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Kerry Courts Support For Obama's ISIS Plan In Paris


In Paris today, Secretary of State John Kerry met with diplomats from two dozen countries to gather support for the U.S.-led campaign against the militants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. That meeting followed up on pledges he received from 10 Arab nations last week to support airstrikes on the group known as ISIS which holds land in Iraq and Syria.

NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now from southern Turkey near the Syrian border to talk about what kind of coalition the U.S. might be cobbling together. And Deb, this is coming together quickly. President Obama just outlined his plan to fight ISIS last Wednesday. Who has pledged to do what? I mean are people pledging to stage airstrikes as the U.S. is going to do?

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Not as specifically as the U.S. We saw today that the French opened reconnaissance flights over Iraq. The Australians have sent fighter jets to the UAE. There were Arab states that did pledge to participate in an air campaign.

But most people I talked to today said that they didn't think that Arab states would actually join in those strikes. It was more a symbolic point to say we're all in.

SIEGEL: Why only symbolic? Are they committed to the fight against ISIS?

AMOS: I think that they are all in. And this happened in a meeting. There was a communique signed in the Jeddah. The Saudis may have been ambivalent before Kerry arrived, but now it seems that they are on board. They had already said that they would support training camps for Syrian moderate rebels.

What they got - I am told by Saudi sources - from Kerry is a pledge that Syrian President Bashar al Assad would not benefit from attacks on ISIS. That was a Saudi concern, and it's been a concern of other Gulf states.

SIEGEL: Now, if you look at a map, you would think that Turkey and Iran, bordering both Iraq and Syria, would be the most important participants in a coalition. But they're not signed on. Why not?

AMOS: These other contradictions in this coalition. The Iranians have been fighting against ISIS. They've been working with the Iraqis. But the U.S. nixed an Iranian invitation to Paris. So today, Iran's supreme leader ruled out any coordination with the U.S. And that puts Baghdad in a bit of a squeeze between its two most important allies - Washington and Tehran.

Turkey's absence is also crucial. ISIS has kidnapped 49 Turkish citizens. So Turkey has been constrained in how much it will confront ISIS. And it's important because Turkey is the border where ISIS has been smuggling some oil. And to curb those finances, it's going to take Turkish cooperation. So I think the Americans are putting more pressure on the Turks. They're a NATO ally, and they need to buy in to this coalition for it to work.

SIEGEL: Is this actually on track? The coalition the U.S. claimed to have in the 2003 invasion of Iraq was basically the U.S. with lots of symbolic members. Is it going to be like that again do you think?

AMOS: What we see this time is there are more players signing on, but they all have different agendas. That wasn't part of the public discussion today. But it's Washington that's going to have to manage this complex chessboard of interest. They're going to have to coordinate it all with the Iraqi government. They have to keep all the members on board. They also have to try to manage the regional competition between some of these key coalition members.

And in the meantime, ISIS is also adapting and reacting. They are a very, very savvy, strategic enemy. So there are reports from Syria today that ISIS was moving its weapons systems into valleys where it's going to be harder to hit from the air. They're embedding themselves in densely populated areas. That assures, they think, that any airstrike will also hit civilians. And that is a recruiting tool for them.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Deb.

AMOS: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Deborah Amos speaking to us from southern Turkey near the Syrian border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.