President Obama, who once derided George W. Bush’s “coalition of the willing” that invaded Iraq, has assembled a new war coalition in Syria with similar doubts about its partners’ punching abilities.
The president and his aides were busy Tuesday trumpeting the Arab states that joined in the initial U.S.-led air strikes against Islamic State militants in Syria — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. They said it shows that Arabs, and Muslims, are united in the fight against the Islamist extremists.
But there are major questions about those nations’ staying power in the air war, and there is still no commitment of the ground troops that most analysts believe are needed to ultimately destroy the Islamic State.
“Twenty-two airstrikes overnight [Monday] does not constitute ‘shock and awe,’” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East specialist at the Wilson Center in Washington. “If it’s a fighting coalition, if they are actually going to join with us every time we strike, and those strikes are sustained and constant … then it will differ substantially [from Bush’s coalition]. But the scale of the operation is much reduced. This is not 140,000 forces into Iraq. It’s no ground forces and a lot of air power.”
When Mr. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2003, he put together a coalition of 46 nations. Three countries besides the U.S. contributed ground forces for the invasion — 46,000 from the United Kingdom, 2,000 from Australia and several hundred from Poland.
Mr. Obama, who is leading air attacks against terrorist-held territory instead of against a sovereign nation, said Tuesday that his coalition now numbers more than 40 countries. He will push for more nations to help in the effort Wednesday when he chairs a meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Mr. Obama’s record of ending wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq could help him marshal international support in this new campaign.
“I think he’s got a great opportunity to unite the world,” Mr. Blair said on MSNBC. “And in a way, he particularly is able to come and say ‘Look, I’m not someone who started one thing to get into this situation but here is the threat, it’s a threat that concerns all of us.’”
Dafna Rand, the Leon Panetta Fellow at the Center for New American Security, said it is “no small feat” to get Saudi Arabia and Qatar to fight alongside the U.S., but airstrikes alone won’t solve the problems posed by the Islamic State.
“The American public rightly expects its decision-makers to spend as much time planning how this mess in Syria ends as they are executing the military intervention against [the Islamic State],” she said. “Doing so will require diplomatic discussions with Arab coalition allies and key regional players such as Turkey.”
From the moment he reluctantly authorized airstrikes in Iraq on Aug. 8, the president has emphasized this war would be “different” from Mr. Bush’s war, and he tried to make the distinction again Tuesday by noting the Arab partners involved in the airstrikes.
“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” Mr. Obama said. “Above all, the people and governments in the Middle East are rejecting [the Islamic State] and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve.”
A senior administration official said the president believes having Arab partners in the coalition “sends a very important message to the region and the world.”
“This makes perfectly clear that this is not simply a battle between the United States and [the Islamic State],” the official said. “This is between the people of the region, the governments of the region, and the threat posed by this terrorist organization which has overwhelmingly killed Muslims and poses a threat not just to the United States but to our Arab partners.”
A major part of Mr. Obama’s strategy is to equip and train up to 5,000 Syrian rebels to fight the militants on the ground, a force that won’t be ready for several months, by the administration’s estimate. One of the president’s top national security advisers said the roles of coalition partners will change as the campaign plays out.
“We will grow a coalition of nations to take different actions,” said Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes. “Some nations will take strikes in Syria; some nations will take strikes in Iraq. Some nations will participate in training and equipping of Iraqis, training and equipping of Syrians. Some nations will help us in counter financing, stopping the flow of foreign fighters.”
There are also persistent doubts in the Middle East about Mr. Obama’s staying power for the fight. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi called on Mr. Obama Tuesday to widen his campaign against extremism beyond Iraq and Syria.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Mr. el-Sissi cautioned the administration against “washing its hands” of the Middle East at a time when the threat of militancy is rising. He cited terrorist threats in Libya, Sudan, Yemen and the Sinai Peninsula as equally dangerous.
“We can’t reduce the danger lurking in the region to [the Islamic State],” he said. “We have to bear in mind all the pieces of the puzzle. We can’t just limit the confrontation to checking and destroying the Islamic State.”
Mr. Miller said Mr. Obama “is under no illusions here.”
“He has less than 1,000 days left in his presidency,” said Mr. Miller, who has written a new book entitled “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.”
“His goals are to keep the U.S. attack-free, which means going on the offensive and hitting the mother ship in Syria,” he said of Mr. Obama. “It’s going to take years to stand up local allies in Syria who are credible, and try to enlist some regional buy-in.”
“Whether or not this coalition is a keeper coalition as opposed to one that serves useful political and psychological purposes for the moment” depends on Mr. Obama’s commitment to the campaign, he said.