Talk of a 'grand coalition' against ISIS is heroically optimistic

BEIRUT • President Francois Hollande, having placed France on a war footing after the ISIS assault on Paris on Nov 13, has embarked on a diplomatic offensive. Meeting US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin this week, he is looking for a single "grand coalition" to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

After the United Nations Security Council last weekend called on all states able to do so to join the battle against the militant caliphate in Syria and Iraq, one might suppose global and regional powers were at last lining up and pointing in the same direction. They are a long way from that. If any reminder were needed, Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane near its border with Syria on Tuesday provided it. Yet even before that, there was little to suggest the time was ripe for a united front on Syria.

The main powers embroiled in Syria - the US and Russia - remain at odds. Mr Putin has placed himself at the head of the Iran-backed Shi'ite axis whose primary goal is to salvage the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Mr Obama leads a coalition against ISIS backed, at least in theory, by Sunni Arab states and Turkey. Coalitions may not share the same ultimate aims, but do not coalesce at all unless they can agree on a common enemy.

Russia has preferentially targeted non-ISIS rebels menacing the Assads' rump state, training its sights on ISIS only in recent days after concluding it was an ISIS bomb that downed a Russian airliner over the Sinai.

Even though the extremists have carried out three suicide bombings inside Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is almost wholly engaged in trying to prevent Syrian Kurdish militia - the US' most capable allies on the ground - from taking more territory contiguous to the restive Kurdish areas of south-east Turkey (Mr Putin now accuses his erstwhile friend, Mr Erdogan, of trying to "put Nato at the service of ISIS").

Coalitions that cannot agree on a common enemy seem unlikely to be able to agree on new approaches to gathering and sharing the intelligence needed to defend against this.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, Washington's main Sunni Arab ally, has said its concern is the expansion of Iranian influence across the Arab world.

The ISIS enemy identified by the Security Council as a global threat is meanwhile mutating. As the attacks in Paris, Beirut and the Sinai show, ISIS is going global, using cells abroad to help defend its home base. Most attacks in Lebanon, for example, had been infiltrations from across the Syrian border. Security sources say this month's bombings in Hizbollah's south Beirut Shi'ite stronghold were carried out by Syrians living in Christian east Beirut. As Mr Metin Gurcan, a retired Turkish officer, put it, the Paris attacks "bitterly reminded the world that it had overlooked . . . how IS (ISIS) was going to defend itself".

Coalitions that cannot agree on a common enemy seem unlikely to be able to agree on new approaches to gathering and sharing the intelligence needed to defend against this. But there is still more required for any united front.

ISIS is a Sunni supremacist hybrid formed from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Ba'athist officers from Saddam Hussein's army, disbanded by the US after the 2003 invasion. One of its main goals is a Sunni restoration, in an Iraq and Syria now dominated by Iran-backed Shi'ite or Alawite forces. It has exploited the vacuum of mainstream Sunni leadership to present itself as the Sunni sword against Shi'ite Iran's imperialism.

It retains that advantage while its opponents cannot agree on whether the Assads have any role in Syria's future, and which non-ISIS rebels can be part of the transition. The US- and Russia-convened Vienna forum on this hoped-for transition has given Jordan the task of separating out these mainly Sunni Islamist rebels into sheep and goats - or, rather, whether groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, or Ahrar al-Sham, Turkey's local proxy, are wolves in sheep's clothing.

After meeting Mr Hollande last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry said: "We're weeks away conceivably from the possibility of a big transition for Syria, and I don't think enough people necessarily notice that." This sounds heroically optimistic - but perhaps that is one purpose of diplomacy.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'Talk of a 'grand coalition' against ISIS is heroically optimistic'. Print Edition | Subscribe