As President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry attempt to build a coalition to fight ISIS, questions remain about who would fight against the terror group, how much it would cost, and whether a broad number of Sunni Muslim nations could come together to help destroy the group.
Details about the president’s plan began to trickle out Monday, as Obama prepares to address the subject in a speech on Wednesday to the American people. Unnamed officials told The New York Times that it could take three years to dismantle the group, whose stated goal is to establish a caliphate in the Middle East.
The first phase of combating ISIS was the 145 air strikes that have been conducted in the last month, The Times reported. The second phase would start once Iraq forms an inclusive government, which involves training Iraqi and Kurdish forces as well as members of Sunni tribes, to fight ISIS. Finally, the White House plans to destroy the group’s sanctuary in Syria, although that could be years down the line.
Obama hinted at this strategy in his interview with Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press, which aired Sunday morning.
“We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities; we’re going to shrink the territory that they control; and, ultimately, we’re going to defeat them,” Obama said.
The president will be briefing members of Congress this week on his plans. What remains unclear, however, is whether this strategy is cost-effective and whether or not it will work. The United States has trained troops in Afghanistan for more than a decade, yet they remain feckless. The mission also doesn’t have a price tag, suggesting an open-ended financial commitment for years to come.
In August, the Pentagon said the United States was spending $7.5 million per day for operations in Iraq. As of August 29, the total amount spent was $560 million.
The Times report also did not indicate the exact role of the coalition. Obama has said repeatedly that no American boots would be on the ground in Iraq or Syria. That means that another military or fighting force would need to pick up the slack.
Unfortunately for the White House, there are few militaries in the region that pack a punch. The Global Firepower Index identifies the most powerful military in the region as Israel’s, but no one expects Tel Aviv to get publicly involved in the fight against ISIS. That would leave Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose militaries are ranked 13, 22 and 25 in the world respectively, to fight.
Iran already has troops fighting in Iraq alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga. The White House has said that it expects Saudi Arabia, which has experience fighting extremism, and Egypt, which has received over $80 billion in aid from Washington over the last 30 years, to step up.
“The short answer is, I think, 'yes,' ” White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken said on MSNBC last week when asked about the possibility of Saudi Arabia and Egypt participating.
Kerry is set to travel to the Middle East later this month to solidify the coalition. Christian Whiton, a former Bush administration State Department senior advisor, said convincing countries there to put real skin in the game is a tall diplomatic task.
“The allies who matter most are those who could take ground from ISIS – namely fighters in Sunni Iraq who don’t support ISIS,” Whiton said. “That will be hard, since they believe the coalition betrayed them to [former Prime Minister] Maliki and the Shiites. Also, Obama has alienated Saudi Arabia, among other key Sunni allies whose help we’ll need.”
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