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Kerry seeks support from Mideast allies for anti-Islamic State coalition

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Brendan Smialowski/AP/Pool

(Read caption) US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, talks with attendees before a meeting of the Gulf Arab region at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, Thursday. Kerry sought to pin down Middle Eastern allies gathering in Saudi Arabia on Thursday on what support they are willing to give to the new US plan to beat back the Islamic State group that has seized large swaths of Iraq and Syria.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia today attempting to forge “a broad coalition of partners” to join the US fight against the Islamic State, a key part of a strategy unveiled by President Obama in his national address yesterday.

A senior US State Department official at the talks, which include a broad group of Middle Eastern nations, told Voice of America that the US needs support in the region for establishing military bases and overflight for airstrikes, as well as better coordination to stop individuals from sending money to extremist groups. 

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“Kerry will push to stop ISIL oil smuggling through the Jordanian and Turkish borders, where the senior State Department official says authorities have pledged to do all they can to stop it, but Washington will ‘be working with them more intently over the next few weeks on intelligence sharing and border control,’" VOA notes.

But many questions loom as the US attempts to form a broad partnership to fight militants in Iraq and Syria. Chief among them is whether it will even be possible to get all countries on board, and what the unintended consequences of doing so might be. 

The talks today include leaders from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar. 

Obama said last night that the US “will be joined by a broad coalition of partners," and that Mr. Kerry in the coming days "will travel across the Middle East and Europe to enlist more partners in this fight, especially Arab nations who can help mobilize Sunni communities in Iraq and Syria to drive these terrorists from their lands.”

Citing US officials, Reuters reports one sign of support in Saudi Arabia's agreement to host training camps for “moderate Syrian rebels." Saudi Arabia is key to a successful coalition, especially "because of their religious significance with Sunnis," the US official told VOA. Islamic State fighters are Sunni. 

But the challenges don't stop there. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson notes, many of the countries crucial to the coalition are deeply skeptical of the US commitment to follow through on its promises to oust the Islamic State, after it balked at airstrikes last year against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"These countries have favored, in various ways, the same anti-Assad rebels that Washington would like to prevail, but also the Islamists that spawned the Islamic State (IS) and other jihadi groups that are now beyond their control. That complicates any US-led coalition against radicalism,” the Monitor reports. That makes “Obama’s coalition-building challenge as tricky as any orchestrated by his predecessors in the past quarter-century.”

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Dan Murphy, writing the Monitor's Backchannels column, cautions that arming “Syrian moderates” is fraught with uncertainty.

Should the Obama administration arm the "moderate" Syrian rebels, whoever they may be? That was tried last year – and a depot of US supplied weapons was quickly overrun and seized by IS militants, shutting that effort down. Many of the recent US airstrikes in Iraq have destroyed weapons and vehicles the US had previously supplied to the Iraqi Army, which collapsed in the face of the IS offensive on Mosul earlier this summer. 

After his tour through the Middle East, Secretary of State Kerry moves to Europe, where he should get a warmer response from governments worried by the fact that hundreds of Europeans have left to fight in Syria. 

At the NATO Summit last week in Wales, the US said it had support from Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Italy, Poland, and Denmark.

France has played the most public supporting role so far, pledging to act in an international coalition if international law is followed. French President François Hollande and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius will travel to Baghdad tomorrow, before France hosts a conference in Paris in Monday to coordinate efforts to tackle the Islamic State.

"An international mobilization is necessary to respond to this trans-national danger that can reach our territory," Mr. Fabius said, according to Reuters. "In Iraq the government and minorities have called for help (and) we answered with deliveries of military equipment and humanitarian aid."

This week the UK said it would send a limited amount of arms to Kurds in Iraq to fight the Islamic State. Germany also agreed to do the same.

In a Guardian opinion piece, Hayder al-Khoei, an associate fellow on the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, said that “the UK should be an important player in the international coalition that Obama is trying to set up to confront the most dangerous terrorist organization of the 21st century."

“If Isis is allowed to establish a stronghold in the heart of the Middle East, no one is going to be safe from their terror – not least the UK itself, which has over the years, unfortunately, transformed into the European hub of jihad."