Coalition of the unwilling
“Choose your enemies carefully, but be less picky about your allies.” This was the title of a piece published by the Financial Times three days ago, which reflects exactly where we all stand today.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levent (ISIL), who now refer to themselves as the Islamic State, remind us all of al-Qaeda terror. Yet, still, the formation of a “coalition of the willing” seems to be a long way off.
Such a coalition was formed and led by the United States in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. The “willing” countries were the ones who supported the military invasion of Iraq and their number had reached 49 by 2003.
It is just the opposite today. There is no one willing at all. Hence, there no real coalition. The result of the two-day NATO summit in Wales that ended on Sept. 5 proved this. It was announced that a “core coalition” of 10 countries, including only one neighbor of Iraq, Turkey, has been formed. However, its objective was declared as “shoring up those who are fighting against ISIL.” Hence, it should be named a “support group” rather than a “coalition.”
Building up a regional coalition seems to be the only strategy the U.S. has in hand. It was first the chairman of the Chief of Staff, Martin Dempsey, who brought that forward: “Only a broad, long-standing and organized regional coalition composed of Muslim countries can defeat ISIS.” He also specified these countries: “I believe that our key allies in the region – Jordan, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – will join us in quashing it.”
President Barack Obama joined this rhetoric during his visit to Estonia just before the NATO summit, which took place this Thursday and Friday in Wales. During the press conference in Tallinn, he said the main aim of the summit would be to build up a regional coalition and to develop a regional strategy.
The same message dominated his joint editorial with British Prime Minister David Cameron, which was published in the British daily The Times the very same day. To the same end, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have just started their trip to the Middle East, which will include a visit to Turkey.
There are two reasons behind this: Washington thinks that ISIL is a Sunni problem and therefore its solution lies with the Sunnis. In other words, the U.S. aims to withdraw its support for both the local Sunnis and the Sunni countries in the region. Second, the West has taken enough lessons from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is trying to put the military load of the current conflict with ISIL onto regional powers. Cameron stated this explicitly in Wales: “Our aim is to help countries which are directly threatened by ISIL in their fight on the ground.”
However, the emergence of such a coalition is out of sight at the moment. First of all, the U.S. itself doesn’t have a concrete strategy yet. Hence its capacity to convince the regional powers is very limited. Furthermore, the regional powers are afraid of ISIL, especially Turkey, which has citizens that are currently being held hostage by it. Moreover, the Gulf countries believe that attacking ISIL in Syria would only strengthen Bashar al-Assad. These countries also have close links with the Sunni tribes and local governors in Iraq and Syria. Last but not least, a reasonable amount of their public and wealthy class are supporters of ISIL’s cause.
Beyond all of these, the status of NATO is also problematic. The collective security institution that was established 65 years ago fulfilled its mission when the Soviet Union dissolved 23 years ago. Since then it has been in a continuous – and unsuccessful – effort in attempting to find a new mission for itself.
And now the organization is expected to address the ISIL threat. However, it is almost impossible to make this Cold War institution adapt to the new challenges of the 21st century. This is why no concrete step toward ISIL has materialized from the summit.
In short, it seems to be impossible that the U.S. could even form a “coalition of the unwilling” under the current circumstances. Other than the Kurdish peshmergas and the Iraqi government, the only actors who it could ally with seem to be Iran and Syria’s al-Assad. This brings us back to the very top of this column. Being picky seems to be an unaffordable luxury today.