Obama gathers allies to widen assault on Islamic State

Rebel fighters walked in front of damaged buildings in Aleppo on Tuesday. The Pentagon has begun surveillance flights over Syria to look for possible Islamic State targets.
Zein Al-Rifai/AFP/Getty Images
Rebel fighters walked in front of damaged buildings in Aleppo on Tuesday. The Pentagon has begun surveillance flights over Syria to look for possible Islamic State targets.

WASHINGTON — The United States has begun to mobilize a broad coalition of allies behind potential military action in Syria, and is moving toward expanded airstrikes in northern Iraq, administration officials said Tuesday.

President Obama, the officials said, was broadening his campaign against the Sunni-led Islamic State group, and nearing a decision to authorize airstrikes and deliveries of food and water near the northern Iraq town of Amerli, home to members of the country’s Turkmen minority. It has been under siege for more than two months by the militants.

“Rooting out a cancer like ISIL won’t be easy and it won’t be quick,” Obama said in a speech Tuesday to the American Legion’s national convention in Charlotte, N.C., using an alternative name for the group. He said the United States was building a coalition to “take the fight to these barbaric terrorists,” and that the militants would be no match for a united international community.


Administration officials characterized the dangers facing the Turkmen, who are Shi’ite Muslims considered infidels by the members of the Islamic State, as similar to those faced by thousands of Yazidis, who were driven to Mount Sinjar in Iraq after attacks by militants. The United Nations special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said in a statement three days ago that the situation in Amerli “demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens.”

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As Obama considered new strikes, the White House began its diplomatic campaign to enlist allies and neighbors in the region to increase their support for Syria’s moderate opposition and, in some cases, to provide support for possible US military operations. The countries likely to be enlisted include Australia, Britain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, officials said.

The officials, who asked not be named while discussing sensitive internal deliberations, said they expected that Britain and Australia would be willing to join the United States in an air campaign. The officials said they also want help from Turkey, which has military bases that could be used to support an effort in Syria.

Turkey is a transit route for foreign fighters traveling to Syria to join the Islamic State. Administration officials said they are asking Ankara to help tighten the border. The administration is also seeking intelligence and surveillance help from Jordan and financial help from Saudi Arabia, which bankrolls groups in Syria fighting President Bashar Assad.

On Monday, the Pentagon began surveillance flights over Syria to collect information on possible Islamic State targets as a precursor to airstrikes, a senior official said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the humanitarian consequences of the conflict, reported that “non-Syrian spy planes” on Monday carried out surveillance of Islamic State positions in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.


Although America’s allies in the region have plenty of reasons to support an intensified effort against the Islamic State, analysts said, the United States will have to navigate tensions among them.

“One of the problems is that different countries have different clients among the fighting groups in Syria,” said Robert S. Ford, a former US ambassador to Syria. “To get them all to work together, the best thing would be for them to pick one client and funnel all the funds through that client. You’ve got to pick one command structure.”

But persuading counties to help the United States in a military campaign in Syria will require more effort, administration officials said. Turkey, for example, is in the midst of a political transition, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan ascending to the presidency.

His likely successor as prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been deeply immersed in Syria as foreign minister. The White House, meanwhile, has been unable to win Senate confirmation of a new ambassador to Turkey, John Bass, leaving the post vacant at a critical time.

Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates are important as a source of funding for the rebels, but there are strains among them. Qatar, for example, helped negotiate the release of a American, Peter Theo Curtis, who was being held hostage by a less extreme militant group, the Nusra Front. But Saudi Arabia does not talk to the Nusra Front, and the Obama administration has sought to navigate between the feuding Gulf countries.


Enlisting the Sunni neighbors of Syria is crucial, experts said, because airstrikes alone are not going to be sufficient.