US coalition boasts 65 nations but many shun war

US President Barack Obama at the COP21 World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, on Nov 30, 2015.
US President Barack Obama at the COP21 World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Le Bourget, north of Paris, France, on Nov 30, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON • In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Paris, United States President Barack Obama wanted to make it clear that much of the world was with the US in fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"We have mobilised 65 countries to go after ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant)," he told reporters while on a trip to Turkey, using another name for the group.

"The United States has built and led a broad coalition against ISIL of some 65 nations," he said days later.

"The United States, France and our coalition of some 65 nations have been united in one mission - to destroy these ISIL terrorists," he said a few days after that.

The President has sought to evoke the sort of grand coalition the US led in World War II.

But when it comes to the war part of the war against ISIS, the 65-member coalition, which includes smaller countries like Luxembourg and Singapore, begins to shrink.

As of Nov 19, US warplanes carried out about two-thirds of the strikes on Iraqi territory and 95 per cent of those on Syrian territory.

Australia, Canada, France and Jordan have conducted strikes in both countries. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Britain have participated in Iraq, while Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have participated in Syria. More than 50 other members have never been directly involved in the air campaign.

"Presidents want to assure the American people that they are not alone in fighting the enemy and won't have to bear the costs alone," said Mr Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who advised Mr Obama on Afghanistan. "The striking note about this coalition is that not one of the 65 members is ready to put boots on the ground."

Instead, it seems, membership in the coalition can be obtained for far less effort. While many are sharing intelligence and helping to train local forces fighting on the ground, others seem included because they have adopted policies protecting their own domestic security.

"I don't know why the White House has put as much emphasis on the coalition as it has because it's been fairly transparent for a long time that the overwhelming majority of those nations have sent in their $25 contributions and not done much more," said Mr Daniel Benjamin, Mr Obama's former State Department counterterrorism coordinator.

One reason Mr Obama has emphasised the coalition has been to isolate Russia, which has begun its own operations in Syria, independent of the US and its allies.

"We've got a coalition of 65 countries who've been active in pushing back against ISIL for quite some time," Mr Obama said last week.

"Russia right now is a coalition of two - Iran and Russia, supporting (President of Syria Bashar al-) Assad."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2015, with the headline 'US coalition boasts 65 nations but many shun war'. Print Edition | Subscribe