WASHINGTON – Thirty nations sent delegates to Paris on Monday to discuss military coordination against Islamic State, but Iranians were not among them.
Those in attendance, including China, Russia, and the Arab League, agreed that “urgent” military action is required against the terrorist organization in northern Iraq. But no agreement was reached on how to claw back territory from Islamic State held in eastern Syria, where the United States has vowed to deny the group safe haven.
The first mission, said Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, is to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
“Thanks to the operations we are going to conduct, I think it won’t be very difficult to retake Mosul” in the medium- term, Jaafari said.
France has sent jets to Iraq, tasked primarily with reconnaissance but armed to conduct air strikes against Islamic State alongside the United States, Australia, and other partners that US Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to announce this week.
Kerry attended the conference in Paris after swinging through the Middle East to rally allies to the cause. The US seeks to build a coalition of moderate, predominantly Sunni governments that will fight the group, which purports to represent Sunni Islam.
That coalition, by count of the US State Department, now includes 40 nations, 10 of which are Arab states, contributing military, financial, political, and humanitarian aid.
Represented at the conference in Paris were the governments of Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, China, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the US, as well as the Arab League, European Union, and United Nations.
But the Syrian dimension of the Islamic State threat went largely ignored at the French gathering.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Monday that his government would not support action against Islamic State in Syrian territory without the expressed support of the Syrian government, headed by Bashar Assad, its nominal president no longer recognized as legitimate by Washington or its European partners.
Moscow also said its support is contingent on US coordination with Iran.
On this position, the US pushed back aggressively on Monday afternoon, questioning Russia’s commitment to those suffering on the ground in the borderless region under Islamic State control.
“If they are uninterested in helping the people of Syria and Iraq,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, “they can defend that position publicly themselves.”
Harf said Obama administration officials have engaged in private discussions with their Iranian counterparts over the events unfolding in Iraq, but that their discussions do not amount to coordination at a tactical level.
“We’re not going to be telling them what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re not going to be sharing intelligence.”
But Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei suggested otherwise on Monday, saying that the US had extended an invitation to Tehran to join its coalition against Islamic State. Iran has rejected that overture, Khamenei asserted, in a rare, direct diplomatic intervention.
“The American ambassador in Iraq asked our ambassador for a session to discuss coordinating a fight against Daesh [Islamic State],” Khamenei said, according to staterun Iranian television.
“I was opposed,” he continued. “I saw no point in cooperating with a country whose hands are dirty and intentions murky.”
Murky is the timeline of events, as the BBC Persian network reported only one week ago that Khamenei had approved such coordination.
State Department officials say that invitations to the Paris conference came from the French and Iraqi governments, and that they were “not aware of an invitation being issued to [Iran], nor of them wanting to accept one.”
Harf called the Iranians’ participation at this stage “premature” and “not appropriate.” And in Paris, Kerry said he had “no idea” what Khamenei was talking about.
“I’m not going to get into a back and forth,” the secretary said. “We are not coordinating with Iran. Period.”
US and Iranian officials will meet with their counterparts from the UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany in New York on Friday, set to resume discussions focused solely on Iran’s nuclear program. Those talks will extend through the United Nations General Assembly the following week.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen said the organization would not play a lead role in the military degradation of Islamic State.
But intervention by the group could be justified, he added, on grounds of self-defense or to prevent a campaign “pretty close to genocide.”
“A number of NATO allies are forming a coalition that also includes countries from the region,” Rasmussen said.
Intelligence community estimates suggest that thousands of civilians have died at the hands of Islamic State insurgents. The group seeks to form an extremist Islamist caliphate throughout the region.
Over the weekend, the group decapitated on camera a British citizen, David Haines, in the third such crime videotaped and publicized.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron has called the group monstrous and un-Islamic.
In the video, another Briton is threatened, unless Cameron’s government chooses to bow out of the US-led coalition.
Cameron refuses to do so. But asked whether the UK would be mounting a rescue operation for the remaining hostage, UK foreign minister Philip Hammond replied, “We don’t know where he is. It’s as simple as that.”