President Barack Obama's acknowledgement the U.S. still lacks a strategy
for defeating the growing extremist threat emanating from Syria
reflects a still unformed international coalition.
The president is meeting with his top advisers and consulting members of
Congress to prepare U.S. military options. At the same time, he is
looking for allies around the world to help the U.S. root out the
Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of territory in Syria
"Any successful strategy ... needs strong regional partners," Obama told reporters Thursday.
In the last year-and-a-half, Islamic State extremists have fought the
Syrian army, Hezbollah and Iranian forces. They've clashed with
al-Qaida's local affiliate, routed Iraq's army and pushed back Kurdish
peshmerga fighters. American airstrikes in Iraq have recently caused
somewhat of a retreat. But U.S. military leaders say the terrorists
can't be crushed unless their sanctuaries in Syria are targeted.
While debate in the United States centers on military tactics and
Obama's level of congressional and public support for action in Syria,
U.S. officials are trying to come up with a coordinated approach to
fighting the Islamic State group among a wide range of governments and
militias. Some are competing against each other for influence or engaged
in outright war.
A look at what the United States is probably asking, and not asking, of some of the region's central players:
IRAQ — Iraq is the focus of U.S. strikes against Islamic State and is
Obama's priority. The U.S. wants the new government under prime
minister-designate Haider al-Abadi to be as inclusive as possible,
bringing Sunni groups back to the government and away from the Islamic
State. It is trying to get the army to improve rapidly after it fled
from several fights. The U.S. also is likely to continue arming Iraqi
Kurdish forces. All of the efforts aim to push back the extremists on
the battlefield and isolate them from supportive communities. If Sunni
tribes turn on the Islamic State, as with al-Qaida in Iraq in the last
decade, it could leave the group short of local recruits and safe
SYRIA — The epicenter of the problem, Syria is still the big question
mark for Obama. He says the U.S. won't cooperate with President Bashar
Assad, whose government is battling Islamic State fighters but whom
Obama wants to leave power after a bloody civil war. U.S. and Syrian
officials rarely, if ever, communicate any longer. However, the U.S.
needs a ground force ready to assert control in the event of strikes
against the Islamic State group. That won't be American soldiers. And in
Syria, there are only two real alternatives to Assad's army and the
Islamists: the moderate rebels and the Kurds.
The moderates are weak, squeezed by extremists and government forces,
and may need American assistance simply to hold on. Syria's Kurds,
meanwhile, have long been ostracized by the U.S. for their links to
terrorism in neighboring Turkey. Working with them against the Islamic
State group would be a significant policy shift and probably require
Turkey's blessing. Having no one to fill the power void could lead Syria
further down the road toward a failed state. As a warning, the U.S.
need only look at lawless Libya three years after dictator Moammar
TURKEY — America's only NATO partner among countries bordering Syria,
Turkey will be counted on to help in any military effort there, at least
in a supporting role. The Obama administration will want to see greater
action from its ally preventing extremists and weapons crossing into
Syria, and stopping Islamic State fighters from smuggling oil out of
Syria and into Turkey, a significant source of its revenue. If the U.S.
decides to more seriously support Syria's opposition, it will probably
ask Turkey to contribute in a big way. Much of the opposition's more
moderate leadership is in Turkey.
SAUDI ARABIA, EGYPT, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES — The leaders of the Sunni
Arab world's moderate bloc, the U.S. would probably seek their
inclusion, too, in any military intervention. All have highly advanced
air forces, largely featuring U.S. equipment. All share intelligence
with the U.S. and can team up on special operations missions. Their
participation would lend significant regional legitimacy to any U.S.-led
bombing campaign. Washington hopes these governments can stamp out
private funding and recruiting among its citizens for the Islamic State
QATAR — A leader among Sunni Islamists, Qatari political support and
military participation could be significant. The U.S. says Qatar isn't
backing the Islamic State group, but it can do more to eliminate
donations from its citizens. With billions in oil revenue at its
disposal, the Gulf emirate could help peel off less extremist Sunnis
that have joined the Islamic State's cause either out of desperation in
Syria or marginalization in Iraq. To shape a Syrian opposition the U.S.
can count on, the Obama administration will need greater discipline from
Qatar on what types of groups it aids. That may be a tough sell with a
Qatari leadership that has supported some unsavory actors to expand its
JORDAN, LEBANON — The countries facing the greatest threat of a new
Islamic State offensive, the United States wants different things of
these two. U.S. and Jordanian special forces have cooperated for a
couple of years in Syria, vetting opposition groups and providing
limited weapons and training to those deemed worthy of assistance. The
Americans will probably seek an active military role for the Jordanians,
but will need to assure them the U.S. is committed to the Islamic State
group's destruction. "King Abdullah doesn't want to be hanging out
there if the United States moves on," says Frederic Hof, the State
Department's former point-man for Syria and a senior fellow at the
Atlantic Council. Lebanon is trickier, given the Shiite militant group
Hezbollah's influence in the country and active involvement on behalf of
Assad in Syria's civil war. The most Washington could probably hope for
is Lebanon to keep a lid on its own problems and not add to regional
Shiite vs. Sunni confrontation.
IRAN — Little can be expected from one of the world's most hostile
relationships. There is no room for Washington and Tehran to cooperate
operationally. And their broader goals for Syria are at odds, with
Iranian units fighting for Assad and the U.S. backing groups determined
to oust him. When it comes to the Islamic State, however, U.S. and
Iranian interests align. Officials even have held rare talks on the
matter. The Americans, relieved at least that Iran is backing Iraq's new
government, hope their rivals will do nothing to destabilize the region
further. To that end, the U.S. will probably protest only
half-heartedly continued Iranian military support to Iraqi authorities
in Baghdad and Kurds in the north, in contravention of United Nations
sanctions. In Syria, the scope for even tacit understanding between the
two sides is more limited.
RUSSIA — Further afield, Washington would ideally seek Moscow's
political support and ask it to serve as an intermediary with Syria and
other Mideast governments the U.S. wants little to do with. Tension over
Ukraine makes even modest cooperation unlikely. There is no chance of
the Kremlin allowing a U.N. authorization for force in Syria. The U.S.
could ask President Vladimir Putin to put in a word with Assad to
minimize the risk of confrontation, especially if the U.S. sends planes
into Syria's airspace or special forces cross into its territory.
Whether Putin would cooperate is anyone's guess. Russia will insist on
Assad's demand that any international military action be subject to
Syrian government approval, which would put the US in the uncomfortable
position of acting in concert with Assad..
EUROPE — America will count on its closest allies to provide significant
humanitarian support for Iraqis and Syrians caught in the Islamic
State's warpath. It would welcome military action from powerhouses such
as Britain and France, but the biggest U.S. concern with Europe centers
on the Islamic State's foreign fighters. The U.S. wants heightened
vigilance toward thousands of Europeans fighting for extremist armies in
Iraq and Syria. The concern is mutual, given that most European
citizens can visit the United States without visas without visas and
Americans can similarly travel freely to Europe. U.S. intelligence
officials see Islamic State fighters with U.S. or Western passports as
the greatest terror threat today to the United States.
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