Harry C. Blaney III
The United Nations Security Council agreed on November 20th to a French Resolution calling for the use of “combat by all means” against the Islamic State (ISIS). Russia did not veto the Resolution as it has done in many past similar resolutions to attack ISIS and end the war in Syria. Next steps are now to come to some common ground between the coalition of nations that are already engaged against ISIS in Iraq and Syria on goals, means, and strategy after the Paris attacks. Getting Russia to cooperate more and gaining stronger help from Muslim nations of the region must be an integral component of the coalition’s strategy.
None of these efforts would be helped by the news that Turkish planes downed a Russian jet near Turkey’s border. Turkey has stated they warned the jet and the pilot many times that he would be shot down, but were ignored. It was clear that the jet was in an area where it could only be threatening the supported moderate coalition forces against Assad, rather than aiming its firepower on ISIS, which was very far away. This incident only supports the urgency of better “de-conflicting” this battlefield, and the need for an agreement on the proposed “cease fire” by all sides, with the exception of ISIS. Obama said a key aim now was to de-escalate the Turkey-Russian incident.
Today French President Hollande visited Washington to see President Obama and to argue for closer and more intense coalition against ISIS. After today Hollande, and possibly other European leaders, will meet with Russian President Putin to see if there is any possibility he might agree to focus on ISIS and not against moderate opposition forces with intentions of backing a ceasefire in the fighting to permit the diplomatic tract to work.
There already has been discussions between French president Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron in the aftermath of the Paris attacks and the UN Resolution. In Britain, the Paris attacks and the UN Resolution changes the odds that Britain will likely join air strikes against ISIS in Syria. Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to move quickly to gain Parliament approval to attack ISIS in Syria. He aims to gain a strong majority in the House of Commons for military air attacks according to recent reporting.
The meeting between Hollande and Obama seems to indicate that there will be closer cooperation on dismantling and defeating ISIS between the US and France and for that matter with other Europe countries. The French have sent their only large aircraft carrier to the Middle East to join the current coalition forces and this will be of great help.
Both sides have, however, said that air strikes will not alone defeat ISIS. There was agreement that better coordination on domestic terrorist attacks was needed and Obama again said that proving names and other data on air passengers was required, this was done while Hollande called for more help from Europe, and stated hopes to get Russia to cooperate. He also stated new measures need to be taken to keep new migrants closer to their own home. In a key remark, he said that France will not send ground troops into the Syrian war zone. His key phrase was “we must act.” Both presidents said that ISIS will lose and the coalition will win.
A key part of the anti-ISIS coalition, as worked out in their recent Vienna meeting, was to push for a ceasefire and keep the political/diplomatic effort front and center. Obama in today’s press conference said that we must move forward on the political track as soon as possible. Yet the problem remains the non-participation of Russia in such a political effort since he still insists that Assad, the butcher of his own people, remain in power. Obama however outlined a strategy of a ceasefire regarding non-ISIS combatants, a continued military effort to effectively destroy ISIS, and a Syrian political program for elections, in which Assad would step down and not run in the proposed election of a broad based new government.
One of the first developments after the Paris attacks was a visit by French President Hollande to see the British Prime Minister David Cameron and then to see President Obama. The aims of these interconnected visits are to see if a united stance at the highest level is possible among the key Western powers to address the newly aggressive ISIS or Islamic State, including accelerating the bombing campaign in Syria and other areas held by ISIS.
One U.S. background factor has been the recent address of Hillary Clinton at the Council on Foreign Affairs, in which she both endorsed a no-fly zone and a more robust military and diplomatic role, but again said that there will be no large scale US military “boots on the ground” but did hint that some larger numbers might be sent and be closer to the front line. The Republicans, on the other hand, attacked Obama without any realistic strategy of their own.
The issue of the flow of immigrants was especially mentioned by Hollande, with the thought they should now be provided with security near their own country. The strongest eloquent statement of need for humanitarian response to refugees in search of security and not to surrender to fear, came from Obama.
While considerable effort has been focused to get Russia to effectively join the anti-ISIS coalition, one major problem that remains is getting the key Muslim nations to be more engaged in this effort, especially with troops on the ground and with air strikes as part of any effort to establish a “humanitarian zone” or as some said misleadingly “a no-fly zone.” To establish such a zone there would have to be peacekeeping/peacemaking international armed solders to ensure that ISIS will not be a threat to those displaced and this will require some measure of protective ground forces. The best system would be a diverse multilateral force with a neutral commander reporting to the coalition group.
I highly recommend reading or hearing the White House press conference, while many specifics were missing naturally, the direction of the speeches were again to play out the diplomatic game but to use the military tools to maintain leverage and eliminate, in time, ISIS while dealing with Assad after ISIS is largely decimated.
The problem being finding the right balance between the different tools, getting the key actors on board, making the Arab and Muslim nations finally work together, and, not least, creating a plan after most of the fighting ISIS is over to rebuild the devastation, protect all groups, and establish a responsible and hopefully honest new broad-based government in Syria. A very tall lift that will take likely decades.
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