Why an anti-ISIS coalition could be 'a problem'

Middle East analysts say that given sectarian divisions and individual self-interest, forging a meaningful coalition to roll back ISIS in Iraq and Syria will be very difficult.

Iran's participation could upset Saudis, other Arab states, experts say

The jihadi group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has garnered all manner of enemies, including members of the Mehdi Army, pictured, a group of fighters loyal to Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. (Stringer/Reuters)

"The terrorist threat is global and the response must be global."

Those were the words of French President François​ Hollande at the outset of an international summit in Paris on Monday that's seeking a way to counteract ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

While the meeting brought together leaders from around the world, Middle East analysts say that given sectarian divisions and individual self-interest, forging a meaningful coalition with countries in the region will be very difficult.

"We have a problem, because the regional actors all see threats other than [ISIS]," says Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University with an expertise in the Middle East.

"The Gulf states see Iran as a threat, the Turks are worried about everyone arming the Kurds, both the Gulf states and the Turks see the Syrian regime as a threat," said Brynen. "Not everyone shares the same threat perceptions – at all."

The Paris talks are meant to devise a strategy to thwart the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – which in the past few months has overrun a number of key towns and cities in eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

On Saturday, the Sunni jihadist group released another beheading video, this time of Scottish aid worker David Haines, emphasizing that it would kill more hostages if western airstrikes continued.

The U.S. has been conducting airstrikes against ISIS since August, but other countries, including France, have expressed a willingness to contribute their own air power.

Canada will deliver small arms and munitions from the Czech Republic to anti-ISIS troops in northern Iraq, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird announced on Monday.

ISIS's conquest of key cities in Iraq and Syria and harsh interpretation of Islam has led to talk of a coalition that could include such disparate players as the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran. (Reuters)

One of the major challenges for western countries is how to stop ISIS without abetting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have also been fighting ISIS.

Western governments believe Assad's anti-democratic policies are not only responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 people in the Syrian civil war but for giving rise to jihadist groups such as ISIS.

Much more than a local threat

The involvement of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar in the anti-ISIS coalition is "a major departure from past policies," says Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada.

He says these countries have had a dubious relationship with jihadi groups in the region. During the Syrian uprising, private citizens in these Sunni nations funnelled financial and military support to anti-Assad rebels, including ISIS.

But Hassan-Yari says the progress and rhetoric of ISIS has sent a signal to neighbouring countries that the group is not simply a local threat, but one that could imperil their own governments.

The problem is that a number of Iraq and Syria's other neighbours aren't nearly as motivated to step up the fight, says Wayne White, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.

He says Turkey, as a NATO ally, "should be sending 75,000 troops to the [Turkey-Syrian] border to completely seal all of the border adjacent to ISIS, to cut the oil shipments, to cut the fighters going in. But we haven't even received that from the Turks."

Despite being "so critical" in this battle, Turkey is reticent of blowback from attacking ISIS directly or doing anything that would benefit Assad's regime, says White.
In the fight against ISIS in Iraq, one of the groups that have benefited from U.S. arms support and air cover are Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in the country's north. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

White says that while the kingdom of Jordan has a relatively small military, as a result of a long friendship with erstwhile Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the country still has deep ties with Iraq's former military officer corps, as well as various tribes, and could be key in gathering intelligence about ISIS's strategy.

"Jordan is an important actor, but it's also the most vulnerable," White says, citing the fact that Jordan now has camps of refugees from the Syrian war that rival the country's biggest cities in terms of population.

"They've got a huge amount of refugees in the north that could become radicalized."

A role for Iran?

Brynen says that next to the U.S., the biggest player in this situation is Iran. The Shia-majority country has been a major backer of the Shia-led government in Iraq, and has been training and equipping Iraqi forces, as well reinforcing Shia militias throughout the country in an attempt to neutralize ISIS.

But there is significant controversy about Iran's involvement in a broader coalition.

Due to its long-standing feud with the U.S., Iran rebuffed an invitation to the Paris talks and ruled out any harmonized anti-ISIS military effort with the U.S.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry countered by saying, "We are not co-ordinating with Iran. Period."

White says that bringing Iran into the mix could actually disrupt a coalition that also includes Sunni-majority countries such as Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's biggest regional rival.

"Iran would be bad news in all of this," says White.

Despite the stated lack of co-operation between the U.S. and Iran, Hassan-Yari believes the bluster is simply meant to appease critics back home, and that in fact the two sides are passively working together to oust ISIS.

As proof, Hassan-Yari cites a recent video of Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, dancing in Iraq after Iranians and Iraqis successfully fought off ISIS in the town of Amerli.

"The Iranians are there, they see the Americans in the sky, and the Americans are seeing the Iranians on the ground, so they accommodate each other," said Hassan-Yari.

"They tolerate each other, because they have a joint interest in what they are doing in Iraq against this group of terrorists," Hassan-Yari added.


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