WASHINGTON – The Obama administration has begun a campaign to form a coalition against Islamic State comprised of nations across Europe and the Middle East, anticipating a long military confrontation with the terrorist group.
Calling the organization nihilistic, apocalyptic and the true face of evil, America’s top national security and defense officials are warning that Islamic State – based in Syria, operating throughout Iraq and terrorizing millions within its domain – poses a threat not only to the US homeland, but to the world, and first and foremost to those governments the group seeks to topple in its attempt to forge an Islamist caliphate throughout the Levant.
US President Barack Obama is to travel to Wales this week for a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, where the first order of business is expected to be Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But Obama looks to push European leaders to further involve their governments in the fight against Islamic State.
“One can expect NATO to make advances on that front,” Charles Kupchan, White House senior director for European affairs, said in a call with reporters, describing the president as “forward leaning” in his efforts to push NATO to confront the group.
Days before the summit, British Prime Minister David Cameron stressed that Islamic State posed a “greater threat to our security than we have seen before,” warning that the group directly threatens Turkey, a NATO member.
Facing a particularly severe threat of terrorism from the group, the United Kingdom appears likely to participate in the US-led coalition. Public intelligence estimates suggest roughly a third of all foreign fighters affiliated with Islamic State in Syria are British, and the UK’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, which reports to MI5, warned on Friday that an attack against Britain is a high likelihood should those fighters return home.
Obama spoke on Friday of his “comprehensive strategy” to push back the Islamist organization, outlining initial efforts to form a coalition.
Any successful strategy, Obama said, “needs strong regional partners” involving “all the Sunni states in the region and Sunni leadership recognizing that this cancer that has developed is one that they have to be just as invested in defeating as we are.”
“I’m encouraged so far that countries in the region – countries that don’t always agree on many things – increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat that ISIL [Islamic State] poses to all of them,” the president continued.
Obama had grown concerned with the level of anticipation in Western media that US strikes against Islamic State targets might be imminent within Syria, where the group metastasized in the vacuum created by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s civil war, and where it holds its capital.
Critics of the White House pounced, however, when the president said he and his national security team “don’t have a strategy yet” to confront Islamic State. The White House says he was referring specifically to military positioning against targets within Syrian territory, and not to a comprehensive plan.
After the NATO summit, Secretary of State John Kerry is to travel to the Middle East to rally support among nations most directly affected by the terrorist onslaught.
Islamic State’s origins go back to al-Qaida fighting US troops in Iraq, which has over a decade of experience killing innocent people, Kerry wrote in an op-ed featured in Sunday’s New York Times.
“They are larger and better funded in this new incarnation, using pirated oil, kidnapping and extortion to finance operations in Syria and Iraq,” he wrote. “They are equipped with sophisticated heavy weapons looted from the battlefield. They have already demonstrated the ability to seize and hold more territory than any other terrorist organization, in a strategic region that borders Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and is perilously close to Israel.”
Kerry said there is a role “for almost every country” in this fight, whether it be military, financial, political or humanitarian assistance, in the form of aircraft, foreign direct investment, public support or the hosting of refugees.
“Extremists are defeated only when responsible nations and their peoples unite to oppose them,” Kerry continued.
In Obama’s focused efforts to recruit Sunni governments to the cause, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah appeared willing to participate over the weekend, warning of terrorism against the West if the world “neglects” the threat.
Similar words have come from the government in Qatar, which has been criticized for its support of Sunni extremist groups in Gaza, Syria and elsewhere throughout the region. Doha, however, already provides indirect military support against the fight against Islamic State. US Central Command, a vital forwarding base, has already facilitated American strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq.
Other governments likely to join the coalition against Islamic State include Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and France.
During Iraq’s challenging political transition earlier this summer, before its Shi’ite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, declared his intent to leave office peacefully, Kerry suggested Iran might be able to play a constructive role in providing political stability in Baghdad. Maliki lived in Iran during Saddam Hussein’s reign and maintained close ties with Iran throughout his premiership.
The US says Iranian arms-shipments to Iraq, however, violate sanctions against the Islamic Republic imposed due to its illicit nuclear work.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not commented extensively on the threat of Islamic State, and has not indicated whether his government is prepared to confront it in conjunction with NATO powers, currently sanctioning Russia for its actions in eastern Ukraine.
Russian and Chinese support would be required should the US, UK and France seek to authorize action in Syria through the UN Security Council.
Leaders in Israel, too, have remained quiet on the threats posed by the group, and on its willingness to aid such a coalition. Given the nature of its alliances in the region, however, Jerusalem is not expected to provide any assistance publicly.