- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2014

President Obama’s plan to defeat Islamic State terrorists contains weak links, from the unreliable Syrian rebels who must do the fighting on the ground to suspicion in key Arab states that Mr. Obama lacks the resolve for a long-term campaign, analysts said Thursday.

The strategy, which Mr. Obama outlined in a prime-time address Wednesday night, relies heavily on arming moderate Syrian rebels, combined with U.S. air power, to rout the militants in their own backyard. Some of the training for the rebels would be provided by Saudi Arabia, which agreed to a U.S. request this week to provide a base for exercises and will be counted on for financial support.

But analysts say the Saudi link is shaky, stemming from mistrust of Mr. Obama dating back to his support of the “Arab spring” movement in 2009, and anger over the president’s failure to launch missile strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad last year.

“The Saudis are going to be very worried about the U.S. staying power in this effort,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, director of the Center for Middle East Public Policy at the RAND Corp. “There’s already lots of concern in the region, especially in the Gulf states and among the Saudis, about the lack of U.S. resolve and commitment to this region. I think President Obama was trying to correct that perception in the speech.”

Mindful that the Saudis have made an early commitment to the plan, Obama administration officials are eager to demonstrate that the U.S. is united behind the president’s strategy. Administration aides were busy on Capitol Hill Thursday lobbying House lawmakers on the president’s request for $500 million to supply arms to the rebels.

“The president needs this authority as soon as possible,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest. “We want to make sure that we can follow up quickly on that [Saudi] commitment. Our level of cooperation [with Saudi Arabia] is deep and will continue.”

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In the Saudi capital of Jidda Thursday, the U.S. and 10 Arab states issued a joint communique endorsing a broad strategy to stop the flow of fighters to the Islamic State, shut off its funding and send assistance to communities that had been “brutalized” by the militants.

It also said the nations would contribute “as appropriate” to a coordinated military campaign.

In remarks to reporters after the meeting, Secretary of State John F. Kerry noted the “particularly poignant day” for the discussions.

“The devastating consequences of extremist hate remain fresh in the minds of all Americans, and to so many of our friends and allies around the world,” Mr. Kerry said of the terrorist attacks 13 years ago on the U.S. “Those consequences are felt every day here in the Middle East.”

The meeting ended with Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon pledging in a joint statement “to do their share” to stand against terrorism. They promised steps including stopping fighters and funding, repudiating the Islamic State group’s ideology, providing humanitarian aid and “as appropriate, joining in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign.”

They also agreed to boost support for the new Iraqi government as it tries to unite its citizens in the fight against the militants, and to devise strategies to “destroy” the group “wherever it is, including in both Iraq and Syria.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said coalition members agreed to share responsibilities for fighting the Islamic State group, as well as to “be serious and continuous in our action to eliminate and wipe out all these terrorist organizations.”

The U.S. suffered an early setback in its strategy Thursday when Turkey indicated it would not cooperate in a coalition to fight the Islamic State. A government official told AFP that Turkey will refuse to allow the U.S.-led coalition to attack jihadists in neighboring Iraq and Syria from its air bases, nor will it take part in combat operations against militants.

Other specialists on Middle East policy, and some lawmakers, question whether the administration will be able to find a reliable fighting partner among the Syrian rebels. The U.S. has been supplying the Free Syrian Army with non-lethal military aid for about a year.

But the FSA has suffered battlefield setbacks recently, and the president himself has referred to the rebels in what some consider disparaging terms. Twice this summer, Mr. Obama has called them “farmers or teachers or pharmacists” and “farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters,” as a way of explaining why U.S. aid had not been effective in creating a stronger fighting force.

Ms. Kaye said the plan to arm the Syrian opposition is “the most worrisome element of the strategy.”

“What’s not clear is what’s different today than just even several months ago, when the president outlined and articulated publicly his concerns about arming the opposition groups in Syria,” she said. “It’s really unclear whether we will ever find one. It is a mess. It is not clear where we’re going to be able to develop an effective force.”

This article is based in part on wire-service reports.



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