Obama gets boost for coalition-building efforts
Sep. 24, 2014
NEW YORK (AP) — For President Barack Obama, the participation of five Arab nations in airstrikes in Syria has shifted the tenor of his three-day diplomatic mission at the United Nations, allowing him to use the unexpected cooperation to mobilize other reluctant nations to join the fight against Islamic State militants.
It's a marked change for a president who has been on the defensive about his ability to form a coalition and who had been expected to show up at the U.N. with few public commitments from allies around the world.
"The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America's fight alone," Obama said at the White House before departing for New York. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain all launched airstrikes alongside U.S. planes, with Qatar playing a supporting role.
Senior administration officials said the coalition was quietly solidified in recent days following Secretary of State John Kerry's flurry of meetings with regional partners and Obama's phone calls to the monarchs of Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Obama gave the go-ahead for the Pentagon to launch strikes in Syria for the first time last Thursday after being briefed by military leaders at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
While officials said the timing of the strikes was not intended to coincide with the start of the annual U.N. gathering, the military action quickly became a focal point as Obama and other world leaders arrived in New York.
Obama met Tuesday afternoon with a group that included representatives from the five Arab nations that participated in the overnight strikes. After thanking them for their cooperation, he cautioned that the military foray into Syria "is obviously not the end of the effort but this is the beginning."
Among the leaders who joined in the meeting was new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who took office earlier this month. Obama and al-Abadi will also hold a one-on-one meeting Wednesday.
Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official, said the Arab participation could galvanize other nations that have been wary of joining the effort.
"It really helps Europeans and others to see that it's not just going to be perceived as just a Western action," said Hicks, who is now senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
The joint U.S.-Arab airstrikes won Obama rare support from Republicans who have been pressing him to be more aggressive in going after the Islamic State group, which has moved with ease across the blurred border between Iraq and Syria.
"I support the airstrikes launched by the president, understanding that this is just one step in what must be a larger effort to destroy and defeat this terrorist organization," House Speaker John Boehner said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell concurred, saying, "These strikes against ISIL and the engagement of our regional allies are important steps in defeating ISIL and I support these ongoing efforts." McConnell referred to the Islamic State militants with one of the many names used for group.
The U.S. began launching targeted airstrikes against Islamic State group targets in Iraq in August. Following the group's brutal beheading of two American journalists, as well as the formation of the new Iraqi government, Obama pledged to expand the campaign — but only as part of a broad coalition.
However, before this week, there were few countries that had made specific military commitments. France has joined the U.S. in launching airstrikes in Iraq, and Saudi Arabia volunteered to host U.S.-led training missions for Syrian rebels.
Even with the actions from Arab nations, the U.S. is seeking to rally other partners for future cooperation, particularly Turkey, a U.S. ally and NATO member. Turkish officials have resisted joining the coalition, citing the safety of 49 hostages that had been held by the Islamic State group.
But with the hostages released last weekend under unspecified terms, that seemed to be changing.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, also in New York for the U.N. meetings, said Tuesday he was considering expanding support for Western and Arab operations against the Islamic State group to include military involvement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he expected a more robust role for Turkey. And Erdogan said later, according to Turkey's DHA news agency, "Of course, we will do our part. God willing, we will also discuss it together with our government."
"Nations like Turkey have their own clear, vested personal interest in confronting the threat that's posed by ISIL," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said. "All of the mayhem and havoc that ISIL is wreaking in Iraq and in Syria is right on Turkey's doorstep. And it's certainly not in their interest for all that instability and violence to be occurring so close to their border."
The president will also chair an unusual U.N. Security Council meeting Wednesday at which members are expected to adopt a resolution that would require all countries to prevent the recruitment and transport of would-be foreign fighters preparing to join terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. However, Obama administration officials have acknowledged that U.N. resolutions can be notoriously difficult to enforce.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.
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