Can U.S. mobilize regional allies to fight Islamic State?

Gwen Ifill speaks with retired Col. Derek Harvey, a former Army intelligence officer, and Steven Simon, a former National Security Council staff member, about the challenges for the U.S. in establishing a coalition to fight the Islamic State extremists.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The debate over crafting a coalition moves next to Congress, when Secretary of State Kerry testifies at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

    So, how much support is the U.S. getting for its coalition?

    For answers, we turn to retired Colonel Derek Harvey. He was an intelligence officer and special adviser to General David Petraeus, and he is now director of the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict at the University of South Florida. And Steven Simon, he was senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs on the National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2012. He's now a senior fellow at the Middle East institute.

    Thank you both for joining us.

    Colonel Harvey, how well is this coalition that we keep talking about coming together, from your lights?

    COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), Former Army intelligence officer: Well, I think it's too early to tell at the moment, but there are major concerns.

    I applaud the efforts to hold the conference in Paris. And the right things are being said. But, given that, moving beyond that, the coalition is going to be required to actually do some heavy lifting. And the test will be in the substantive and meaningful actions by coalition members, contributing in the kinetic realm, as well as just contributing verbally and with information campaigns and some legal mechanisms to diminish recruitment.

    And that means an Arab country or countries need to get out front and be there in the kinetic operations, and not just offer in-kind assistance, air refueling, intelligence support, basing. They need to be participants in this, because it can't be the Westerners doing this alone.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Steven Simon, do you see that happening, the involvement from the Arab countries that Derek Harvey is talking about?

    STEVEN SIMON, Former National Security Council staff: Well, I think it is going to be an uphill battle for Washington.

    Secretary Kerry has approached it with his customary energy, but I think the president has given him a very hard job. The Arab states whose cooperation we're seeking are mostly concerned about unseating Assad in Syria.

    They're concerned about regime change there. They're not so concerned, I think, about defeating ISIL, or ISIS. They have got — they have got their goal, and they have been maneuvering toward that goal for several years now, fighting essentially a proxy war in Syria against Assad.

    So what the United States is asking them to do, really, is to shift gears and change direction in a fairly major way. Now, I don't think it's an impossible battle in terms of air support. I mean, real kinetic, as Derek Harvey put it, kinetic support for U.S. operations from the United Arab Emirates and perhaps from Saudi Arabia.

    But the Saudis seemed very focused on providing arm-and-train help for the fight against ISIS. The UAE has staged air operations, and they staged them rather far from the United Arab Emirates, as far away as Libya. So it's quite possible they would join the United States in these kinetic attacks, in the air attacks that we're talking about, but I think these will take a while to arrange.

    These are complicated things to work out, to harmonize. The United States needs to work with these other countries on divisions of labor, on deconfliction, on the specific signals, so that the two sides can tell who's friend and who is foe. There are a lot of technical issues that need to be — that need to be sorted through. And I think that that is all going to take time.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Technical, diplomatic, military, there are a lot of issues to be worked through.

    Let's talk about another country in the region that's been used as kind of a staging platform for us in these kinds of interventions, and that is Turkey. Is Turkey on board or are they hanging back?

  • COL. DEREK HARVEY:

    At this point in time, it appears that Turkey is really hanging back. And they have a history of relationships with a number of the Islamist groups in Syria. And they don't want to be perceived as being aligned with the United States at this point in time, so they have rebuffed our administration's efforts.

    And it points to the concerns across the region. There's a great deal of empathy in a number of these countries. We see it on Twitter and social media extensively that — empathy for the Islamic State and sympathy, not support, but empathy. And they have to be concerned about their domestic constituencies and how far out they can get on this.

    And so they're going to be looking for the United States to take the lead and probably do the heavy lifting, and that's a major concern.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    John Kerry, you talked — with his customer energy, as you described, Steven Simon, didn't close the door to potential cooperation, collaboration with Iran. How important is that in this situation?

  • STEVEN SIMON:

    Well, frankly, I don't think it's hugely important.

    Look, what's really important here, first of all, is what the Iraqi government does on its own territory vis-a-vis its Sunni citizens. Is it going to reach out to them? Is it going to be inclusive? Is it going to give them a fair shake? Ultimately, that's going to be required to undermine the ISIS cause and ISIS influence in that area.

    And until they do that, I think it's going to be very difficult. And the administration has made that a priority. Now, thus far, the Iraqi government has done one very important thing, and that, believe it or not, is to say that its forces would no longer shell Sunni villages indiscriminately if they think that there's an ISIS presence in those villages.

    Now, this is — if that counts as a major advance, then I think we have some sense of how far the Iraqi government really has to go.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And how far the entire…

  • STEVEN SIMON:

    And as far as Washington is concerned, getting out in front militarily in the fight against ISIS, when that sort of basis for the fight hasn't really yet been consolidated, is not a very appetizing notion.

    So given that background, what Iran does or doesn't do or the kinds of coordination we have with Iran is not really all that significant.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The White House chief of staff, Derek Harvey, said this weekend that success, destroying ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State, looks — means it can no longer be a threat to the region, it can no longer be a threat to the U.S., and somehow they have got to stop attracting followers.

    That sounds like a steep mountain to climb if you do not have on board people in the region, if not your boots on the ground, somebody else's boots on the ground.

  • COL. DEREK HARVEY:

    It is a very steep mountain to climb. And there's a gap between the strategic aims and the means that are in play right now by the United States, but also the ability to align coalition partners.

    And this is going to take serious, dedicated, focused engagement by the president and other members of the administration. And it's going to take a George H.W. Bush-type effort of 1990 to build this coalition and to stay focused on it, because, to be frank, there's a lot of doubt and concern in the region about the commitment and the steadfastness of the United States on this issue if they come on board.

    And they don't want to walk out on that plank when they're not absolutely certain about the U.S. role.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Derek Harvey of the Global Initiative on Civil Society and Conflict and Steven Simon of the Middle East Institute, thank you both very much.

  • COL. DEREK HARVEY:

    Thank you very much, Gwen.

  • STEVEN SIMON:

    Thank you.

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