The anti-ISIS coalition — Capabilities and context

The U.S. has now named and identified the enemy and is going after ISIS/ISIL/Daesh in a preemptive war. The timing of the president’s speech on the day before the 13th anniversary of 9/11 and leading up to the upcoming midterm elections is remarkable: “America is better positioned today to seize the future than any other nation on Earth.” But this intervention, this decision to carve out the ISIS (Islamic State in Syria and Iraq) cancer came too late for the 200,000 victims of civil war in Syria, the 3 million refugees, the 1.7 million displaced in Iraq and the two American journalists beheaded, James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

The opposition forces have been identified, the “boots on the ground”: the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Syrian opposition forces that will “degrade and defeat” ISIS. And President Obama is now going to go to Congress to get the necessary budget ($500 million) to train and arm them. Remember that Congress voted against the financing and sending troops into Kosovo, 290-139.

Air strikes will be conducted, as they were in the former Yugoslavia under President Clinton in 1999: A war from the air, no U.S. boots on the ground (only 1,600 advisers and intelligence officers). Or someone else’s boots, even though the war-weary Americans’ support for intervening in far-away Syria and Iraq is rising (71 percent on Sept. 9) and their sympathy level is at its highest.

{mosads}But how effective will be air strikes be? Former French Defense Minister Gerard Longuet said that they will not be very effective. Russia says that the strikes would be considered an agression and that they would violate international law, human rights law and flout the territorial integrity of Syria.

If we look back to the Kosovo case, NATO intervened in Kosovo to halt a humanitarian catastrophy and to restore stability in a strategic region for the member countries of the alliance. Despite the difficulties, the NATO airstrikes lasted for 78 days with 38,000 sorties and no fatalies. On the ground, more than 300,000 Kosovars were displaced, and 488 to 527 civilians lost their lives.

The independent commission on Kosovo concluded that the military intervention “was legitimate and justified because all diplomatic avenues had been explored and because the intervention would have the effect of liberating the majority of the Kosovar population from a long period of oppression by the Serbs and would stop the systematic oppression of the Albanian Kosovar.”

Since the end of the Cold War, new rules of engagement and international regulations have progressively been put into place, which have brought about the redefinition of the fundamental terms of legitimacy of a military intervention, and certainly in absence of a U.N. mandate. The allied intervention in Kosovo drew the emergence on the European continent of a systems of values, where the defense of democracy and human rights surpass the strict application of the principals of sovereignty, where military intervention can be illegal but legitimate.

To give the upcoming intervention in Iraq and in Syria some context, and with 10 Arab countries now on board supporting the U.S.-led coalition, let’s take an inventory of financial means and military equipment and capacities available in the region.

North America accounts, with $682 billion, for 40 percent of total world defense spending; the Middle East, 8 percent, and Western and Central Europe, 18 perecent (France, with 3.45 percent of global defense spending, is in fifth position with $58.9 billion equivalent to Saudia Arabia).

Saudia Arabia will be the base for the U.S. operations, where the U.S. has developed a long-lasting security relationship with the kingdom over the last 60 years, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plays a role in military and civilian construction activities. Three security assistance organizations are funded through the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program, providing training and support in the use of weapons and other security-related services to the Saudi armed forces; assisting in the modernization of the Saudi Arabian National Guard; and training and equipping a Facility Security Force, part of the Ministry of Interior. The United States has sold Saudi Arabia military aircraft, air defense weaponry, armored vehicles and other equipment.

With a $56 billion defense budget (3 percent of global defense spending), Saudia Arabia is the first oil-producing country turning out 9.9 million barrels per day, possessing 55 naval vessels, 652 aircraft, 1,095 tanks and 233,500 active military personnel. There were significant increases in military spending in 2012 in the Middle East (8.3 percent) and North Africa (7.8 percent), respectively. The Middle Eastern countries with the largest increases were Oman (51 percent), Saudi Arabia (12 percent) and Kuwait (10 percent). In Egypt, military spending fell by 2.6 percent. The total for 2012 expenditures in the Middle East is uncertain due to the lack of data for Iran, Qatar, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. Turkey, a longtime NATO ally since 1952, comes in 15th place, at 1 percent of global defense spending with a budget of $18.2 billion.

So militarily and on paper, the capacities are there. So let’s look at the three dimensions of a military intervention, which are legality, legitimacy and the political.

In terms of “intervention,” it is indeed a military one, which means use of armed forces. This excludes other forms of internventions, political or economic.

In terms of legitimacy, there is the central concept of morals and values. And this is where the “international community” comes in as a basis of legitimacy.

Seeking legitimacy is foreign to a dominant tradition in international relations theory, realism, that does not distinguish between legitimate or illegitimate uses of armed forces. It is more or less based on common interest.

So, what is our common interest? Is ISIS what unites us? What threat does ISIS pose to the United States? To American installations abroad, surely, to American energy security, most certainly. To international trade, international political and economic stability, most definitely. If you look at ISIS’s caliphate map, you will notice that it spreads from Morocco in the West to Iran in the East, blanketing the region with a black flag, controlling most of the oil-producing countries. This is what everyone, both Shiite and Sunni, European and Americans, understands.

But isn’t this just another proxy war, fought on behalf of others? Or has ISIS become a true threat to all members of the coalition of the willing? Isn’t it about preserving the Middle East in its present form, the territorial integrity of these countries and protecting the holiest Muslim shrines? Isn’t it also about energy security and maintaining the flow of energy to our prosperous, peaceful democracies? Or have we come into a new global order, as Henry Kissinger says in his most recent book, that knows no borders?

The birth of a new world order was born when the Soviet Union collapsed and when Kuwait was invaded by Iraq on Aug. 2, 1990. The decision to intervene collectively and multilaterally in numerous civilian and international conflicts was possible thanks to a new range of instruments, such as peacekeeping operations, sanctions, state-building and use of force. Which explains why very few countries, regional and superpowers alike, rarely intervened militarily in the 1990s, and when they did, it was to prevent humanitarian crises and preserve peace and international stability, like in Liberia (1990), in the north of Iraq (1991), Kosovo (1999) and Sierra Leone (2000).

Will the U.K. and France commit to air strikes? France has said that it would, but that it would limit its intervention to Iraq. It has the highest numbers of jihadist fighting overseas, with more than 700 jihadists in Syria, and wants to stop them or any other foreign fighters possessing a European passport from coming back to France and commiting attacks.

British Prime Minister David Cameron is hesitant in engaging with the U.S.-led coalition, given the actions of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was vilified for having lied to Parliament and exaggerating the threat in Iraq.

Note: This piece is a corrected version. Saudi Arabia’s number of aircraft carriers was misstated; they have zero aircraft carriers, but 55 naval vessels.

Wasylina is the president and founder of the Observatory of the Black, Gulf and Mediterranean Seas. Contact her at

Tags Iraq ISIL ISIS Islamic State Islamic State in Iraq and Syria Kosovo NATO Serbia Syria

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