President Obama is dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to recruit Sunni nations there to join the fight against ISIS, a tall order in a part of the world where even the best U.S. ally is reluctant to fight.
Speaking on Meet the Press Sunday morning, Obama said that Middle Eastern countries that normally do not partner with Washington had a responsibility to confront the group.
“We’re going to need Sunni states to step up, not just Saudi Arabia, our partners like Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey,” Obama said. “They need to be involved. This is their neighborhood.”
“Sunni extremism, as represented by ISIL, is the biggest danger that they face right now,” Obama said of Middle East nations. “And with that understanding, it gives us the capacity for them to start getting more active and more involved. And by the way, some of that's military”.
Obama didn’t mention partnering with Iran or Syria, despite widespread reports that both could be involved. However, Middle East experts are questioning if the United States would be able to convince Saudi Arabia, it’s strongest ally in the region, to join what Richard Haass, a former diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, called a “pan-Arab force.”
“This is a big, big, big enterprise the United States is embarking on,” Haas said on CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.
Saudi royalty has acknowledged the threat from ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s head of state King Abdullah said in late August , “If we ignore them, I am sure they will reach Europe in a month and America in another month. Terrorism knows no border and its danger could affect several countries outside the Middle East. You see how they [jihadists] carry out beheadings and make children show the severed heads in the street.”
Yet it’s not clear how much Abdullah is willing to do to stop it. Multiple reports say Abdullah is still angry that Obama did not conduct airstrikes in Syria after it became apparent that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons. A Wall Street Journal report Sunday indicated that Arab diplomats involved in talks to stop the group are upset that the president hasn’t been more explicit about what he plans to do.
“Everyone is agreed on the need to address the threat from ISIS and other extremist groups in the region," a senior Arab official involved in the deliberations said, according to the Journal. "But until we see a strategy or plan that outlines how to achieve this goal, it will be difficult to enlist countries in the fight."
Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon, says the Saudis would only join the coalition if the success were guaranteed. As the war in Iraq and the failure to stop Assad shows, however, nothing in the Middle East is guaranteed.
“Saudi Arabia will only support multinational action against the Islamic State if it can guarantee a role for itself in Syria and Iraq after the group is defeated,” Khatib wrote in a recent essay. “The eradication of the Islamic State without alternatives to the Assad regime and to a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad would mean the survival of Iran’s two allies in those countries.”
“Saudi Arabia is still concerned about what would happen if the group were eradicated as the situation in Iraq and Syria currently stands. In Syria, the Assad regime is stronger than the moderate opposition, while Iraq still has not formed a national unity government,” Khatib added.
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