A description of President Obama’s strategy to deal with Islamic State militants could be put together overnight. It’s just a piece of paper, but it can only be written after the president and his top officials have taken the time to get other countries to agree on shared diplomatic, military and economic activities necessary to make that strategy work.
It’s what Obama had in mind when he said, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” having been asked Thursday about his need to consult Congress about his plans. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” he answered.
The “horse” is an agreed-upon approach by U.S. and Middle Eastern regional and European partners about how to remove the Islamic State cancer. The “cart” is the much-demanded strategy — which can only be announced after all the pieces are in place.
Obama gave only a hint of the process underway when he said: “Any successful strategy . . . needs strong regional partners. I’m encouraged so far that countries in the region, countries that don’t always agree on many things, increasingly recognize the primacy of the threat that ISIL [the Islamic State] poses to all of them.”
On Thursday, Obama singled out “all the Sunni states in the region,” saying, “They have to be just as invested in defeating [the Islamic State] as we are.”
What he knew and what most Americans didn’t, was that efforts were underway to limit differences among those primarily Sunni, regional countries and to focus their attention on the mutual threat posed by the Islamic State.
In Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on Aug. 24, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, led an unusual meeting with Arab foreign ministers from Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and an adviser to Jordan’s foreign affairs minister, some of whom had had cool relations with one another.
In March, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain announced that they had withdrawn their ambassadors from Qatar because that country had failed to implement an agreement among Arab countries in the Persian Gulf not to interfere in one another’s internal affairs. Qatar was providing financial and political support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere — considered a threat to leaders in the region.
A day before the Jiddah meeting began, Qatar’s foreign minister released a statement to journalists saying his country does not support extremists, including the Islamic State, and is “repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions.”
In Jiddah, the group discussed the Syrian conflict and other “challenges, including the rise of terrorist extremist ideology,” and agreed on “the need to seriously work to deal with these crises and challenges to preserve security and stability in Arab countries,” according to an official statement.
One day later, the first high-level, bilateral talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia took place in Jiddah since Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was elected a year ago. Relations have been cool between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, who often have clashed over internal battles in Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria.
The meeting between Iran’s undersecretary for Arab and African affairs, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, and Saud included a discussion of the “growing threat the extremists in Iraq and Syria pose to regional security and the importance of Saudi-Iranian cooperation to confront terrorism and extremism in the region,” according to Al-Monitor, a Washington-based Web site covering the Middle East.
Iranian officials called the session “positive and constructive,” and plans for Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to visit Saudi Arabia are underway.
Both countries have voiced concern about the rapid rise of the Islamic State, whose goal of creating a radical Sunni caliphate represents a threat to the Saudi royal family and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
On Wednesday, Saud flew to Qatar to discuss differences in advance of another meeting in Jiddah, this one of the foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.
On Saturday, the GCC — whose participation with the United States would be key for any joint actions against the Islamic State — issued a statement that pledged a readiness to fight “terrorist ideology which is contrary to Islam.”
The chairman of the session, Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah, said, “We have all heard what President Obama said about a coalition and that he has asked [Secretary of State] John Kerry to travel to the region to set it up.”
Kerry’s arrival will follow the Sept. 4-5 NATO summit meeting outside the Welsh capital of Cardiff, where Obama hopes to win commitments from Western countries to meet the Islamic State threat.
As with the gulf countries, there’s been increased activity in the West since Obama’s remarks Thursday.
On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Islamic State militants pose a threat beyond the Middle East and “must be stopped.”
On Sunday, Merkel’s government announced it would supply the Iraqi Kurds with assault rifles, antitank weapons, armored vehicles, pistols, trucks and grenades with the Baghdad government’s consent. It is a major change from its post-World War II reluctance to join overseas military operations.
Also on Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament that the British have been supplying arms to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and would consider further military action. He also said steps would be taken to limit jihadists from returning to Britain — an action related to the raising of the country’s internal threat level Friday. There are an estimated 500 British citizens who have joined the jihadists in Syria.
In addition, the United States had consultations in Washington late last week about the Islamic State with French President François Hollande’s diplomatic adviser. The French have in the past supplied arms to selected Syrian opposition fighters who oppose the Islamic State, and the discussions with Hollande’s adviser were said to include possible airstrikes against the jihadists’ headquarters in Syria.
It’s a lot of work getting all these countries to collaborate and to offer funds, humanitarian goods, military equipment and, for some, boots on the ground. Compared with that, writing it up as a strategy will be a piece of cake.
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