By: David Bastawrous—Special Report College Associate
Turkish and Qatari interests continue to strain the international coalition, while besieged governments in Syria and Iraq depend heavily on Shiite militias on the ground after the deterioration of state forces at the hand of ISIS.
After much delay, US Central Command on Wednesday announced the name of the operation that began with airstrikes in Iraq on August 8th.
“The name Inherent Resolve is intended to reflect the unwavering resolve and deep commitment of the US and partner nations in the region and around the globe to eliminate the terrorist group ISIL and the threat they pose to Iraq, the region and the wider international community . . . It also symbolizes the willingness and dedication of coalition members to work closely with friends in the region . . . to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL,” US Central Command Officials stated.
However, the “willingness and dedication of coalition members to work closely with friends in the region” remains largely in question as fundamental divisions among coalition states linger.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that diplomats from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, “have been warning the White House that Qatar is playing a double game in the region—publicly supporting U.S. policies while aiding its enemies.” Adding, “the division largely pits Qatar and Turkey, vocal supporters of Islamist movements, against traditional Arab monarchies in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Amman.”
The clash isn’t a first among these states. Back in March, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from Qatar following Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The three acted after Qatar violated the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council agreement, signed in November of last year, not to support “anyone threatening the security and stability of the GCC.”
The US Treasury Department has long criticized Qatar for funding Hamas, and expressed concern that Qatar may be funneling money to groups such as al Qaeda, Nusra Front, and even ISIS.
Despite this, former officials say that Qatar is a uniquely capable asset in the region. It was Qatar who largely brokered the deal for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, and recently, along with Turkey, pressured Hamas into talks with Israel at the urging of Sectary of State John Kerry. “American diplomacy has seen utility in having an ally who brokers with the bad guys when necessary,” said Juan Zarate, a senior White House and Treasury official in the Bush administration.
Still, Israeli, Egyptian, Jordanian and Saudi officials have objected to reliance on Qatar, contending that Doha would be encouraged to further strengthen ties with extremist groups.
And while Qatar has provided surveillance from the air, it has yet to actually conduct airstrikes on ISIS militants.
After much pressure from the US, a coalition nation that did recently conduct airstrikes is Turkey—but not on whom Washington had anticipated.
On Monday, Turkish warplanes in southeastern Turkey struck strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the PKK, a US and Turkey recognized terrorist group. Though recently removed from a three-decade civil war with Turkey, the PKK also comprises part of the Kurdish ground force struggling to defend the Syrian city of Kobani from ISIS militants just 300 yards from the Turkish border.
Additionally, Turkey barred the PKK and other Turkish Kurds from transporting reinforcements across the border to Kobani to aid their embattled comrades. Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Turkish expert bluntly opined, “I think they are happy to have [ISIS and the PKK] kill each other.”
Turkish officials in Ankara, sympathizers of Islamist movements such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, have been reluctant to take a more decisive military role in the effort to defeat ISIS. The hesitance continues to trouble the US, whose strategy could benefit from NATO’s 2nd largest military as well as a border with both Iraq and Syria.
Hope appeared to spring for the coalition on Sunday after US National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced that Turkey had agreed to allow the coalition forces to use Turkish bases for launching airstrikes as well as a training ground for Syrian rebels. But it didn’t take long for Turkish officials to deny that such an agreement had been made.
And while addressing Istanbul’s Marmara University on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “The Assad regime should be the target for the real solution in Syria.” The Turks have long called for a broader strategy that would soon topple the Assad regime.
Such strategic disagreements continue to hinder coalition operations.
On Tuesday, military officials from 22 nations met at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland to further discuss the operation. President Obama made an appearance and indicated that it would be a “long term campaign” with “periods of progress and setbacks.” Rear Adm. and Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby declined on Thursday to disclose the details of the discussions.
Coalition states have yet to offer ground troops for the operation.
And though the conflict largely arose from sectarian strife—states are, for now, relying on more sectarian strife to control the conflict on the ground.
Along with both extremist and moderate Kurdish groups, the AP reports that Shiite militias have stepped up in Iraq and Syria after state forces have collapsed at the hand of Sunni ISIS militants.
In Iraq, Shiite militias, many of whom allied with Iran, have rallied to defend the government. However, Amnesty International suggests that these militias have also been responsible for killing and abducting Sunni civilians.
In Syria, the Lebanese Shiite militant group, Hezbollah, has fought alongside pro-government militias to defend the Assad regime from ISIS overthrow.