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Tricky Diplomacy Awaits U.S. in ISIS Fight, Analysts Say

Secretary of State John Kerry will head for Saudi Arabia on Thursday to talk with U.S. allies.
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President Barack Obama pledged in his national address Wednesday night to lead a “broad coalition,” including American allies in the Middle East, to fight ISIS. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Saudi Arabia on Thursday for talks with several countries.

But the diplomatic work will be dicey.

Each American partner in the region has its own reasons to hesitate. And the administration will have to counter deep mistrust because of its hands-off approach to the Syrian civil war, foreign policy analysts said.

“There’s no low-hanging fruit here,” said Sam Brannen, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served as a Pentagon policy official from 2010 to 2012.

Here are some of the countries that will be at the Kerry talks on Thursday, what they might be able to contribute in the ISIS fight — and why it’s not as easy as just asking for help.


Turkey, which has long borders with Syria and Iraq, is geographically crucial. The United States wants it to crack down on the flow of fighters into those countries. Turkey has tightened border controls this year, but there are still many illegal crossings.

The U.S. military could also use bases in Turkey to stage military strikes.

But there are 49 Turkish hostages, including a consul general, in ISIS hands, and Turkey is worried about retaliation. It also has a restive Kurdish minority, and worries about a shift in the balance of power if the United States gives Iraqi Kurds heavy weapons.

Acting on shared intelligence, Turkey has already arrested suspected jihadists at its airports. It might focus on steps like that to “show itself as not directly anti-ISIS,” said Ortun Orhan, an analyst at the ORSAM Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara.

“It will contribute, but not at the forefront,” he said.

Saudi Arabia

The talks on Thursday, in the Saudi city of Jeddah, will focus on cutting off terrorist financing, increasing humanitarian aid and using national media to speak out against extremism, a senior State Department official said.

With Saudi Arabia specifically, Kerry plans to discuss how to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, the official said.

The Saudis have a lot more to offer in the fight — intelligence, wealth, bases for U.S. staging and their own military might, which could provide air support if the United States wants it.

Saudi Arabia also has reason to be involved: ISIS, led by extremist Sunnis, considers the Sunni regime in Saudi Arabia to have strayed from the faith, analysts said, and ISIS fighters could stage attacks and assassinations inside the kingdom.

A senior State Department official pointed out Wednesday that Saudi Arabia recently broke up a cell of 80 to 100 al Qaeda and ISIS recruiters.

Partnering with Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Sunni country in the neighborhood, would also lend the United States more credibility in the region.

But the Saudis were alarmed that the United States didn’t stand by Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian strongman deposed in 2011, and didn’t do more to end the regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, analysts said.

Saudi Arabia, like other Sunni states in the Gulf, also fears a warming of relations between the United States and Shiite-led Iran, which now have a shared interest in stopping ISIS.

“The U.S. used to be very hostile toward Iran. It was a black-and-white thing,” said Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “Now it’s not.”


Jordan, a strong friend of the United States that sits just south of Syria and just west of Iraq, probably will not send troops because it has not been targeted by ISIS, said Dr. Musa Shtiwi, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Amman.

Its most valuable contribution to the U.S.-led coalition could be training to strengthen the Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. Those rebels represent the “best counterweight” to ISIS, Obama said in his address.

Brannen said that Jordan wants stability. He called it a weak country, bordering Iraq and Syria, “and it seems like a logical next stop for ISIS if they’re ready to expand.”

United Arab Emirates

The UAE, another oil-rich Gulf state, could offer money, training and air support, plus humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing ISIS violence. It also has a “golden record” in intelligence and counterterrorism, said Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Middle East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.

But the UAE shares Saudi Arabia’s low opinion of how the United States handled Egypt and the Syrian civil war. And it believes the United States and NATO did not complete the job in their air campaign against Libya in 2011, with chaos the result.

The Emirates don’t want a repeat in the ISIS fight.

“There must be a comprehensive plan that will be seen through to the end, not limited to military operations to recapture ISIS territory,” Kahwaji said. “You cannot tackle ISIS without resolving the conflict in Iraq and Syria.”


The United States is already flying some missions over Iraq from a base in Qatar. It’s concerned about ISIS, too, but not as much as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which identify radical Islam as a top enemy, Salem said.

The Saudis and the Emiratis are also unhappy with Qatar for supporting Mohamed Morsi, who succeeded Mubarak in Egypt before he himself was deposed, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The United States could respect that disagreement and limit its help from Qatar to military basing and intelligence, Salem said.


Egypt has shared intelligence with the United States and cracked down on militants, but it is unlikely to directly contribute to the fight against ISIS, said Gamal Abdul Gawad, a professor of political science at the American University of Cairo.

Egypt has regulated who is allowed to preach in mosques, and toughened questioning at airports to detect Egyptians going to wage jihad or returning from the battle. Egypt’s approval, like Saudi Arabia’s, could also give the U.S. political cover in the region.