Kerry heads to Jordan, Saudi Arabia to rally against Islamic State

US hopes to convince Saudis to fund, train moderate Syrian rebels to serve as ground force to secure territory cleared by US air power.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spokeswoman Jen Psaki (photo credit: REUTERS)
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Spokeswoman Jen Psaki
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Jordan and Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to rally the region for a broad fight against Islamic State, preceding a major address by US President Barack Obama to the American people on his battle plan.
Kerry plans to meet with his counterparts in Jeddah and Amman, following a meeting of the Arab League on Sunday that endorsed action against the group, if not explicitly joining the cause. Both kingdoms have publicly allied themselves with the US in its fight against the terrorist organization, which has swept throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq since June.
The US hopes to convince the Saudis to fund and train moderate Syrian rebels who can serve as a ground force to secure territory ultimately cleared by US air power. Moderate Syrian groups supported by the US have lost significant ground in the civil war there, confronted by Islamic State from the country’s east and the army of Syrian President Bashar Assad from the west.
Obama hopes that, in due course, those moderate forces can “effectively wage that battle on behalf of the citizens of their country,” reclaiming territory, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday.
While in the region, Kerry remains open to meeting with other partners to discuss participation in the US-led coalition, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Monday, noting that 40 countries have, in one way or another, contributed to the coalition thus far.
During a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Wales last week, nine European countries signed on to help fight the group.
The US has conducted nearly 150 strikes against the Islamist force in Iraq, but has refrained from striking the group in Syria.
Obama is expected to address that policy gap Wednesday in a national address.
At the NATO summit on Friday, Kerry said that the destruction of the Islamic State network might take three years or more – an admission that the threat may extend beyond the remaining years in Obama’s presidency.
The State Department reiterated that suspicion on Monday, with Psaki noting that terrorist threats would not end “at the conclusion of one government.”
Meanwhile, 70 kilometers from Baghdad, Islamic State fighters attacked a riverside town on Monday with gunboats and a car bomb, killing 17 people and wounding 54.
Local security sources said the attack on the town of Dhuluiya was carried out before dawn and continued for two hours before the rebels were pushed back. Among the dead in the attack, the largest of its kind in the area, were civilians and Iraqi forces.
Most of the casualties were caused by the car bomb, which struck a market. Dhuluiya is part of a belt of Sunni towns north of Baghdad where Islamic State has managed to wrest some control.
Syrian government planes killed at least 60 civilians, including a dozen children, in two days of air strikes on Islamic State-held territory at the weekend, activists said on Monday.
Assad’s military has stepped up an aerial campaign over the last three months against Islamic State, an al-Qaida offshoot that controls about a third of Syria’s territory, much of it desert in the north and east.
The air strikes hit a number of Islamic State targets but have killed many civilians in territory under the group’s control.
The death toll included 41 killed during air strikes on Saturday that hit an Islamic Staterun bakery in its stronghold of Raqqa city in the north, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Another 19 civilians were killed in the eastern Deir al-Zor province, which borders Iraq and, like Raqqa province, is almost entirely controlled by Islamic State insurgents.
Confrontations between Islamic State and Assad’s forces have escalated sharply since the Islamists made lightning advances against Iraqi forces in June and declared the establishment of a caliphate.
Since then, Islamic State has killed hundreds of Syrian government forces and seized three military bases in Raqqa province.
Syria’s air force has bombed the group’s positions, even as US air strikes hit the group on the other side of the border in Iraq.
More than 190,000 people have been killed in Syria’s conflict since it started more than three years ago, according to the United Nations. The daily death toll from shelling, gun battles, air strikes and executions regularly rises to more than 200 per day.
Reuters contributed to this report.