Analysis: The fight against Islamic State – and America’s coalition woes

President Obama gradually disengaged his country from the Middle East with no consideration for his old allies.

US Secretary of State John Kerry walks at the State Department in Washington October 2 (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry walks at the State Department in Washington October 2
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Fate has not been kind to US President Barack Obama, who twice was forced to admit over the course of a few days that he had failed: Failed to devise an adequate strategy against Islamic State, and worse, failed to obtain real-time information on what was becoming a major threat to the West.
Obama is now making an all-out effort to convince ever more Arab states to join the grand alliance he is building in order to show that far from fighting Islamic countries, he is defending them against the threat of extremist elements.
Immediately after the barbaric murder of journalist Steven Sotloff, Obama proclaimed the murderers were not representative of any religion, insisting the Islamic State terror group did not represent Islam.
The president has consistently demonstrated his sympathy towards Islam and expressed the wish to turn over a new leaf, after decades of political and military conflicts that led Muslims to believe the US was against Islam and oppressing them for no reason – a belief not shaken after 9/11.
Indeed, in his Cairo and Ankara speeches shortly after taking office, Obama tried to convince the Muslim world that America harbored no hostile feelings towards them. He pledged to free the Guantanamo prisoners; withdrew his support from Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak; helped topple Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; took American soldiers out of Iraq; ignored the Syrian crisis for far too long (though he did wade into the issue of chemical weapons); set a time limit for the presence of American troops in Afghanistan; engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood, believing they represented a moderate Islam and would promote democracy and progress in Arab countries; and tried to reach a “viable compromise” with Iran regarding its nuclear program.
In short, he gradually disengaged his country from the Middle East with no consideration for his old allies, such as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Left to its own devices, Iraq started disintegrating.
Egypt, for decades America’s staunchest ally, was “punished” for having gotten rid of the Muslim Brotherhood, and is still waiting for the long overdue delivery of much-needed American weapons.
All the while, seemingly undetected Islamist terror organizations were busy undermining the fragile equilibrium of the region, planning to impose by force a rejuvenated caliphate on the Middle East and the world at large.
It seems Obama has completely ignored the fact that an unstable Arab world is a permanent threat to itself and the West – including the US – and that the US has no choice but be present there, and do its best to understand its direction and try to control at least part of it. This colossal blunder is hard to believe.
Discovering far too late the existence and threat of Islamic State, the president of the strongest country in the world could only stammer that he did not know how to deal with it – and that apparently, his famed intelligence services had been caught napping. Senior intelligence officials reacted and said they had warned about the danger of Islamic State eight months ago. Still, it begs the question: Could those services had been lulled by their president’s rosy views about Islam? Suddenly, US Secretary of State John Kerry was desperately trying to press Arab countries into a coalition against Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States have – reluctantly – agreed. They are now on the front lines, the next target of Islamic State and al-Qaida.
One should, nevertheless, bear in mind that these groups and other jihadi movements are the product of strict Wahabi culture and education based on Shari’a, which has been taught in these states for decades. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, a recent unofficial survey showed that 93 percent of the population wholeheartedly supported Islamic State; figures are probably similar in other countries.
So, what of the coalition? The more than half-million- strong Iraqi army, trained and armed by America, simply ran when faced by a few thousand terrorists.
Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates are not keen to send their relatively small armies to fight Islamic State.
Should they be defeated, the autocratic regimes of these countries would be left defenseless.
Jordan’s army is stronger and better-trained, but would be hard-pressed to fight so far from its base; in any case, it is needed to protect the kingdom – threatened on the one hand by events in Syria, and on the other by possible attacks from Islamic State on its border with Iraq.
Egypt, with its large, disciplined army, control of the Suez Canal and vast airspace close to the fields of operations in Syria and Iraq, could and should have been the backbone of the coalition.
Unfortunately, relations between Cairo and Washington are not good enough.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has not refused to join the coalition, but has made clear that his country would not send troops or take part in the fighting. He has stated that the coalition should broaden its scope to encompass all terror organizations and not Islamic State alone, adding that Egypt has been fighting similar terror movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and others.
Sisi has stressed the need for a regional strategy to defeat them all, while pointedly reminding Washington that its embargo on providing Egypt with weapons, including F-16 and Apache helicopters, is still in force in spite of Kerry’s promises – even as Egypt fights terror from Sinai and now, the Libyan border.
The long-awaited meeting between Obama and Sisi, held September 25, brought no breakthrough. Obama did say that Egypt had, for decades, been the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East, but observers were quick to note he had used the past tense. And Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy security adviser, was at pains to reveal that after the meeting, the president had asked his Egyptian counterpart to free imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists and voiced his concern about human rights in Egypt.
The Egyptian Foreign Affairs Ministry preferred to emphasize that the two leaders did agree on the importance of good relations, and decided their respective foreign ministers would continue the strategic dialogue.
Yet according to Egyptian media, Sisi was expected to speak his mind on American policy and the dangers facing Egypt. In other words: No breakthrough.
Sisi will keep on paying lip service to the coalition, but nothing more – while devoting his energy to fighting terror at home. Furthermore, Egypt’s isolation will invite more attacks from terrorist movements, including Islamic State.
As long as Obama does not rethink his global strategy and his attitude toward Egypt, the country will remain for all intents and purposes outside the coalition.
What now? Will air raids alone be enough to stop and destroy Islamic State? Few people believe it.
Whose boots will ultimately be on the ground? And what of the larger question: Who will tackle terror throughout the Middle East and North Africa?