Battling the Islamic State: A Coalition to What End?

It’s not enough to bring together an alliance against the Islamic State on intentions alone; Barack Obama must also be supported by action. This is far from certain, and the American president has a lot at stake.

In the coalition that Barack Obama has forged to fight against the Islamic State, the new jihadi hydra, there is intention, and then there is action. The American president has had no trouble rallying his traditional allies when it comes to the former; as for the latter, things aren’t so sure. Over the course of last week’s NATO summit in Wales, the U.K., France, Germany, Turkey, Canada, Italy, Poland, Denmark and Australia all announced their willingness to participate in the coalition. Belgium, with a government distracted by domestic issues, did not immediately join this group, but appears to have since registered its support. American diplomatic efforts are now focused on convincing regional powers to lend their hands: Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey have been the recipients of Secretary of State John Kerry’s advances this week.

The risk is that, while awareness of the threat posed by the Islamic State seems to be growing in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, until recently suspected of financing jihadi groups, the U.S. may find itself alone when it comes to acting on the strategy due to be presented by Obama on Wednesday. The American government has announced a new phase, going beyond the airstrikes carried out by the U.S. military for a little over a month. Besides the “purely military” action, for which U.K. and French assistance seems guaranteed, this phase will involve enlisting the help of Iraq and Syria’s neighbors to dry up the Islamic State’s sources of finance, especially by tackling the resale of petrol produced in Islamic State-controlled territory, and by stemming the influx of Arab, European and African jihadis.

At least four questions are raised by this transition from intention to action.

Will the new Iraqi government, installed on Tuesday, set the stage for a genuine reconciliation with the Sunni minority that is to different extents sheltering the jihadis? Will the United States’ Sunni allies engage fully in the anti-jihadi strategy, to the point of abandoning their usual pro-Islamist policies? Can the U.S. ignore the role that Russia, Iran or even Syria could play in the fight, simply because of ideological differences? Will the coalition be able to avoid getting mired in an unending war against fundamentalists richer than ever in dollars and weapons, which time does not decay in the way it does democracies (NATO anticipates three years of war, French periodical Le Canard Enchaîné announced on Wednesday)?

Given what is at stake, it’s not hard to think that Barack Obama is betting the success of the end of his term on this issue; it could have far-reaching implications for the Democratic Party, as well as for the credibility of his own presidency on the international stage.

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