The United States on Friday announced that on the sidelines of this week’s NATO summit it had put together a “core coalition” to act against militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the latest iteration of a formula that has supported intervention in Iraq since the first Gulf War.
President Obama and other world leaders are currently meeting in Wales to discuss the bevy of issues that are currently vexing the world, including the political turmoil in Afghanistan ahead of the alliance’s withdrawal this year and a newly emboldened Russia that has sent troops into neighboring Ukraine. But at the top of the minds of many of the Western leaders was how to push back against ISIS, which since June has controlled a vast swath of territory in both Iraq and Syria. According to the New York Times, “diplomats and defense officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark conferred on what they called a two-pronged strategy: working to bolster allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria, while attacking Sunni militants from the air. They said the goal was to destroy the Islamist militant group, not to contain it.”
When compared with the list of those countries who provided the bulk of the support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the new coalition provides a few interesting points of divergence. Then, only four countries played a major role in actually taking control of the country from Saddam Hussein: America, the United Kingdom, Australia, and to a lesser extent Poland. The rest of what would become the Multinational Force — Iraq, including countries like Romania and Honduras, would be deployed later to help attempt to stabilize the country.
Conservatives have already begun to pan the announcement of the core coalition, drawing unfavorable comparisons to 2003. “10 countries,” tweet Richard Grenell, who served as a spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations throughout the Bush administration, “Thrown together. Bush had 48.” Brian Faughman, who works with the LIBRE Initiative, added, “Obama ‘coalition’ approach much narrower than Bush’s ‘go-it-alone.’” While there are clearly some overlaps between the two groups, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Denmark and Poland, the “core” group lined up against ISIS has a few advantages over those assembled in 2003.
In 2003, Germany and France were both strongly opposed to action in Iraq, depriving the U.S. of key support in Europe. Adding in those countries gives the group the support of two of the most militarily powerful states in Europe. Canada’s support adds to the cohesion among the most capable members of NATO and Ottawa’s support will also translate over into the G-7. Most strikingly, the group announced on Friday includes Turkey, which not only neighbors Iraq but serves as a Muslim-majority country that can be put forward as a defense against claims that the campaign against ISIS isn’t yet another Western invasion of a Muslim country.
So far, a number of countries named on Friday have already begun to take action against ISIS. “Some of them, including Britain, France and Canada, have already participated in humanitarian airdrops to Iraqi communities besieged by Islamic State forces and have delivered weapons to the Iraqi military or Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq,” the Washington Post notes. “Germany has said it will also supply weapons.” A U.S. official also pointed out that “certain countries bring specific expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence, Turkey in border control and Saudi Arabia in financing.”
When speaking about the meeting, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel also referred to the countries as a “core coalition,” leaving open the possibility for other states to join on providing back-up support to any military action the set takes against ISIS. At present, Arab countries in the region are notably absent from the announced group, even though Jordan’s King Abdullah II was present at the NATO summit for consultations with President Obama on how to move forward against ISIS. But U.S. officials are currently attempting to draw them in. “What we have got to make sure is that we are organizing the Arab world, the Middle East, the Muslim world, along with the international community to isolate this cancer,” Obama said on Wednesday.
The announcement of a two-pronged strategy against ISIS is part of the U.S.’ efforts to contain the fallout from Obama speaking off-the-cuff last week about the odds of the White House going to Congress to seek approval for strikes against ISIS in Syria, across the border from where the U.S. has been operating in Iraq. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” Obama said then. “We don’t have a strategy yet. I think what I’ve seen in some of the news reports suggests that folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”
“There is no contain policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said ahead of his and Hagel’s meeting with NATO allies, using the name for ISIS the government prefers. “They’re an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial-grabbing, Caliphate-desiring, quasi state within a regular army. And leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us. So there is no issue in our minds about our determination to build this coalition, go after this.”
After the meeting, Hagel and Kerry issued a joint statement laying out just what the newly minted coalition plans on doing against ISIS, including providing military support to Iraq, stopping the flow of foreign fighters that seek to join ISIS, countering ISIS’ financing, and addressing the humanitarian crisis that the group has spawned. With the countries named on deck, and the list likely to grow as the Gulf states announce just how they plan on supporting this countering of ISIS, the 2014 version of the “coalition of the willing” is looking far more robust than its 2003 counterpart.