WASHINGTON — Several US presidential candidates from both parties share a bullet point in their plans to fight the Islamic State group while limiting American ground troops’ involvement: Build a coalition of Sunni Arab nations to help shoulder the effort.
Unfortunately, there is a wide gap between this attractive idea and the muddy reality of Middle Eastern politics.
Candidates differ on the number of US ground troops to send, if any, and the establishment of a US-patrolled no-fly zone in Syria, or whether the US should force out President Bashar al-Assad.
But Sunni Arab involvement in the fight — a key tenet of the Obama administration’s plan — has also been voiced by Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, and by Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul on the Republican side. (Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who quit the race Dec. 21, also voiced this view.)
“It’s not surprising that politicians of all stripes would seize on the idea of a coalition, but the question is, what would that coalition consist of,” said Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elizabeth Saunders. “The members of this coalition will have a diverse set of goals; combating ISIS is just one of them. But it may not be in their interest to defeat ISIS. It’s not clear who the best set of actors might be. It’s a very complicated question.”
There are political and practical reasons for presidential candidates to voice this view. While the crowded race highlights schisms in both parties about how much force to commit to the fight, it has become untenable after the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, not to have a plan to defeat the group.
In a recent AP-GfK poll, 56 percent of Americans felt the military response from countries that have joined the US against the group has been inadequate. The poll also revealed that while more Americans than ever support sending US ground troops to fight the Islamic State, the number is still less than half.
On a practical level, maintaining a Sunni Arab face in the fight against the Islamic State would skirt the radical group’s apocalyptic narrative of a civilizational struggle of Islam versus the West and allow the US to potentially expend less blood and treasure.
“There’s a lot out there that says significant US ground troops going into action against ISIS is their dream,” Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, told Defense News. “We should have some very serious conversations with the Saudis and others before we commit to any such thing. If they’re straight with us, they would say it’s a hideously bad idea.”
Enlisting greater involvement from Sunni Arab nations is easier said than done, Crocker said. The main obstacle to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States assuming a large role in such a coalition is that these countries view the Islamic State group as less of a threat than Iran and what they see as Iran’s proxies: Assad, the Baghdad government and Shia militias in Iraq, as well as Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“That’s the real danger for these [Arab Gulf] capitals,” Crocker said. “It doesn’t resonate with them when we say you have to go after the Islamic State, and Assad can stay. Well, he is the extension of Iranian influence, backed by the Shiite militias, backed by Hazzara elements out of Afghanistan and supported by the Russians. We’re asking [Sunni Arab nations] to forget about all that and they think we’re nuts.”
The sectarian-tinged rancor between the Gulf states and Iran has only grown since Riyadh executed a Shiite cleric and 46 prisoners on Jan. 2, sparking an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabia, followed by Bahrain, Somalia and Sudan, have since severed diplomatic relations with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates announced it was downgrading relations with Iran.
Speaking soon after a trip to the Mideast, though before the recent escalation of tensions, Crocker said the US is broadly viewed as allying itself with Iran, Russia, Bashar al-Assad and the Kurds against Sunni Arabs. “And until we shift that, nothing good is going to happen,” Crocker said.
“The Saudis, the Emiratis and others know how the dynamics in Syria and Iraq and perceived, that we are effectively siding with Iran and its allies, so they know if they come in a robust way, they’re going to get tarred by their own populations as effectively siding with the Washington-Tehran axis,” Crocker said.
To these Gulf states, who agree that Assad must go, the recent softening of the US stance on regime change in Syria will only alienate them more. US Secretary of State John Kerry in mid-December followed a day of meetings in Moscow with remarks suggesting the US wasn’t committed to a policy of regime change in Syria.
One positive sign in recent days has been the partnership of Sunni tribesmen, the Iraqi Army and American airstrikes in the retaking of Ramadi, populated by Sunnis and the capital of Anbar.
Speaking days ahead of this big victory, Crocker said the key will be whether the force that holds the city will be made up of Shia militiamen or include indigenous tribal elements. Will Ramadi become another Tikrit, liberated by the Iraqi Army and tribal forces last March only to descend into sectarian violence?
But what of Sunni Arab states in the region? As difficult as it would be to re-engage them, is it worth the effort? Yes, said Crocker, who believes US political and military disengagement in recent years “left the show to the Iranians.”
He argues for a renewed diplomatic effort to hear out potential allies, and in Iraq, aimed at disentangling Baghdad from the influence of Iran and its Shia militia proxies.
“It would take John Kerry going to Baghdad and sitting there for a week or two, engaging, not just the prime minister, but all the political leaders,” Crocker said. “It would also take the president working the phones, and I don’t think he’s inclined to do that.”
Another former public official who favors engaging Sunni Arabs, former Defense Secretary and Sen. Bill Cohen, agreed that a complicated diplomatic effort is necessary to succeed. First, Baghdad must be convinced to include Sunnis in its government if it ever hopes to enlist them in the fight, and then Kerry must reach an agreement with Assad’s ally Russia for his transition out.
“The problem to date is that unless the Sunnis see a role for themselves in Iraq, they are not going to take on ISIS, and that leaves it to the West,” Cohen said. “They can’t resolve it on their own, they need to have the West involved, but it can’t look as if this is the West driving into the heart of the Arab world.”
In the global coalition formed by the US to defeat the Islamic State, 60 partners agreed to align themselves along five “lines of effort.” Notably, Saudi Arabia is among the countries leading efforts to cut off funding for the terror group, and the UAE leads in humanitarian relief efforts. Both are committed to the information war, “exposing IS’s true nature,” according to a report by Congressional Research Service analyst Kathleen McInnis.
The US and Iraq lead the coalition, among 22 nations that have committed militarily. The US has more than 3,500 military personnel in Iraq, plus 50 special operations forces announced to aid Kurdish and Syrian Arab forces fighting the Islamic State group in northern Syria. The US also conducted 77 percent of the coalition’s 9,200-plus airstrikes in Iraq and Syria as of Dec. 28.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE participated at the initial stages last year, but have shifted most of their aircraft to battle the Houthis, The New York Times reported in November. Jordan, in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, and Qatar is flying patrols over Syria but its role has been modest.
“Coalition participation tends to be fluid, with each country contributing capabilities that are commensurate with their own national interests and comparative advantage,” according to McInnis’ assessment. “Since August 2015, several coalition participants have changed the roles, missions, and capabilities of the military forces they are applying to counter the Islamic State.”
After it became public that US and coalition efforts to train and equip Syrian soldiers to counter the Islamic State had produced only a handful of troops, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter canceled and shifted the program to arming existing militias in Syria through, among other things, airdropping ammunition and equipment.
While the US has experienced greater success in Iraq, failures of the initial Syria train-and-equip program,combined with the Paris attacks have fueled criticism of the US’ strategic approach and the call to boost US and coalition ground troops.
In a Dec. 9 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Carter and Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. Paul Selva argued against the presence of US ground forces as they would “Americanize” the fight and play into the Islamic State group’s hands.
Because the territory ISIS occupies is mostly Sunni, the Pentagon would like to see local Sunni fighters working with the support of Sunni Arab allies from the region. Carter acknowledged that Gulf allies are — despite their involvement in the air war — “disinclined” to provide ground troops, particularly as they are preoccupied with the war in Yemen.
During the hearing, committee Chairman Sen. John McCain insisted that he had met with representatives of Sunni Arab nations who said they would do more if there was a strong US commitment. Carter characterized his meetings with regional leaders in different terms, but confirmed their concern with Iran’s involvement and suggested their reluctance to fight alongside their regional rival.
“I’ve had lengthy conversations with representatives there,” Carter said. “I have consistently emphasized to them that they have a unique role here. And also, insofar as they are concerned about Iran, which is another concern they have and by the way that we have … is that what I have emphasized to them is that we do not like it, but the Iranians are in the game on the ground.”
Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., told Carter that Jordanian and Saudi officials told him during a visit there that they are interested in contributing troops. While Carter said he is grateful for Jordan’s aid, he recalled a meeting with Gulf officials at Camp David in April that had yet to yield a Sunni Arab force.
When Donnelly asked, “So why can't we get that off the ground?” Carter said he preferred to discuss the matter privately.
In US politics, the debate over how to handle the Islamic State is a flashpoint of an ideological battle within the Republican Party, according to Saunders. Traditionally, the party had been dominated by foreign policy realists, in the mold of former and CIA Director and President George H.W. Bush, who viewed military force as a tool to be used in parallel with international institutions, and neoconservatives in the mold of his son President George W. Bush.
“What’s interesting is on the Democratic side, the most likely nominee is from the more hawkish wing, which may result in very little contrast, and make foreign policy less of an interest,” said Saunders. “You might wind up with two candidates fighting over the nuances.”
Though several candidates have voiced support for greater Sunni Arab involvement, there are indeed nuances among their views.
Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and Democratic presidential front-runner, summarized her views in a national security speech Dec. 16 and during the Democratic presidential debate Dec. 18. She said “skillful diplomacy” is needed to continue the administration’s efforts at “political reconciliation in Iraq and political transition in Syria, enabling more Sunni Arabs and Kurdish fighters to take on ISIS on both sides of the border, and to get our Arab and Turkish partners to actually step up and do their part.”
Clinton proposes “more US and allied air power and a broader target set for strikes by planes and drones,” as well as US special forces to train and advise local forces and conduct key counterterrorism missions. She also emphasized severing the group’s recruitment and radicalization efforts.
“It's imperative that the Saudis, the Qataris, the Kuwaitis and others stop their citizens from supporting radical schools, madrassas and mosques around the world once and for all,” Clinton said. “And that should be the top priority in all of our discussions with these countries.”
Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders, is more comfortable discussing the American income inequality gap than foreign policy, but cannot avoid the national security debate.
Before and since the Dec. 18 debate, Sanders has advocated for Muslim ground troops to fight for “the soul of Islam, supported by the United States and its air superiority alongside Western European nations. Countries “like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have got to step up to the plate, have got to contribute the money that we need, and the troops that we need, to destroy ISIS with American support,” he said at the debate.
“My plan is to make it work, to tell Saudi Arabia that instead of going to war in Yemen, they, one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, are going to have to go to war against ISIS,” Sanders said. “To tell Qatar, that instead of spending $200 billion on the World Cup, maybe they should pay attention to ISIS, which is at their doorstep.”
In remarks in late December, Sanders called the US invasion of Iraq, “a horrendous mistake,” and said Republicans “have not understood that the United States getting involved in perpetual, never-ending warfare in that quagmire which is Syria and Iraq would be a disaster for our armed forces and a disaster for the taxpayers of this country.”
On the Republican debate stage on Dec. 15, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was most focused on the engagement of Sunni Arabs in the Islamic State fight. Arab nations have been unwilling to join the fight since losing faith with President Obama over the US-Iranian nuclear deal, he said, but “they most certainly will have to be worked on to provide more than what they are doing now.
“They have as much invested in this as we do. In fact, more so, for it is the king of Saudi Arabia they want to behead first,” Rubio said. “It's the king of Jordan that they want to dethrone. They want to go into Egypt the way they've already gone into Libya.”
Beyond the GOP’s realists and neoconservatives is isolationist Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has said it would take 500,000 troops and support staff to take on the Islamic State — a move he opposes.
In the GOP debate, his comments about Middle Eastern allies might only serve to alienate them, as he accused Saudi Arabia of making matters worse by ”funding radical Islam throughout the world.”
“The boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground, particularly, they need to be Sunni Muslim boots on the ground,” Paul said. “And, frankly, Saudi Arabia hasn't been very helpful in this instance. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United States poured millions of tons of weapons into the Syrian civil war, all on the side of ISIS and al-Qaida and radical Islam.”