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Kerry Faces Tall Order In Organizing Regional Coalition Against ISIS


Secretary of State John Kerry is in Saudi Arabia today to drum up support for the strategy against ISIS. Kerry met with key allies from the Gulf States and other regional players. The U.S. and Mideast nation signed an agreement for a coordinated campaign to battle the deadly Islamist group.

But as NPR's Jackie Northam reports, analysts say maintaining a long-term plan may be more elusive.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: You just have to look at who gathered in the Saudi port city of Jeddah today to get a clear sense of the threat ISIS represents to the Middle East and beyond. Regional adversaries, such as Qatar and Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Rachel Bronson, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs says Secretary Kerry has his work cut out for him.

RACHEL BRONSON: There's a lot of challenges, but many in the region have been waiting for the U.S. to play this kind of role. They've been waiting for the U.S. to get involved in Syria - almost 200,000 dead. You know, what are we waiting for?

NORTHAM: Bronson says Kerry will have to wrangle the complicated mix of nations. But there is one common goal - to wipe out the ruthless Islamist group that has swept through much of Syria and Iraq.

Bronson says despite the diverging interests, it's good that many nations have signed on to the U.S. plan.

BRONSON: It allows each country to make different kinds of contributions because they have the umbrella of this larger coalition, it's not the U.S. asking each country to deliver, but rather they're contributing to a greater cause, if you will. Which is a regional cause; it gives every single leader and country cover in that region to participate in ways that they can.

NORTHAM: The 10 nations who signed the communique today agreed to quote, "do their share in the fight against ISIS."

Already, Saudi Arabia said it will provide training camps for moderate Syrian Sunni fighters. Others could provide airbases and air support.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harff says there's more than just the military component to battling ISIL, the alternative acronym for the militant group.

MARIE HARFF: To stop the flow of foreign fighters. Obviously, we work with countries around Iraq and Syria on that. Countering ISIL's funding and financing - we've talked about working with Gulf partners, particularly to cut off some of the private citizen funding. Working with other countries and the ransom issue to cut off that funding. Addressing the humanitarian crisis and delegitimizing ISIL's ideology. These are all parts of that.

NORTHAM: Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says he's not surprised regional players are on board with the U.S. plan to defeat ISIS, at least for the short term.

VALI NASR: ISIS could very easily be a short run concern for all of these countries so they will rally to the United States. But as soon as ISIS's threat gets a little bit lessened, then these countries are going to pursue their own individual agendas in Iraq and Syria. And that makes the task of going from degrading ISIS to destroying ISIS much more difficult.

NORTHAM: Nasr says the coalition will likely hold together while it's going after ISIS in Iraq. But he says it will be a different ballgame when they start going after the militants in Syria, where the regional players having appliances with competing groups.

NASR: There, you're going to see a divergence not only between Iran and the Arab and American allies, but potentially also even between Qatar and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Syria is a much more complicated political diplomatic arena that Iraq is.

NORTHAM: Even the U.S. has conditions there. On NBC today, Syria's deputy foreign minister signaled his government could work with the U.S. in fighting ISIS, but the White House has said it won't work with his regime.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.