U.S. waffling on ISIS feeds confusion among possible allies

| Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The United States has no small task: drumming up allies to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria as part of a coalition that foreign policy analysts are criticizing as a hollow effort unless the Obama administration proves a commitment to a conflict it has largely avoided for three years.

Offering few specifics, American officials this week announced that they were assembling an international coalition that could offer military, intelligence and humanitarian support in a joint campaign to dislodge ISIS from the Iraqi and Syrian territories that make up its vast, self-proclaimed caliphate.

President Obama did not elaborate on the plans during a brief news conference on Thursday in which he stressed that it would take time to develop a broad-based, international response to the threat posed by ISIS. He's dispatching Secretary of State John Kerry to the Middle East to nudge along the coalition-building. The president pledged there would be a “military aspect” to the developing plan, but dismissed reports that suggest such an intervention is imminent.

European and Arab nations are not exactly lining up in response to the U.S. battle cry against ISIS for a variety of reasons. They have not forgotten the lampooning of the so-called “coalition of the willing” in the Iraq war. They doubt the U.S. commitment to intervene in Syria, or they simply don't share America's panic over ISIS, according to foreign policy analysts.

Some partners are skeptical about jumping in with Americans because they blame Washington for inadvertently helping ISIS to flourish by abandoning the more moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime in Syria. Others remain upset with Obama's eleventh-hour scuttling of planned strikes against regime targets last year in response to chemical weapons.

The waffling has left would-be coalition members in Europe and the Middle East confused as to how far the Obama administration is willing to go in tackling the Syrian conflict and its spinoff nightmare, ISIS.

“There's a leading, following problem,”said Shadi Hamid, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy. “Arab allies are going to be very reticent to expose themselves if the Americans aren't serious. Various countries in the region prefer to wait and see because they've been burned in the past by American pledges and promises.”

At the State Department, spokeswoman Jen Psaki confirmed U.S.-British talks about joining the coalition and said Kerry “will spend a great deal of time on the phone” to enlist other nations. She swatted away skepticism.

“We certainly think that the coalition is building,” Psaki said.

So far, only a handful of Western allies — Britain, Australia and France — have been floated as potential partners in striking ISIS positions, but no formal announcements have emerged and there have been signs of reluctance. A representative of the British Embassy in Washington, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said: “There's been no request for us to deliver airstrikes, and this is not something under discussion at the moment.”

Tarek Masoud, who teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, said Jordanians are “spooked” by ISIS and that the Egyptians would be game for any action that weakens Islamists, the arch-enemies of the military regime in Cairo. Still, he said, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were far more crucial to any anti-ISIS effort.

“I can see the three tightening up controls on fundraising for ISIS,” Masoud said. “But I don't see a 1990-style coalition to fight ISIS.”

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