US rallies regional allies to counter threat from ISIL

The US secretary of state meets Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian opposition leader in Jeddah as he seeks coordinated response to rise of extremist militant group.

Saudi King Abdullah and the US secretary of state John Kerry hold talks at the king's private residence in Jeddah on June 27, 2014. Brendan Smialowski / Reuters
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New York // The top US diplomat met Saudi King Abdullah on Friday as Washington seeks a coordinated effort with its Gulf allies to encourage Iraq to form an inclusive government and confront the region’s growing turmoil.

Before his talks with the king, secretary of state John Kerry met the leader of the Syrian opposition, Ahmad Jarba, who was also in Jeddah, telling him that moderate rebels can play a key role in combating the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which now controls large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

The talks in Jeddah came a day after the US president Barack Obama announced that his administration would ask Congress for $500 million (Dh1.84 billion) to support US military efforts to train and equip vetted rebel groups.

“We have even more to talk about in terms of the moderate opposition in Syria, which has the ability to be a very important player in pushing back against ISIL’s presence,” Mr Kerry said.

“President Jarba represents a tribe that reaches right into Iraq. He knows people there, and his point of view and that of the Syrian opposition will be very important going forward,” he added.

On Thursday, Mr Kerry met with the foreign ministers of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to discuss efforts to push for an inclusive political process in Iraq and the formation of a government that reflects the interests of the Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities, as well as majority Shiites.

Mr Kerry told the ministers that the US had made no decisions about whether to carry out airstrikes, but that military intervention would be effective only after an inclusive government is formed, the US state department said.

Unlike in Syria, where US policies to support rebels have been seen as insufficient by Gulf allies, especially King Abdullah, there appears to be agreement on both the analysis of the problem in Iraq and how to address it.

Mainly Sunni Gulf states oppose any US military action before the Iraqi prime minister Nouri Al Maliki, whose authoritarian and sectarian policies helped precipitate the current crisis, steps down. The US does not want to be seen as siding with Mr Al Maliki’s forces against Sunni insurgents, which could inflame the dangerous regional sectarian dynamics.

“Most of us are in agreement on the assessment and the way forward,” said a senior Arab official in Washington. “We’re working closely with our friends and neighbours to ensure Iraq’s territorial integrity is maintained at the same time as we’re devising a strategy to battle the growing extremist threat.”

The US is increasingly concerned that the uprising in Syria and an ISIL-led insurgency in Iraq have combined to become a single war that is threatening to spill across its allies’ borders, especially Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon.

After a meeting with the Saudi National Security Council on Thursday, King Abdullah instructed officials to “take all the necessary measures to protect … the kingdom’s security”.

A military-led programme would be the most significant US involvement in Syria , where Mr Obama has consistently sought to limit its role and work to contain the violence, not to help topple Syria’s leader, Bashar Al Assad.

The CIA already runs covert training efforts in Qatar and Jordan, that produce only small batches of rebels, and an overt Pentagon-run programme would be significantly larger.

“This would also signal a new and more robust role for the department of defence in strengthening the Free Syrian Army at a critical time,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a strategic communications adviser for the Syrian coalition.

But the growing security threat posed by ISIL, which in Iraq has allied with a range of disaffected, but less religiously extremist, militant groups, has forced a major reevaluation of its strategy, and has drawn the US back into a region it has sought to scale back from.

Some have feared that the ISIL threat would push the US to work with its adversary Iran and Iran’s ally, Mr Al Assad, to confront the shared enemy, but the much larger push to support Syrian rebels appears to be a “new strategy to fight ISIS [as ISIL is also known] and Assad”, said Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“There is still a long ways to go before this makes it through Congress and becomes real policy, but it may be what it looks like: a reconsideration of a policy that it’s become impossible to pretend has been anything but a dismal failure,” he said.

The US offered few details on what the arming and training of Syrian rebels would entail, and how long it would take to be set up, but US officials were reported to have said that they want to base the programme in a regional country.

Funds for the programme would be drawn from a newly announced $5bn counterterrorism fund that includes $1.5bn to help neighbouring countries secure their borders and absorb the flow of Syrian refugees.

During Mr Kerry’s two-hour meeting in Paris with UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and his Saudi and Jordanian counterparts, the diplomats discussed how to encourage Iraqi leaders to agree to an inclusive government and pave the way for alienated Sunnis to end their tacit support for ISIL and even to fight against the extremist group.

Mr Kerry told them that the US was gathering intelligence on potential ISIL targets, but had not decided whether to launch airstrikes yet and that it “reserves the right to take this action at any point”, according to a state department official.

While the US does not believe any Gulf state funds ISIL, private citizens have “occasionally” sent money to the group and the US is also asking its allies to do more to stem such financial flows, according to the official.

Kuwait and Qatar, two countries the US has singled out in particular for not doing enough to stop extremist funding, were not invited to the Paris meeting, and the US official gave no reasons for these omissions.

While Riyadh has not had an ambassador in Baghdad for years and the UAE’s ambassador has left Baghdad for the time being, the US would like Gulf countries to “encourage their interlocutors inside Iraq to engage constructively within the constitutional process and quickly, and that they convey a sense of urgency”, the US official said.

The Gulf officials were also urged “not to focus on the perceived transgressions of past years” by Baghdad.

Mr Al Maliki, the leader of an Islamist Shia party, is a close ally of Tehran and has long been viewed with suspicion by Gulf countries. So far he has fought to stay in power, which will make it more difficult for Gulf officials to use their influence to peel Sunni tribal leaders away from the insurgency.