Obama and the Coalition of Nations

What the world needs now may be love, but more urgently it needs the end of Islamist jihadism, the greatest danger to Western civilization and values. The arrest on September 18, 2014 in Sydney, Australia of 15 alleged jihadists, local Islamic State supporters, preparing to kidnap at random innocent persons and behead them in a gruesome spectacle in the streets of Sydney, is another reminder of that urgent need.

No wakeup call is required to realize that the same kind of direct threat exists against the homeland of the U.S. It serves no purpose to minimize, as some spokespersons for the Obama Administration have done, the danger to the U.S. and Western countries of terrorist attacks. Similarly shortsighted is the view of Daniel Benjamin, former State Department counterterrorism adviser, that public comments about the ISIS threat have been a “farce.”

It is equally pointless to relax one’s guard on the belief that there is no credible information of an impending attack on the West from IS. The world is now full of Jihadist groups, whether al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front, or the Islamic State, some of whose supporters are trained to carry out terrorist attacks in their Western countries of origin. For policy purposes, it is useful to list some of the groups to which attention should be paid.

The groups exist around the world: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrab (Aqim) in Mali; Boko Haram in Nigeria; Al-Shabab in Somalia; Taliban in Afghanistan; Ansar al-Sharia in Libya; Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia; Jemaah Islamiah in Indonesia; Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines; Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis in Egypt.  Above them all is the Islamic State (IS), (formerly ISIS or ISIL), in Iraq and Syria, a ruling state, a Caliphate, as well as a terrorist organization.

It needs to be repeated that IS, a Caliphate with enormous wealth, large quantities of weapons, and an appetite for power, has ambitions to expand its territorial control in the Middle East. Under its ruthless leader the Caliph and Commander in Chief, formerly known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claims to be descended from the Prophet, the IS is first consolidating its rule, then plans to conquer the bordering Muslim states, and then to “battle against the Crusaders” (the West). IS has a governing structure and a functioning bureaucracy with two parts, one for Syria and the other for Iraq, each with 12 Governors, an eight-man Shura Council, the religious monitor, and a number of committees , each responsible for specific services.

Along with the ambition of IS in the Middle East, the Western individuals who have joined the ranks of IS pose a potential danger to their countries of origin, including the U.S. homeland. Thus the need for strong Western response to the threat is urgent. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has reported on his attempts to form a coalition, to enlist allies in the fight, to obtain the support of ten Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and some promises from others. Saudi Arabia has proposed training facilities and providing equipment for Syrian rebel fighters, though it will not commit troops against fellow Muslims.  

How should the West respond? There still appears to be no clear vision or comprehensive long-term U.S. strategy except the refusal to deploy ground forces. Vice President Joe Biden spoke of going to the “gates of hell” to deal with IS, but didn’t say where that was or who would be leading the charge. President Obama has cautiously vacillated in his decisions and in general is not willing for the American military to be involved in quarrels in foreign countries. The projected U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan indicates the misapprehension of this policy, since the Taliban are likely to become more powerful there. Obama has made clear on many occasions that American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq.

Above all, Obama is no lone ranger: his policy is alone together. He has increased the number of air raids on IS bases in Iraq, but not yet in Syria. He did send 475 troops to assist the Kurds with training, intelligence, and equipment. If there is to be a meaningful coalition of nations it is imperative that U.S. political and military leaders agree on a serious plan of action.

Troops from European countries, and certainly from the United States, are unlikely to participate in military action on the ground. The NATO countries are unlikely to provide much assistance. Indeed, only four of them (US, UK, Greece, and Estonia) spend at least 2 per cent of their GDP on defense as required. Britain did send four Tornado jets to Cyprus for reconnaissance flights, and also a Rivet Joint intelligence gathering aircraft.

Action by Western countries must continue embracing air strikes over Syria as well as Iraq, training those rebel groups in Iraq and Syria who are prepared to fight IS, monitoring of the borders of Syria, Turkey, and Iraq, controlling ISIS funds, and preventing would-be home grown jihadists from joining IS. An initial problem is that training of the rebel groups has been slow and should be speeded up.

Above all, Western help to the Kurds is crucial. The Syrian Kurds must be strengthened, even though the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. and Turkey. The Kurds, occupying parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, the largest ethnic group in the world that is stateless, deserve a regime of their own, whether or not one accepts this conclusion they should be supplied with heavy weapons, including tanks and helicopters, with which to fight IS.

One country that is reluctant to join any international coalition is Turkey, though it is a NATO country with a large army. Turkey, which has a 560-mile border with Syria, was partly responsible for allowing ISIS to gain strength by allowing weapons, material, and foreign fighters from Europe and elsewhere to enter its country and travel through Syria to join ISIS terrorists.

So far Turkey has been unwilling to act for two stated reasons. The first is that the IS holds hostage 49 Turkish diplomats and their families who were captured in June 2014 when ISIS overran the Turkish Consulate in Mosul. The second is the animosity between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK, the group which has been among those leading the fight against IS.

Turkey has not acted as an ally or even a friend. It has allowed exiled members of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to reside in its country. It has benefited from the oil smuggling by ISIS, at least $3 million a day, and from banking transactions. It generally minimized the threat of ISIS. It refused to sign the statement of September 11, 2014 issued in Saudi Arabia when regional leaders agreed to help stop foreign jihadists and funds going to the Islamic State. 

Turkey has declared that the U.S. cannot use the air bases on its territory, especially the large one at Incirlik, for airstrikes against IS. It appears that IS has some kind of unofficial office in Istanbul and has been actively recruiting in that city. More than 1000 Turks have joined IS, either for ideological reasons or for money, said to be $150 a day. This is attractive for Turks, of whom 17 per cent live below the poverty line. Turkey has also allowed anti-Assad Islamic extremists to operate within its territory. If Turkey is not forthcoming, a good case can be made for its removal from NATO.

The Obama Administration must persist in the effort, difficult though it is, to assemble a coalition of nations to overcome the most threatening menace in the world today, and to lead from in front.