s Shia-led government.


Cairo, too, has reservations over the US-led alliance, though President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was quoted on Saturday as saying he is prepared to give whatever support is needed in the fight against IS.


Egyptian officials have repeatedly argued that IS is but one component of a wider problem and that a comprehensive strategy is needed to tackle the threat posed by the whole range of radical Islamist groups.


After weeks of intensive US coalition-building in the Middle East, the joint attacks on IS targets in Syria by the US, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates represent a noticeable success for the Obama administration. They came a day after Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, and Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly expressed their frustration with the hesitation of Iraq’s neighbours to help out militarily with the anti-IS campaign.


But there is no hiding the fact that it is a coalition of not-so-willing partners. And with so many conflicting agendas, there are no guarantees that a long-term, comprehensive anti-terror strategy will emerge.

Obama’s Iraq problem

Behind US President Barack Obama’s plan to battle the Islamic State lies a history of flawed and shallow US policy in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
Vowing to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the Islamic State (IS), US President Barack Obama said this week that he is seeking an international coalition to join the fight against IS. The plan was compared to US actions against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Al-Shabab in Somalia.
“You initially push them back, you systematically degrade their capabilities, you narrow their scope of action, you slowly shrink the space, the territory that they may control, you take out their leadership, and over time they are not able to conduct the same kinds of terrorist attacks as they once could,” Obama said.
At first glance this may sound like a superb strategy for the world’s pre-eminent superpower, except that neither Al-Qaeda nor Al-Shabab has been routed and, years after the US interventions, both Afghanistan and Somalia remain trapped in terrorism and civil war.
Indeed, Obama’s bellicose rhetoric was in sharp contrast with his admission that he did not “have a strategy” for countering IS, which he has dubbed “a cancer” that needs to be uprooted.
Political and military analysis provides the perspective necessary to show how badly the US president is floundering in the face of a major world crisis, one that he has admitted will eventually pose a threat to the United States.
Ending a summit with fellow NATO leaders on Friday, Obama said key allies in the 28-member military alliance stand ready to join the United States in military action to defeat IS militants.
His remarks came after defence and foreign ministers from nine other countries met with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and US Secretary of State John Kerry to work out a response to the IS threat.
Later, the group, which includes Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, Denmark and the United States, was described as a “core coalition” allied against IS. The United States has also called for broad support from allies and partners around the world to deal with the emerging challenge.
Some of these countries, among them France, Britain, Germany, Canada and Australia, have been sending weapons to the Kurdish Peshmergas or carrying out humanitarian missions, but none has said it is ready to engage in the fight against IS, including potential military action.
The United States has also said it wants to get its allies in the Middle East, including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, on board with its approach. There are even signs that the Obama administration is willing to co-ordinate with Iran to build support for a military confrontation with IS.
But the question remains: Having made it clear that it has no strategy and that there are no plans to send US ground troops to Iraq, what does the Obama administration intend to do with what Kerry has described as the “genocidal” threat of IS?
The United States is seemingly adopting a two-pronged approach by involving Iraq’s new government and Iraq’s neighbours in tackling the IS threat. But this approach has been tried time and again since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which unleashed anarchy in the war-devastated nation.
In fact, it has become a case study in how to invade a nation, destroy it, and then leave it to local and regional stakeholders to fix the damage.
On the Iraqi side, the United States has made it clear that once Iraq starts to build a new and “inclusive” government it will consider providing additional military, economic, and political assis-tance to the country to defeat IS.
Washington has also been insisting that Sunni tribesmen in western Iraq join the Iraqi security forces in their fight against IS. This is part of its declared strategy to create a partner on the ground so that the US air force can then support from above.
On the regional side, Washington has been pressuring its regional Sunni Arab allies, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to join this new “coalition of the willing” to confront IS in Shia-led Iraq. It also wants some of these countries to stem the flow of weapons and money going to the extremists in Syria and Iraq and to publicly denounce them.
As for Turkey, the other Sunni powerhouse in the region, Washington has made it clear that it needs Ankara to share intelligence on foreign fighters who are using Turkey as a route to join jihadists in Syria and Iraq. It also wants Ankara to stem the flow of foreign jihadists into countries on its southern border.
Washington has showed a strong preference for Shia Iran to join the fight against IS. State department spokeswoman Marie Harf has said that the United States is willing to engage Iran “as we have in the past, most notably on Afghanistan.”
She was referring to Tehran’s support for the US invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks and participation in international efforts to establish a new government there to replace the defeated Taliban regime.
But several points could be raised to question Obama’s approach, or “non-strategy” as his critics call it.
To combat the IS threat, Washington needs to do more than simply order air strikes on targets in Iraq. A military confrontation will only be successful if it is embedded in a political setting, and a global strategy is needed to confront IS.
Iraq’s new government, formed on Monday, lacks the national consensus needed to address the country’s entangled conflicts. To say that this is a unity government is also inaccurate and misleading, since it remains split over fundamental issues, such as power, wealth sharing and territorial sovereignty, that have divided Iraqis for a long time.
Only those unaware of the details of the Iraqi crisis can claim that the new government will be able to resolve the communal strife that is behind Iraq’s instability. Having ethno-sectarian warlords and manipulative and corrupt politicians in power does not mean that Iraq has a representative government.
Regionally, it is highly unlikely that heavyweights such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will come together to fight IS, despite the threats the murderous group poses to their own national security. Even if the threats from IS recede, the problems between these countries and their rivalry over Iraq will not go away.
In the cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran, for example, while in theory there are mutual interests that could encourage these countries to unite against IS, in practice the two countries have divergent priorities that will make it difficult to find common ground.
In addition, there is a complete lack of confidence between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi Arabia’s strategy in Iraq since the ouster of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein has aimed to block Iran from winning a foothold or imposing its hegemony on Iraq.
IS’s control of huge swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria, including their shared border, has virtually cut off the Alawite regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, Saudi Arabia’s arch-enemy, from its Shia allies in Iraq and Iran.
“While Saudi Arabia wants to see IS broken, it doesn’t want Iran to benefit from this,” according to Saudi analyst Jamal Khashouchi, writing in the London-based Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat on Saturday. He continued, “IS has broken the Shia crescent that extends from Tehran to Beirut through Iraq and Syria.”
Other Arab states in the Gulf have also facilitated the rise of IS to weaken the Shia-dominated government and counter Shia Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria. Whether or not IS is defeated, Iraqi Shia and Iran will continue to be their enemies.
On the other hand, Iran has its own active strategy in Iraq. Tehran is a major actor in Iraq, and Iranian involvement has extended beyond supplying weapons and advisers to the Shia militias.
Iranian-backed militias are believed to be tipping the balance in the fight against IS, and last week they were largely behind breaking the more than two-month siege by IS militants on a Shia-Turkmen town, a major breakthrough in the war against the group.
Though Iran has a vested interest in defeating IS, which would remove the threat on Iran’s western borders and help stabilise Iran’s two main allies in the region, Iraq and Syria, it remains sceptical about an international coalition that would group together so many of its foes.
On Sunday Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed the United States for not being serious in its fight against IS. “They [the US] supported IS in Syria in different ways, and now they cannot decide what to do about those slogans [about fighting IS],” Zarif was quoted as saying.
Turkey, meanwhile, has remained tight-lipped about joining the anti-IS coalition. While Ankara has denied western accusations of being a “jihadist highway,” it has refrained from taking measures to offer military support to the Iraqi government.
“Rather than asking Turkey to catch IS militants going to Syria, the west needs to stop recruitment in their own backyards,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quoted as saying by the pro-government Turkish Daily Sabah on Saturday.
Turkey has long been known for having its own priorities in Iraq, including oil, the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs. Its regional strategy is in collision with Shia Iran, the Iraqi Shia-led government and the regime of Al-Assad in Syria.
As the Obama administration plans to expand its offensive against IS, its main challenge remains finding a proper strategy that will help get rid of IS and keep Iraq united.
In 2003, the US illegally invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, promising that it would help build a new democratic Iraq. Whether it was badly executed or intentionally planned, the fiasco of the Operation Iraqi Freedom left Iraq in ruins.
The United States is now expected to blunder again in its present intervention. Obama hasn’t yet given the new strategy a name, but he has used the sport’s expression “Play game” in connection with the push to form an international coalition to defeat IS.
With the US’s proposed partitioning of Iraq being relaunched, pending the outcome of the confrontation with IS, one could argue that, given the history of US policy in Iraq, the next chapter will most likely be another killing game with far-reaching and devastating consequences.

Drawing lines in Iraq

The breaking of the siege of Amerli may define Iraq’s new ethno-sectarian borders, writesSalah Nasrawi
For six weeks, thousands of Iraqi Shia Turkmen were under siege by militants of the Islamic State (IS) in a small town in northern Iraq, where the radical Sunni group had been trying to take over one of the last unoccupied areas of north-central Iraq after its recent military advances.
But Amerli’s steadfastness against the terror group is not just about the courage of its population. It also underlines the shift in Iraq’s ethno-sectarian battle lines that has been triggered by IS’s partial defeat.
Amerli is less than eight km from the Kurdish Peshmergas who have been receiving US military assistance to stave off the IS advance into the Kurdish-controlled region. Neither the Peshmergas nor the Americans initially showed much willingness to take on the IS in Amerli and save the town’s 20,000 people from a murderous onslaught.
Meanwhile, Turkey, Iraq’s northern neighbour, although traditionally considered a protector of the Turkmen, an ethnic Turkish minority, has taken a do-nothing approach to stop the calamity-in-the-making.
The Iraqi security forces, recovering from a humiliating defeat by IS and unable to stop its advances, repeatedly tried to relieve Amerli but to no avail.
Feeling abandoned, the town’s poorly armed population organised to fight the IS extremists closing in on the town. To many Iraqis these people’s heroic resistance in scorching summer heat, with little drinking water, food or other necessities, has evoked the memory of the siege of Stalingrad during World War II.
It was the Iran-backed Shia militias who eventually did the job of breaking the siege on the town and freeing its battle-weary population on Sunday, demonstrating combat skills superior to those of the government and Kurdish troops who fell back to their territories after an IS push in June.
In the aftermath of this impeccably executed offensive, those who had previously abandoned Amerli to its fate during the siege claimed credit for the breakthrough. The Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga were trumpeted as having taken part in the victory, while the American media claimed it was only made possible by US air strikes.
Turkey, meanwhile, was praised for sending humanitarian aid.
The siege and the town’s liberation underlines the multi-dimensional aspects of the Iraqi conflict, in which many ethno-sectarian domestic forces and regional and international actors are involved. It also underscores the importance of the victory in the context of the rise of IS and its seizure of large amounts of territory in northern and western Iraq.
Though a small farming community, Amerli is important in both military and political terms. The town, 170 km north of Baghdad, is located on a strategic plateau, the Himreen Heights, linking the Iraqi capital to the northern Kurdish-controlled territories.
Amerli also cuts off the IS-controlled areas from the east and the west. The control of the plateau by Shia forces could allow them to build up strong defences against the Sunni insurgency and push westwards, linking up with forces fighting IS in Tikrit.
The success of the campaign in Amerli has also bolstered spirits in the south, where Iraqi security forces and Shia militias are battling IS militants trying to capture more territory and topple the Shia-led government.
Shia militias are already operating in central Iraq to deter IS attacks on Baghdad and other towns, but their successes in Amerli will grant them a position in the front line of the fighting as important paramilitary units.
Undoubtedly, breaking the siege of Amerli will have far-reaching consequences for the conflict in Iraq. It will embolden the Shias and prove that Shia militias, with their growing numbers and battle-tested skills, will not be at a disadvantage in the fight.
Moreover, the victory in Amerli reveals a lot about the Shias’ strategic thinking. While the Shia-led security forces and militias have been able to slow the IS advance on Baghdad and key Shia areas, they have been less enthusiastic about liberating Sunni-populated cities.
A look at the Iraqi landscape following the IS advances shows that the Shia are using whatever skills and experience they have to draw the lines of a prospective Shia enclave in central and southern Iraq.
The IS summer offensive has already pushed Iraq close to partition between its Shia Arab majority in the south, its Sunni Arab provinces in the centre, and its semi-autonomous ethnic Kurdish region to the north.
Since the standoff with IS began in June, the Kurds have captured vast swathes of territory in the so-called disputed areas and announced that these are now part of the Kurdistan Region.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has also asked the Kurdish parliament to establish an electoral commission and set a date for a referendum on independence, vowing that the newly acquired territories will never be returned to Baghdad’s control.
On the other hand, the IS takeover of huge chunks of Sunni-populated territory has also changed Iraqi Sunni politics. While IS remains at the head of the rebellion, the terror organisation has formed an alliance with other Sunni groups, including Saddam Hussein loyalists, other hard-line Islamic groups and tribal leaders.
These groups form the backbone of IS and provide it with military expertise, combat skills and local support.
In addition, non-Arab Sunnis are taking a vanguard role with IS in the fight against the Shias. The media in Iraq has reported that those besieging Amerli were Kurdish extremists belonging to the Ansar Al-Islam Group, formerly known as Ansar Al-Sunna, a Kurdish extremist group allied with IS and bent on establishing an Islamic state.
Other reports have suggested that the rapid IS advance in Turkmen areas only became possible because of the support the organisation has received from Sunni Turkmens.
Turkmen extremists have long been known to be operating with Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, but it is particularly grim to find that they have been participating in atrocities against fellow ethnic Turks for sectarian reasons.
It is unlikely that Iraq’s Sunnis will stay allied to IS for long. But the terror group will meanwhile cause enough damage to deepen Iraq’s communal conflict by further dividing Iraqis on sectarian lines.
Something extraordinary has been happening in the Iraqi Sunni community since the IS takeover of the Sunni provinces in June. The biggest change is that most Sunnis now want to have a sort of autonomous region in Iraq that will give them more say in running their own provinces.
Set against the traditional Sunni commitment to remain in a unified Iraq, such are the risks that many Sunnis seem prepared to take in order to confront the fundamental threat of IS.
It explains why so many Sunnis have started talking about a federal Sunni region in order to end their political marginalisation and improve their living conditions through a system of sharing Iraq’s national wealth.
The proposal for Sunni self-rule has been gathering momentum with efforts to form a new government, under pressure to be more inclusive so that it can better combat IS. Another source of pressure on the present Shia-led government has been the renewed proposal for a “functioning federalism” in Iraq put forward by US Vice-President Joe Biden and repeated last week.
Though this has not been officially adopted by the US administration, the plan suggests that Iraq be divided into three semi-autonomous regions for the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. The Shias seem to be taking this partition plan seriously and fear that the conflict triggered by IS may now have put the suggestion on the front burner.
Even before the Amerli victory, Shias were readying themselves for such an eventuality. Soldiers and militias have been busy building a network of trenches and earth barricades around hotspots such as Jurf Al-Sakhar west of Baghdad, Samara in the north and areas in Diyala to the west.
These defences seem to be intended to protect the capital and Shia-populated cities from invasion. But it also indicates that a border line is under construction to separate these areas from the Sunni heartland.
In many small towns around Baghdad Shia militias are reportedly forcing Sunni inhabitants to leave their homes under suspicion that they could be IS sleeper cells or sympathisers.
This quiet sectarian cleansing, being carried out under the eyes of the security forces, is another sign of Shia preparedness for Iraq’s breakup, which the Shias probably believe is just waiting over the horizon.