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America's European Allies Wary About Airstrikes in Syria

  • Al Pessin

President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday of his strategy for defeating the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria is being supported by Western allies and some Middle Eastern governments.

Obama made clear that a key part of his strategy involves what he called a “broad coalition of partners.” That effort began at the NATO summit last week when 10 countries committed to working together to defeat the militants in Iraq and Syria.

There will likely be more support among European governments and peoples for this Iraq campaign than there was for the last one, said retired British Brigadier Ben Barry, now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“I’m sure the meeting wouldn’t have taken place if the heads of government of those countries weren’t pretty confident that they were going to have political, public and media support for at least some limited action as part of this,” Barry said.

Public opinion polls reflect that sentiment, and France will host a meeting next week designed to further coordinate efforts and generate public support.

But there is a limit to how far Europeans will go, said Robin Simcox of the Henry Jackson Society.

“Where there’s probably less support is if ground troops were involved. But, unfortunately, it may be ground troops that are needed to ultimately defeat ISIS,” Simcox said.

Syrian airstrikes

In laying out his strategy on Wednesday, Obama said he had authorized U.S. airstrikes for the first time in Syria and more attacks in Iraq, in an escalation of the campaign against Islamic State militants, who have taken control of large areas of both countries.

Syria, and its ally Russia, said on Thursday that any foreign airstrikes against Islamist militants in Syria without a U.N. Security Council mandate would be an act of aggression, raising the possibility of a new confrontation with the West in the coming weeks.

“Any action of any type without the approval of Syrian government is an aggression against Syria,” Ali Haidar, Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs, told reporters in Damascus on Thursday, after the United States said it was prepared to strike against Islamic State militants in the country.

Haidar added: “There must be cooperation with Syria and coordination with Syria and there must be a Syrian approval of any action whether it is military or not."

Foreign countries could use the Islamic State group simply as a pretext for attacking Syria, Haidar told reporters.

Security Council decision

In Russia, Alexander Lukashevich, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, said, “The U.S. president has spoken directly about the possibility of strikes by the U.S. armed forces against ISIL positions in Syria without the consent of the legitimate government.

“This step, in the absence of a U.N. Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law," Lukashevich said.

Western states have ruled out working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying he has indirectly helped the Islamic State group grow in order to weaken other opposition groups.

Obama, who is due to host a leaders' security conference at the U.N. General Assembly in two weeks, made no mention of seeking an international mandate for action in Syria.

France, a key ally for the United States in the planned coalition, said on Wednesday it was ready to take part in airstrikes in Iraq, but said its involvement in any military action in Syria would need to have international law behind it.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the Iraqi government has asked for help internationally, but in Syria the legal basis would have to be established first.

French officials have said that would come either through a Security Council resolution or under Article 51 of the U.N. charter, allowing for protection of threatened populations.

“The Russians aren't beholden to Assad,” said a senior French diplomat.

“It's in their interest as much as ours to fight terrorism so we can hopefully find some pragmatic and objective ways to resolve our differences and find a way to agree.”

No, to airstrikes in Syria

On Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron's spokesman said, in terms of air power, Britain has "not ruled anything out" regarding the coalition.

But speaking earlier Thursday in Berlin, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Britain's parliament last year decided against airstrikes in Syria, and would not be "revisiting" the issue.

Germany often shuns taking part in combat operations and Frank-Walter Steinmeier said his country also wouldn't join in any airstrikes.

In addition to the current airstrikes and aid drops, Obama is sending 475 troops to Iraq to train and advise local forces, and help share intelligence, and several allies will sell Iraq military equipment.

But the president wants more countries involved.

“American power can make a decisive difference, but we cannot do for Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region,” Obama said.

In Middle East

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in the Middle East Thursday, trying to line up such support, and Saudi Arabia has agreed to host a training facility.

Simcox, of the Henry Jackson Society, said support from the region makes sense.

“This isn’t just an American problem,” Simcox said. “It’s one that threatens especially the Middle East. So you would hope that Saudi Arabia, you’d hope that UAE and Jordan and Turkey, would come in in support for the U.S. on this issue.”

But key Arab countries have differing views on how to fight the militants and on what should come next, said Kathleen McInnis of London’s Chatham House.

“This isn’t just a question about defeating ISIS. It’s also a question about what does the Middle East look like in the future,” McInnis said. “And that’s where things are going to be much more tricky from the coalition perspective.”

Obama said this will be a long effort, possibly years long, and such campaigns usually have setbacks, all of which will test his ability to keep the coalition he is building together, and to keep public opinion behind it.

Respect sovereignty

Meanwhile, China has been asked to join the coalition against the militant group but hasn’t yet responded.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the world was facing a terror threat that was a "new challenge" to international cooperation, while cautioning that while the world should fight terror, the sovereignty of countries must be respected.

"China opposes all forms of terrorism, and upholds that the international community must jointly cooperate to strike against terrorism, including supporting efforts by relevant countries to maintain domestic security and stability," Hua told a daily news briefing when asked about Obama's comments.

"At the same time, we also uphold that in the international fight against terrorism, international law should be respected and the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of relevant nations should also be respected," she added.

China has repeatedly expressed concern about the upsurge in violence in Iraq and the march of Islamic State, but it has also opposed any outside military intervention in Syria.

Some materials for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.

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