Key U.S. allies in the Middle East could be stretched too thin militarily to provide the ground combat troops the Obama administration, Republican lawmakers and experts agree are needed to defeat the Islamic State.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates this week both signaled a willingness to send elite commandos to Iraq and Syria. But an Obama administration official on Friday said those forces likely would only assist American troops with providing training and advice to local forces there.
The White House for months has called on its Arab allies to do more militarily to fight the Islamic State. U.S. officials warmly welcomed the Saudi and UAE officials’ announcements — which also included increased air strikes. But because of both countries’ military operations elsewhere in the region, the amount of troops they send to Iraq and Syria would most likely be limited.
“To be sure, they all view ISIL as a threat and anathema to Islam,” the administration official told a group of reporters at the White House, using one of several acronyms for the violent extremist group. “They do not want to have any connotation that they represent Islam.
“I do think, though, that they are quite stretched,” the official said. “The Emirates, the Saudis are engaged in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.”
It is increasingly apparent that, despite calls from U.S. officials and lawmakers for them to do more, some of Washington’s closest Arab allies will merely be doing the kind of non-combat operations already being conducted by American forces.
White House national security officials and GOP hawks agree on few things. But both sides want Arab countries to round up a ground posse to help local forces in Iraq and Syria take on ISIL. But the administration officials’ assessment Friday is merely the latest piece of evidence of holes in what is a key part of both Obama’s and Republicans' strategies for defeating the group.
The U.S. has gotten very little in return for these bipartisan calls for its friends in the region to send ground force.
“I understand why it’s hard to put together a coalition in the region,” Christopher Preble, a foreign policy and national security expert at the CATO Institute, said Friday. "The members of the coalition would be as busy watching each other as watching ISIS. They have deep-seated grievances with one another,” Preble said. “There are big difference in terms of those countries’ interests.”
The Saudis are fighting a lethal al-Qaida offshoot in Yemen, a country with which it shares a border that stretches for hundreds of miles. And the Sunni royal family there views Shiite powerhouse Iran as its top rival and threat. In Tehran, ISIL is viewed as a threat, but not the most pressing one.
The same is true across the complicated web of relationships and rivalries that define the Middle East, complicating the Obama administration’s quest for a large and effective Arab ground force.
Another reason, according to Preble: “They think, when push comes to shove, the United States will do the heavy lifting for them.”
During a Dec. 6 prime time address from the Oval Office, Obama said, “Since the [ISIL-inspired] attacks in Paris, our closest allies — including France, Germany, and the United Kingdom — have ramped up their contributions to our military campaign, which will help us accelerate our effort to destroy ISIL.” Eight days later, he added Australia and Italy to that list.
Obama and his aides, in remarks for weeks following the Paris attacks, did not mention longtime U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. But, notably, the U.S. commander in chief, who has stressed working with partners over unilateral military action, added that “others” must join the effort.
The White House’s calls for those countries to step up continued Friday.
While Turkey has made “some progress” stemming the flow of foreign fighters moving along its border with Syria, the administration official said, “Turkey always comes up” in talks with allies about the ISIL fight. “I have traveled to Turkey in the past to talk to the Turks about doing more, quite frankly, on their border … [about] the flow of foreign fighters.”
The official also addressed reported ISIL gains in Libya, and said Obama is ready to launch additional targeted strikes should he determine the group’s presence there poses a threat to the United States.
But the Obama administration will not deploy U.S. combat troops or establish any kind of solo counterterrorism footprint there. U.S. officials see ISIL forces trying to take full control of the northern Libyan city of Sirte, “but it is not trying to project power” from there to the United States, the official said.
Finally, on a potential ceasefire in the Syria conflict brokered this week by U.S. and Russian officials, the administration official said it could “absolutely have an impact … on the ISIL problem.”
But some experts are questioning that assessment.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka, a former Senate Foreign Relations aide, says the ceasefire pact “looks like little more than a deal to allow Russia to cement the balance of power back in [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad’s favor.
“Who doesn’t get bombed is unclear. Who gets aid is also unclear. Who decides when, where and who is allowed to get bombed is unclear,” she said. “The one thing that is clear is that [Secretary of State John] Kerry is endlessly willing to be snookered by Moscow.”
Contact Bennett at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Related: Obama and the Mythical Arab Ground Force See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.