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Sunni States' Contribution To Anti-ISIS Coalition Lags, Pentagon Says


The United States wants more help from certain allies against ISIS. It's a group of allies who are especially needed because of their religious identity. ISIS is a Sunni Muslim organization. It thrives in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq and Syria. The U.S. wants to lure away Sunni populations, so it would help to get trainers or special operations troops from Sunni-led nations, which are now underrepresented. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Back in February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter traveled to Europe to drum up support for the battle against the Islamic State. Carter told CNBC that other countries were on the sidelines.


ASH CARTER: Many of them are not doing enough or doing nothing at all. You know, the United States doesn't ask people for favors, but we don't grant favors either.

BOWMAN: Carter said he came away with commitments for help. He told reporters he was confident that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would provide commandos to fight ISIS in Syria. Two months later, not much has happened. I asked Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for the anti-ISIS coalition in Baghdad, about those commitments for ground troops.

STEVE WARREN: We're still working with our Gulf partners to sort out exactly what additional contributions they can make. I'm not aware that that has happened yet. I don't believe it has.

BOWMAN: Are there any Jordanian or Saudi trainers on the ground there?

WARREN: Not to my knowledge, no.

BOWMAN: A report last fall by the Congressional Research Service found the U.S. and many European countries contributed at least dozens, if not hundreds of troops to the training effort in Iraq. But the five Sunni Arab countries, including Bahrain and Qatar, did not contribute any troops, the report said. Still, Jordan has hosted training for Syrian rebels on its own soil, and U.S. officials say some Jordanian special forces are operating in Syria. And that's not to say the other Sunni countries are doing nothing. They provided war planes for airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, and they're supporting the Syrian rebel groups with money and arms, says former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Chas Freeman

CHAS FREEMAN: I think their main contributions have been financial and weapons.

BOWMAN: But why not troops? Some analysts point to the relatively small militaries of the Sunni countries. Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says there's another reason.

JON ALTERMAN: Those guys have another first priority right now. And that priority isn't Syria.

BOWMAN: And that priority is?

ALTERMAN: ...Is Yemen.

BOWMAN: Yemen - both Saudi and the Emirates are fighting Iranian-backed rebels there with ground troops and airstrikes. The U.S. is providing some logistical help, like aerial refueling.

ALTERMAN: They complain the U.S. hasn't been nearly supportive enough in Yemen. And that's really what they care about.

BOWMAN: Washington has underestimated the importance of Yemen to the Sunni countries in the region. Alterman says...

ALTERMAN: Yemen's on the border with Saudi Arabia. Yemen is where the ruling family in the UAE the traces its heritage to. And they say, we are fighting a battle right now, right in our backyard, against the Iranians. And we don't see the Americans helping us nearly enough.

BOWMAN: And they're angry with the U.S. for signing an agreement with Iran to limit its nuclear program, a move that freed up tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets. Moreover, says former Ambassador Chas Freeman, the Saudis want Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad gone.

FREEMAN: They were furious when the U.S. did not follow through on the bombing threat after the alleged use of chemical weapons by the regime. They would like the U.S. to become more involved against Assad.

BOWMAN: But the U.S. is focused on ISIS, and it looks like they'll be leading that fight with little help from the Sunni states.

INSKEEP: Tom Bowman on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.