Why Rounding Up Arab Support Against ISIS Could Be John Kerry’s ‘Mission Impossible’

PHOTO: Secretary of State John Kerry is pictured speaking at the State Department in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 8, 2014. PlaySusan Walsh/AP Photo
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Secretary of State John Kerry will have a hard time getting Arab nations on board with a U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, as he is trying to do this week with a trip to the region, some Middle East experts warned.

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President Obama, who sent Kerry on the mission, seemed confident he would get a broad coalition of Arab leaders to combat the Islamist extremist group when he appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.

"Because of American leadership, we have, I believe, a broad-based coalition internationally and regionally to be able to deal with the problem," Obama said.

But that comment doesn't take into account some of the tough realities Arab nations present. For example, some Arab governments, for domestic political reasons, are wary of being seen as following America’s lead, said Ramzy Mardini, a fellow with the Atlantic Council.

"It makes it a Western initiative, hence joining that effort makes them look like puppets of the West,” Mardini told ABC News via email. "Take this as a rule of thumb -- the less Western a military coalition is, the better when you're operating in the Middle East. That ought to be common sense by now."

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That dynamic already seemed evident in Jordan, one of the countries Kerry will visit this week. While Jordan has reportedly stepped up its intelligence sharing with the United States, a group of parliament members circulated a memo urging Jordan to stay out of the international fight against ISIS.

"This war is not our war. Accordingly, we reject categorically any Jordanian contribution in a battle that is not ours," wrote the 21 members, who represent different factions in the 150-seat parliament, according to AFP.

Just a day before his trip, Kerry reinforced the notion that the anti-ISIS coalition is an American product, listing various ways the countries he’ll be courting can help Obama’s effort. ISIS is also known as ISIL.

“For some, that will mean military assistance. ... For some, it will mean contributing to the desperately-needed humanitarian relief effort,” he said. “For still others, it will mean demolishing the distortion of one of the world’s great, peaceful religions and counteracting the propaganda ISIL uses to recruit new supporters. And for all, it will mean publicly supporting the new, inclusive government in Iraq.”

Painting Arab allies with such a broad brush ignores the divisions among them, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

“The bigger challenge in forming this coalition is really the divisions amongst the leading Sunni majority states and Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” Katulis said.

Saudi and Qatari individuals have allegedly helped fund Sunni extremist groups like ISIS, something the U.S. State Department has raised concerns over, though U.S. officials have also said they've seen no evidence that those countries’ governments are actively funneling money.

Katulis said some Arab countries might balk at working with others, recalling a conversation he had with a senior Gulf diplomat recently.

“I was asking, given that Qatar has played such an active role in supporting some radical Islamist groups, if Qatar is brought into this fold will you work with them?” Katulis said, recalling that the diplomat responded, “That remains an open question.”

Another potential consequence Mardini warned of is the potential for some Arab countries to begin making demands on the U.S. in exchange for their cooperation -– not only because the United States is being so public with its recruitment efforts, but also because the countries in the region will have to deal with the consequences of a broad fight against ISIS.

“They are the ones on the receiving end of blowback with more refugees, radicalization and terrorism in their neighborhood. If the U.S. appears more than willing to do the dirty work, why would any Arab leader jump on board absent a quid pro quo?”

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf rejected the idea that Arab nations would be any more committed to fighting ISIS if the U.S. were not leading the effort.

“The countries in the region want the United States to play a leadership role here and have said so publicly,” Harf said. “Certainly U.S. leadership is playing a key role here, but a large part of that role is bringing these other countries together and saying we all have a role to play here.”

But Katulis said Kerry’s mission of getting a disparate slate of Arab nations, each with its own agenda and concerns, is among his toughest challenges so far –- which is saying a lot for this secretary of state.

“It’s probably right up there with his efforts to do Middle East peace and mediate between the two presidential candidates in Afghanistan. The poor guy gets some of the hardest tasks,” he said.