Heading Toward Failure: A Coalition of the ‘Reluctantly Willing’

As the Obama administration is busy forming a coalition to fight-eradicate the Islamic State (IS) or (ISIS/ISIL), the evolving coalition that gathered last week in Paris was a far cry from the one put together by George H. W. Bush in 1991 to fight and expel Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Today’s participants of the coalition of the “reluctantly willing” are probably thinking, but not voicing, that defeating the IS will be a difficult, if not impossible, challenge for a variety of reasons.

While the Sunni Arab states of the Persian/Arabian Gulf reluctantly agreed to participate in this budding coalition, disagreements between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over support of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and their respective involvement in the Syrian crisis, seems to have been swept under the rug at the insistence of the United States. Much to the resentment of the Saudis, tiny Qatar has been punching way above its weight for quite awhile, and the Persian/Arabian Gulf region has been feeling the effects of those punches. Since the United States values the support of Riyadh and Doha for the effective functioning of this new coalition, the Obama administration remains concerned over the possible flare-up of the political differences between the two Arab states.

Even though Iran was not invited to the meeting of the 30 members of the anti-IS coalition, at the insistence of Saudi Arabia and the UAE (they threatened to boycott the meeting if Iran were to attend), its presence was very much noted by US Secretary of State John Kerry and by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. While the Arab opponents of Iran noted that they oppose its participation in that coalition because of its backing of the Bashar Assad regime – through the insertion of Hezbollah (of Lebanon) and other Shia militias – Lavrov reminded the participants that Syria and Iran are “natural allies” of Russia. As such, he said, Iran’s engagement in any military action against the IS is required for its success.

The fact that Kerry did not wish to debate that issue with Lavrov served as an important indication of the precariousness of the situation faced by all of the participants for different reasons. Any military action against the IS means that the Assad regime will be strengthened. That was the last thing that either the United States or its other Western and Arab allies wanted. However, none of them has any clue how to implement their respective strategies in such a way that would weaken the Assad regime and, at the same time, expedite the demise of the IS.

The very fact that Russia participated in that conference also underscored how unsettled America’s entire anti-IS strategy really remains. Russia is determined to do anything to weaken the IS. In fact, its continued support of the Assad regime – along with the fact that an anti-Assad Islamist coalition has remained highly divisive and lacks the wholehearted support of the United States – has already palpably improved the stability of that regime. Thus, the best Russian strategy would be to continue its present modus operandi in Syria.

The United States knows how crucial the support and even the participation of Iran is for the success of the US’ anti-IS strategy. Without Iranian consent, formation of the new government in Iraq would have been impossible. However, Iran’s long-standing involvement in supporting the Assad regime was a major obstacle to the development any US-Iran rapprochement. One crucial, but unstated, factor is that Iran’s support can be extracted, but only if the Obama administration agrees to pay a hefty price for it. If the US-Iran nuclear issue were resolved, then Iran would be tempted to support Washington. Of all of the countries in the world, Iran would be one of the first to declare that there are no permanent friends and enemies in the global arena; only countries’ national interests are permanent. However, the Obama administration – even if it wanted to – cannot play that game with Iran. Israel is watching, along with all of its powerful supporters in the US Congress, to ensure that no deal can be cut between the Obama administration and Iranian officials that would undermine Israel’s utmost commitment to ensure that Iran never emerges as a nuclear weapons power.

As an old practitioner of realpolitik – notwithstanding the wrongheaded observation recently made by Henry Kissinger that “Iran is a bigger problem than ISIS” – Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, was leaning toward finding common ground for cooperating with the US to eradicate the IS. However, also being fully discerning about how Israel and its lobby maneuvers and control over US foreign policy, Khamenei preempted Kerry’s refusal to invite Iran to the Paris conference by stating that his country would not participate.

The Obama administration is doing its best to overlook the long-standing sectarian-based antipathy from Saudi Arabia and Iran. The participants of the Paris meeting, I am sure, did not forget that the IS and Saudi Arabia have one thing in common: they both regard the Shias infidels, except that the IS goes to an extreme in expressing its hatred of the Shias. The question of the hour is what would/should be the basis for any type of cooperation from Riyadh and Tehran to eliminate the bloodthirsty IS.

Given all of these problems, I wonder whether the Islamic State was laughing while watching the “diplomatic correctness” with which some of the most obdurate problems dividing the Sunni Arab states, Shia Iran, and Shia-dominated Iraq were being swept under the rug. Unfortunately, the IS seems to have reason to conclude that the evolving coalition of the “reluctantly willing” is headed toward certain defeat.

Ehsan Ahrari can be reached at ahrari@earthlink.net. His website is ehsanahrari.com.