This story has been updated.
In his multiple press briefings since
authorizing airstrikes against Sunni militants in Iraq, President Barack Obama
has yet to make a vocal public case for allies to join the fight. But as the
White House sets the stage for a drawn-out campaign against the Islamic State
in northern Iraq, the president is quietly asking the leaders of other nations
to stand with him.
Obama and members of his cabinet,
including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have
been holding a flurry of phone calls and visits to drum up support for help in
Iraq, not only for the humanitarian mission but, more quietly, for the
military's lethal one.
On Wednesday, the administration's efforts began to pay off as France announced it would send arms to Kurdish soldiers fending off members of IS, formerly known as the
Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
"In order to respond to the urgent needs expressed by the Kurdistan regional authorities, the president has decided, in agreement with Baghdad, to deliver arms in the coming hours," French President François Hollande said. The decision followed calls by France's foreign minister for the European Union to return from holiday to discuss assisting Kurdish fighters -- a request that the EU's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said would be met either this week or next.
On Wednesday, British
Prime Minister David Cameron cut short his vacation after facing pressure
from his political left and right to join the U.S. bombing campaign. On Tuesday, he ordered the deployment of Tornado GR4
fighter jets to improve the country's surveillance capabilities there. The
decision to deploy fighter jets has now fueled speculation that Britain, like the United States, will begin airstrikes in short
time, but for the moment, officials insist the air campaign is purely
In the debate in Britain, Cameron took
fire from members of his own Conservative Party for his reluctance to
intervene. "It's immoral that the only thing we are doing is dropping food and
water and leaving these people in the firing line of slaughter," said
Conservative MP Conor Burns on Monday.
The German government has expressed support for U.S. airstrikes as the only way to stop
IS and open humanitarian corridors for the Yazidi community trapped on Mount
Sinjar. So far, it has not committed to direct, lethal assistance
for the effort.
In recent days, the president of the
Kurdish autonomous region, Masoud Barzani, put in a weapons request to German
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to help his troops push back Islamic
State militia members. But a key sticking point in Germany is whether to send
lethal support directly to the Iraqi Kurds without the consent of Baghdad.
Historically, Steinmeier has been
skeptical of arms sales to foreign countries, and over the weekend, German
officials appeared unlikely to deliver any lethal aid. However, Steinmeier and
members of the German parliament have appeared more supportive of providing arms in
the last 48 hours, as the plight of the Yazidis has become even bleaker.
"In view of the dramatic situation, I
favor going to the limits of what is politically and legally feasible,"
Steinmeier said Tuesday.
For the moment, though, German
assistance has been limited to nonlethal aid, including millions of dollars in
additional humanitarian assistance. A senior German government official told Foreign Policy that Berlin was preparing
to send nonlethal military aid like armored cars, protective gear, and sensors
to detect improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
In reaching out to Europe, Obama -- who
staked his 2008 campaign on ending the war in Iraq -- is now confronting the
scope of an intervention that he does not want to handle alone. Building a new
coalition of the willing will help protect Obama at home, especially among
those on the left who fear he is slipping the country back into the war he
ended in 2011, as well as among internationalists who believe the effort can only be
strong if it is a broad-based one. But as Obama uses the threat of genocide to
sell allies on the need to help in the effort, he's clearly intent on getting
other countries enthusiastic about supporting -- and helping to conduct --
The White House was mum on its efforts
to build such a coalition, saying only that it's working to get the United
Nations, the Iraqis, and other allies on board to "secure the safety of the
civilians on Mount Sinjar," according to a spokesperson for the National
Security Council. But what it's seeking beyond that remained unclear.
"This is a long-term mission that
is going to involve a lot of heavy lifting and you do need allies to stand
shoulder to shoulder with you," said Nile Gardiner of the conservative
Heritage Foundation. But, he said, as Obama looks to lure allies, especially in
Europe, he will face friends who are war-weary. And his clear lack of
enthusiasm for intervening in Iraq won't help him, either. "Allies only
follow when they have real confidence in American leadership and I think that's
lacking at the moment," Gardiner said.
But European nations and others must
get on board, argues James Stavridis, the former commander of the Supreme Allied
Command, Europe, who was in that post when an international coalition was
assembled for Libya during civil strife there in the spring of 2011.
Stavridis, now the dean of the Fletcher
School at Tufts University in Boston, sees a role for allies to play to provide
support for both air- and land-based airstrikes, drones, cyber-capabilities,
logistics, and other equipment. While he doesn't see the need for large troop
formations, Stavridis said some allies should provide special forces troops to
assist the United States. The Pentagon has a number of such troops supporting the Iraqi
government there now, coordinating airstrikes and advising Iraqi forces as they
fight against IS.
"NATO should recognize that the
overflow of two or three different civil wars in Syria and Iraq should
ultimately mean violent extremists coming back to Europe, and that means a
threat to the alliance," he told Foreign
Policy. "As much as we don't want to be involved in this, we have a
job to do here," he said, noting that "it will be a challenging
sell," but it should be possible for NATO to buy into it.
The 28-nation coalition for Libya
included France and the U.K., but also Canada and a number of other countries
that supported the mission, like Qatar, Jordan, Sweden, and Ukraine.
For the current mission in Iraq,
experts believe Great Britain would likely be the first to jump aboard,
potentially followed by France, which took the lead in ousting the militants
who controlled northern Mali last year. President François Hollande indicated
earlier this week that his country would take part in any security plan sold
under the United Nations Security Council. French officials have called on the
European Union to support arming Kurdish forces with weapons and ammunition.
In the meantime, the United States has accepted
financial contributions from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan, the
European Union, Sweden, Australia, and Canada. "We are talking to many of our
partners, on the financial side particularly, about how we can bring more
resources to bear here," State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said
And for the first time, Harf hinted
that the Obama administration is considering options to rescue the Mount Sinjar
refugees beyond airlifting them out. She said that another possibility being
considered was the creation of a "humanitarian corridor" to get refugees off
the mountain. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is also pushing for such an approach, asking United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to create the corridor to evacuate Yazidis and other Iraqis
trapped on the mountain.
"We're looking at how it could possibly
be done," Harf said, adding that she was unaware of specifics on talks with
allies about the creation of a corridor.
Great Britain announced a
number of new humanitarian airdrops, including water, water containers, and
solar lanterns, to those stranded on Mount Sinjar. But it looked as if Great
Britain envisioned a larger role for itself and others. "We continue to
lead negotiations in New York on a U.N. Security Council Resolution that would
make clear the shared determination of the international community to tackle
the threat posed by ISIL; disrupt the terrorists' financing flows; and sanction
those who are seeking to recruit jihadists to ISIL," a spokesperson for
the British government said after a meeting at No. 10 Downing Street.
Also Tuesday, Obama spoke by phone with
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Iraq and the two men agreed to
"work with other partners" to provide "additional, immediate
humanitarian assistance," according to the White House. "They
discussed efforts to counter the threat posed by ISIL against all Iraqis and
agreed on the need for Iraqi political leaders from all factions to put aside
their differences and to form an inclusive government capable of pulling the
Outside of the United States, perhaps
no country has as much as stake in Iraq as Turkey, which shares a border with
Kurdistan. During past conflicts
it was forced to deal with massive refugee crises as Iraqis attempted to flee.
Amid reports that Turkey was flying
reconnaissance flights over northern Iraq -- denied by the Turkish government --
Turkey has nonetheless been actively engaged with the situation in Iraq. Ankara
has already dropped supplies to the refugees stranded on Mount Sinjar, and last
week, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan summoned his top generals to
Ankara to discuss the situation in Kurdistan.
Kamran Bokhari, vice president of
Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at STRATFOR Global Intelligence, Turkey
has to act not just to protect its southern borders but also to win back regional
influence. "They do not want to have two singular battle spaces for jihadists on [Turkey's] southern flank," he said. Bokhari said that this fear, combined with
Erdogan's desire to change the perception of Turkey's passiveness, could lead
to the involvement of the Turkish military, alongside the Kurdish Peshmerga, in
a campaign against ISIS.
But as the campaign
against militants moves forward in Iraq, the call for allies to get more
involved militarily will become more strident, even inside countries that are
now on the fence. In a statement Monday, German Green
Party leader Cem Ozdemir noted that Kurdish fighters armed with U.S. weapons
were having significant success saving the lives of persecuted Yazidis -- and argued that Germany should provide similar assistance.
"They didn't do that with a yoga
mat under their arm, they did it with weapons," Ozdemir said.