The Clashing Agendas In The Fight Against ISIS

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army, left, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units, center, join forces to fight Islamic State group militants in Kobani, Syria in 2014.

Fighters from the Free Syrian Army, left, and the Kurdish People's Protection Units, center, join forces to fight Islamic State group militants in Kobani, Syria in 2014. (AP Photo/Jake Simkin)

April 28, 2016

Why is it taking so long to defeat ISIS?

That’s a question I hear all the time, as I’ve reported on the group’s rise these past few years. With that in mind I traveled throughout the Middle East this January and February for an upcoming FRONTLINE documentary, Confronting ISIS, pressing officials in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey to explain how they see the fight, how they think the war is going and what they recommend.

To listen to this year’s crop of presidential candidates, defeating ISIS is just a matter of enlisting more of our regional allies’ help. We need to build a coalition of Sunni Arab nations, the candidates all say, to form a ground force to go in and take ISIS out. If only it were so simple.

Reporting from the ground, it is readily clear America’s regional allies have widely divergent views and a set of priorities that often don’t coincide with our focus on ISIS. More than anything, this divergence has helped to make the conflict complicated and drawn out. Welcome to the Middle East.

Of course, no country in the region wants to see ISIS thrive. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey have all been victims of attacks, and their own stability is at risk. Yet when you travel the region and talk to officials, you see that ISIS is just one of many pressing issues that worry them. I heard it over and over: “ISIS, we don’t like them, but they are just a symptom.”

Saudis, Emiratis, Kuwaitis, Jordanians and Turks all see ISIS as a symptom of Shia oppression in Iraq and Assad’s war in Syria. Fighting ISIS is getting it backwards, attacking the symptom and not the disease, they say.

One former White House official recently complained to me that it has been a struggle to get our Middle Eastern allies to see things our way. It didn’t start out that way. Initially, after President Obama announced the formation of America’s anti-ISIS coalition, pledging to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the group, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Qatar geared up to help us with great fanfare. Stories were written about their courageous pilots. In the West, their participation was lauded.

Over time that has changed. U.S. military officials and diplomats have told me that today the number of airstrikes by America’s Middle Eastern partners has fallen to near zero. And the Obama administration continues to be very frustrated by the half-hearted efforts of the Sunni states, notably Saudi Arabia, to counter those who support ISIS in their midst.

Cooperation began to fray early. Just three months into the fight, after Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh was shot down by ISIS and captured, governments began to reassess their participation. Then in February 2015, ISIS posted Kasasbeh’s gruesome death — he was set on fire while locked in a cage. Jordan responded with some well-publicized airstrikes and the execution of two prisoners. But very soon the country’s appetite for confrontation waned. Already reeling from a large influx of Syrian refugees, Jordan backed off, reluctant to keep stirring the hornet’s nest and risk ISIS attacks inside its own borders. According to a member of parliament, Jordan has not flown an airstrike since August 2015.

General Ahmed Assisi of the Saudi Ministry of Defense insists Saudi Arabia is still deeply engaged in the fight. And the country is continuing to provide the U.S. with key intelligence and operational support. But U.S. officials say that the Saudis are today flying few if any missions. I asked General Assisi how many bombing sorties targeting ISIS the Saudis have made. I’m still waiting for his answer.

Saudi Arabia has been distracted by events in Yemen. Since March 2015, the Kingdom has been leading efforts to combat that country’s Houthi rebels, concerned about the group’s ties to Iran. That proxy fight with Saudi Arabia’s arch rival has overshadowed the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the U.A.E. are also involved in helping Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Their fight against ISIS is not their top priority.

And then there is Turkey. Here the government delayed its full cooperation for nearly a year, focused more on fighting separatist Kurds along its southeastern border. Turkish officials considered the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its affiliate in northern Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the most immediate threat to the country — worse than ISIS. They’ve said so openly.

When the U.S. airdropped weapons and ammunition in October 2014 to support Syrian Kurds of the YPG fighting ISIS for control of the Syrian border town of Kobani, Turkish tanks and troops stood by. President Recip Tayip Erdogan was furious that the U.S. had decided to supply and support the YPG.

Also, despite angry exchanges between President Obama and Erdogan, the Turks, a NATO ally, wouldn’t allow the U.S. to use its airbase at Incirlik, forcing U.S. planes to launch strikes on ISIS from bases many miles away. Turkey has since opened Incirlik but has continued to target the YPG forces, despite the fact that the YPG is America’s principal and most reliable ground ally in the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, sectarian tensions continue to fester in Iraq. The central government, without a strong national army, has relied on Iranian-backed Shia militias to confront ISIS. The results have been disastrous. After U.S. airstrikes routed ISIS from Tikrit, Iranian-backed Shia militias mounted dozens of revenge attacks against Sunni residents of Saddam Hussein’s hometown and in neighboring provinces as well. In their eyes, all Sunnis are ISIS collaborators; many were tortured or murdered, some beheaded in ISIS fashion. I saw whole neighborhoods destroyed, houses leveled and listened to horrific accounts of violence. In the wake of the Tikrit attacks, the U.S. persuaded Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to keep Shia militias at bay during the recent battle to retake the city of Ramadi from ISIS. Yet Abadi has assured his countrymen that when the battle is joined to reconquer Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the militias will be involved.

As the fight against ISIS approaches its third year, a host of competing interests have taken their toll on the Obama administration’s patience. Last December, President Obama was notably frank about his concern and called on these regional partners in the Middle East to do more: “Just as the United States is doing more in this fight — just as our allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, Australia and Italy are doing more — so must others,” he said. The next day, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter arrived in the region, where he pressed officials in Turkey and Saudi Arabia to step up their efforts. What will result is as yet unclear.

Martin Smith, a member of the Board of Governors of the Overseas Press Club, has been a producer and correspondent for FRONTLINE since 1984. He has received numerous honors for his reporting from the Middle East, including both silver and gold DuPont-Columbia batons, the Weintal Career Prize for Diplomatic Reporting, the John Chancellor Career Award from Columbia University, three Writers Guild awards and an Edward R. Murrow Award from the OPC. This essay was cross-published with the OPC

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