Friday, September 5, 2014

U.S. and Allies Form Coalition With Intent to Destroy ISIS

from nytimes

President Obama spoke with President François Hollande of France at the NATO summit in Newport, Wales, on Friday. CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

NEWPORT, Wales — The Obama administration said Friday that the United States and its allies had formed a coalition to fight Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, unveiling a military and political campaign that officials said could serve as a model for combating extremist groups around the world.

In a hastily organized meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit meeting here, 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.

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“There is no containment policy for ISIL,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at the beginning of the meeting, using an alternate acronym for ISIS. “They’re an ambitious, avowed, genocidal, territorial-grabbing, caliphate-desiring quasi state with an irregular army, and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would leave a cancer in place that will ultimately come back to haunt us.”

But he and other officials present made clear that at the moment, any ground combat troops would come from either Iraqi security forces or Kurdish pesh merga fighters on the ground in Iraq, or from moderate Syrian rebels opposed to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Obviously I think that’s a red line for everybody here: no boots on the ground,” Mr. Kerry said.

For President Obama, assembling a coalition to fight ISIS is critical. The president is loath to be viewed as going it alone in Iraq now that the United States has been dragged back into a combat role there. And even as Mr. Obama weighs expanding airstrikes into Syria, both he and his administration have been questioning what might happen after launching those strikes, especially as targeting ISIS in Syria would help the government of Mr. Assad, who President Obama has said must yield power.

An administration official on Friday said there were concrete reasons for assembling a coalition that went beyond the political cover that such an alliance might offer the president from a war-weary American public. For one thing, the official said, certain countries bring specific expertise, like Britain and Australia in special operations, Jordan in intelligence, Turkey in border control and Saudi Arabia in financing.

“Sure, the American military can handle airstrikes,” the official said, speaking on grounds of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic and military negotiations. “But it’s always nice to have help from your friends.”

American officials are hoping to expand the coalition against ISIS to include as many countries as possible, particularly in the region. Obama administration officials said privately that in addition to the countries that attended the meeting Friday morning, the United States was hoping to get quiet intelligence help about the Sunni militants from Jordan, whose leader, King Abdullah, was participating in the NATO summit.

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United States officials said they also expected Saudi Arabia to provide money and aid for moderate Syrian rebel groups. Yousef al-Otaiba, the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the United States, said in a statement earlier this week that the United Arab Emirates stood ready to join the fight against ISIS. “No one has more at stake than the U.A.E. and other moderate countries in the region that have rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced a different, forward-looking path,” the ambassador said. The Emirati government, he said, is “ready to join the international community in an urgent, coordinated and sustained effort to confront a threat that will, if unchecked, have global ramifications for decades to come.”

Enlisting the Sunni neighbors of Syria and Iraq is crucial, experts said, because airstrikes alone will not be enough to push back ISIS. The Obama administration is also seeking to pursue a sequential strategy that begins with gathering intelligence, and is followed by targeted airstrikes, more robust and better-coordinated support for moderate rebels, and finally, a political reconciliation process.

Administration officials said that building support for moderate rebels in Syria was particularly critical. This summer, President Obama set aside $500 million to train and support vetted members of the moderate opposition to Mr. Assad of Syria; officials say they expect that Congress will approve that request to the Pentagon at the beginning of October.

But even if that money is approved, American officials will still have a tough road ahead to strengthen the Free Syrian Army, the moderates of choice for the United States. “This is going to take months,” one Defense Department official said on Friday.

Speaking at the beginning of the meeting on Friday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called the assembled countries the “core coalition” to battle ISIS. But, he added, “I think we’re all quite familiar with the extended challenges this represents.”

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