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."
The Pew Research Center's latest national survey found that terrorism has reshaped the public's agenda, as 29 percent of the public now cite terrorism, national security or the Islamic State as the most important problem facing the country, up from 4 percent a year ago.
Photo Credit: Pew Research Center
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 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.
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.
Members of the Iraqi security forces celebrate after retaking Ramadi city from the Islamic State group, in Ramadi, Iraq, on Dec. 28.
Photo Credit: Ali Mohammed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
"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."
Members of the Iraqi security forces patrol the Najaf border on Jan. 24 when the Islamic State group controlled the western province of Anbar.
Photo Credit: Haidar Hamdan/AFP
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.
"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."
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter meets with Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdul Aziz at Al-Salam Palace on July 22 in Jeddha.
Photo Credit: Carolyn Kaster/Getty Images
When Donnelly asked, "So why can't we get that off the ground?" Carter said he preferred to discuss the matter privately.
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Democratic president candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debate Dec. 19 at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.
Photo Credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
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.
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."
"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."
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."
Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., says be believes it would take 500,000 troops and support staff to take on the Islamic State group — a move he opposes.
Photo Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Rubio on his campaign website, framed the fight as a "clash of civilizations," and purposes as part of an 18-point plan, "a larger number" of US ground troops, "working with the Kurds, Sunni tribes, and other partners."
"If America does not make this our fight, the West will not win it," Rubio said.
"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."
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.