Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Can the anti-ISIS alliance succeed?

The Daily Star
Tuesday September 9 2014
By Michael Glackin

An American secret service agent at last week’s NATO summit in Wales had to be rushed to hospital after a car in the presidential motorcade ran over his foot. The unfortunate agent wasn’t alone in being left nursing a wound after the summit. The idea of a unified, coherent strategy to tackle the ISIS looked distinctly fractured too.

Western leaders ramped up their rhetoric against ISIS, but offered little in the way of a meaningful strategy to bring them to heel. While a “core coalition” of 10 nations, including the United Kingdom, signed up for what is likely to be a major military onslaught, 18 other NATO members refused to join. And even within the coalition there were divisions about how to proceed.

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to inject much-needed momentum into tackling ISIS, calling for agreement on an international plan to deal with the group in time for this month’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, British Prime Minister Cameron insisted the West, and the U.K. in particular, was not “at the stage” where military action could be taken.

Indeed, there was evident irritation within Cameron’s government at Kerry’s apparent desire to hastily place Western nations at the forefront of the effort to tackle ISIS at a time when the U.K. was in the delicate process of trying to build an Arab coalition with Sunni allies in the Middle East, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Cameron stressed the need to “proceed carefully and methodically” and, along with French President Francois Hollande, insisted it was best to wait until a new “inclusive” Iraqi government was in place before launching military action. That could take months.

Obama is to set out his “game plan” for defeating ISIS this week. But it seems clear from last weekend’s airstrikes against ISIS in Anbar province in western Iraq that Washington is not going to wait for an “inclusive” government to be formed in Baghdad.

Further differences within the “core coalition” were also exposed when Cameron lashed out at governments – widely understood to include three members of the coalition, Germany, France and Italy, along with Spain – that choose to pay ransoms to ISIS and other militant groups for the return of kidnapped nationals.

The British government is understood to be negotiating through “intermediaries” to gain the release of British national David Haines, who was paraded in a video showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff last week. However, it has steadfastly refused to pay for his release.

In fact, the 10-nation coalition agreed on one thing only: that any military action would stop short of putting conventional troops into battle, which Kerry described as “a red line for everybody.”

But while Western leaders repeat the mantra “no boots on the ground,” the reality is that a campaign against ISIS cannot prevail without at least some Western military presence to help secure the areas bombed from above.

Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders, are aware of this. Western special service units will be on the ground, but the West has no intention of putting large numbers of troops in harm’s way. They do not want to end up hostages to fortune, to what could again prove to be a bloody long-term military and political commitment without a clear exit strategy.

That is part of the reason, along with the need to escape the shadow of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, why Cameron is so keen to ensure Arab involvement in actions against ISIS. This involvement would be in the shape of cash, manpower and future political commitment. However, Arab support is likely to be patchy, and could prove impossible to broker, as Kerry may discover when he visits the Middle East this week.

That said, the meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo Sunday endorsed taking of “all necessary measures” against ISIS and promised that member states were prepared to cooperate with international efforts to defeat ISIS.

Both the American and British governments believe direct military involvement by the Arab states against ISIS could be possible within the framework of the so-called Arab League joint defense pact. Some may remember that the last effective action orchestrated under the defense pact was the ban on Elizabeth Taylor films in the Arab world during the mid-1950s, because of the actress’ support for Israel. In reality the way the pact is formulated makes collective Arab military action difficult.

For example, there isn’t much Saudi Arabia and Qatar can agree upon, and neither wants to embark on a military campaign that would aid a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, and ultimately strengthen Tehran’s regional power. The U.K. places much faith in Jordan, but King Abdullah’s much-touted participation in the NATO summit was barely noticeable after his arrival.

Elsewhere, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have shown a clear, some would say worrying, willingness to take responsibility for regional affairs as evidenced by their cooperation in launching airstrikes against extremist Islamist militias in Libya.

Even an Arab coalition of sorts does not address the more complex issue of whether to launch airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria. When Obama talks about “defeating” ISIS, Syria is where the group must ultimately be faced. Let us hope the president can offer a coherent strategy for defeating ISIS when he speaks on Wednesday – one to which the West and regional powers can really sign up. Otherwise, the damage the West is inflicting on itself and the region will take longer to heal than the hapless secret service agent’s sore foot.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 09, 2014, on page 7.

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