Almost immediately after United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron received approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Tornado bombers, as the one pictured above, began engaging in highly effective airstrikes in Iraq. While some nations as the United Kingdom have contributed significantly to the anti-ISIS air campaign, the efforts of many other partners in the 60 nation coalition have been negligible or nonexistent militarily.
According to an October 22. 2014 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against the Islamic State?”, as the administration of US President Barack Obama ramps up its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), it is also trying to present itself as acting with the support of a broad range of partner nations. The article notes the US State Department lists more than 60 countries as members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. However, the qualifications for inclusion in that coalition are nominal. While many countries have pledged military or humanitarian support, the State Department indicates that “simply exposing the true nature” of ISIS can qualify a nation for the coalition. Western coalition partners continue participating in airstrikes in Iraq, however, the Pentagon has not discussed the participation of Arab partners. To date, few countries have joined the US for airstrikes within Syria since October 14, 2014, following a week of apparently US-only strikes there. The US Central Command noted in its daily statement on October 21, 2014, that “out of respect for participating nations, US Central Command will defer to partner nations to publicly comment on their airstrikes” against ISIS. Of the 60 countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily. The October 22nd Foreign Policy article alleges that US claimed that there were even commitments from coalition partners of ground troops to fight ISIS, but those offers never materialized.
The Multilateral Gambit
It was in 2014 that the Obama administration really began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. As it was explained in the greatcharlie.com post, ” Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!”, organizing multinational efforts to resolve foreign and defense policy issues is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise.
Understanding the importance of the campaign against ISIS, United Kungdom Prime Minister gained approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force participate in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Royal Air Force almost immediately engaged in airstrikes against ISIS. However, no Western state such as the United Kingdom, which is already fighting ISIS from the air and possesses a genuine capability to engage in land warfare, would willingly or robustly go into Iraq or Syria. Indeed, national leaders of Western states would not want to assume the risks of intervening with ground troops now, especially when most of those leaders truly feel that level of commitment would not “exactly” be within their nation’s interests. Despite the terrorist attack in Canada and thwarted attacks in Australia, in many capitals, the loyal opposition and many policy experts have taken the position that their governments have overstated the international threat from ISIS. Those criticisms have also placed restraints on just how much national leaders can do.
Placing Partners under Pressure
Oddly, the Obama administration also appears to have requested Western allies and coalition partners commit their armed forces to military action in Iraq and Syria even though the administration would not make a similar commitment of US forces. That approach was unrealistic. Obama publicly indicated a hesitancy to act militarily in both Iraq and Syria. As a rationale for its hesitancy to commit the US military, Pentagon officials explained “the US military is taking a defensive, not offensive, approach” to ISIS. On October 22, 2014, The Washington Post reported that the US determined newly trained mainstream Syrian opposition fighters will not be able to capture strategically important towns from ISIS, without the support of forward-deployed US combat troops. Alternatively, those mainstream opposition fighters will only be assigned to defend already-controlled territory. According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the current train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition would seek to strengthen appropriately vetted elements of its fighting force, Free Syrian Army, to enable them to counter ISIS; strengthen the moderate opposition so that they can better defend themselves and territory; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.” One country the US has pressured for action against ISIS is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is curious. Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria. There would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work. If Turkey’s operations in Syria “creeped” beyond destroying ISIS and it effectively displaces the Assad regime, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition. Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on what would be the political, economic, and social basket case as Syria would be to Turkey’s benefit now.
Given the diminutive size and inappreciable impact of contributions by many coalition partners, as outlined in the October 22nd Foreign Policy article, it would seem as beneficial to the Obama administration not to publicize the relative efforts of coalition partners as it would be for the partners themselves. Such information may create doubt over just how much the world is really behind the US in the anti-ISIS effort. In any event, more will certainly need to be done by the Obama administration to defeat ISIS than simply promote the simulacrum of a broad multilateral effort. If coalition partners are not carrying as much of the burden as may have been hoped, but perhaps should have been expected, the US must step up its own efforts. That would mean allowing military planners not to simply devise the best plans feasible under constraints set by the Obama administration. Civilian control and political guidance without question is necessary. However, provided with everything they actually need, and working within well calibrated parameters established US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey–who is unquestionably honor bound, US military planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience, would undoubtedly develop far more effective plans for the use of airpower. Hamstringing the US military by insisting it develop war plans based on some illusion within the Obama administration that some proportional level of multilateral cooperation will ever materialize, will practically ensure operations against ISIS, although will not yield the desired outcome: the destruction of ISIS. The Obama administration appears to be attempting mulgere hircum! (To milk a male goat!; To attempt the impossible!)
The comedian and late night talk show host in the US, David Letterman, said “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: ‘Operation Hillary’s Problem’.” The US-led anti-ISIS operation’s true name is Operation Inherent Resolve. Ostensibly, the Obama administration is fully committed to defeating ISIS right now and not leaving the job to his predecessor. Yet, the fight against ISIS is more than just an operation. It is a war being fought against a barbaric adversary. Its leaders and fighters are deluded by the conceit that they are fighting for God. The decision to take action against ISIS was laudable and represented the heights of US foreign policy which in the Obama administration has at times seemed full of contradictions. Likewise, the insistence on presenting the veil of multilateral action when the US is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the US-led coalition against ISIS represents the depths of US foreign policy. It creates the impression that the US military effort is driven more by political expedience than the best military approach possible. Looking good is not as important as being good. Doing what is necessary to win this war must have priority over all other interests. The US and it coalition partners may be on the same team, but the Obama administration must accept that the US will need to both block and carry the ball over the goal line and not hide the fact it is doing so.