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Obama's Islamic State Strategy Draws Global Focus

  • Al Pessin

World leaders will be watching U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech Wednesday to see how far he has come in developing a strategy to fight the Islamic State group, with particular interest in whether he will be able to bring Middle Eastern countries into the coalition announced in Wales last week.

The United States has launched more than 100 airstrikes against the militants in Iraq, supporting local forces and protecting key installations.

At the NATO summit last week, nearly a dozen countries agreed to work together on intelligence, logistics and other aspects of the fight.

Now, President Obama is launching a broader strategy and inviting more countries to join, something he signaled at the end of the summit.

“I think it is absolutely critical that we have Arab states, and specifically Sunni majority states, that are rejecting the kind of extremist nihilism that we’re seeing out of ISIL that say that is not what Islam is about, and are prepared to join us actively in the fight," said the president.

Experts say the participation of Middle Eastern countries is crucial to defeat the militant fighters, who are known as ISIL, ISIS and by their new name, the Islamic State. They have taken over wide areas of Iraq and Syria, and killed or terrorized thousands of local residents.

Yet research consultant Kathleen McInnis of London’s Chatham House cautions that coalitions are much more easily built than maintained.

“While everybody agrees ISIS is odious, they need to be defeated, the regional players -- Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar -- they all have very different interests and objectives for the region," said McInnis.

And Obama will have to work hard even to convince U.S. allies to do more in the fight against Islamic State, according to James Boys of London’s King’s College, who spoke via Skype.

“One of the challenges, I think, is it’s very, very difficult for European powers, I think, to take seriously a president and an administration who only a week or so ago were saying there is no strategy with regard to what’s going on," said Boys.

Still, Britain has already announced it will sell weapons to the Iraqi military, and experts say the formation of a new Iraqi government could make it possible to get more Iraqis to join the fight against the militants.

President Obama’s goal is not necessarily to build as large a coalition as the U.S. had in Afghanistan -- nearly 60 countries, which paid tribute to their veterans and fallen troops at a NATO summit ceremony.

But the experts say it must be broad and capable enough to defeat an enemy similar to Afghanistan’s Taliban -- a militant group that still controls a wide area.

And that’s why Kathleen McInnis said the president’s speech on Wednesday is so important.

"It’s going to be an incredibly important speech because he needs to make the case that not only is the time now for the international community to act, but also that he is serious, that the Obama administration, the United States of America, is willing to do what it takes to eliminate the ISIS threat," she said.

In recent decades, the United States has led coalitions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Soon, the world will hear Obama’s ideas for a new coalition to fight a new threat in that same part of the world.

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