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Kerry Briefs Skeptic Senators On Coalition Plans Against ISIS

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United Kingdom, however united it may remain, is still a major player on the world stage. It is, for example, part of the coalition of countries facing ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. And we're going to talk about that coalition next. President Obama says more than 40 countries are joining together to fight the extremist group that controls parts of Syria and Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry is just back from traveling to assemble that coalition. He returned to Washington and faced sharp questions before the Senate committee that he used to chair. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hours before Kerry headed to the Hill, President Obama was at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, reassuring military personnel they will not have to fight another ground war in Iraq.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is not and will not be America's fight alone.

KELEMEN: The president says the U.S. will continue to use air power against Islamic State militants and will join others to help train and equip partners on the ground. That includes Iraqi forces and rebels in Syria who are fighting both the Syrian regime and the Islamic State militants.

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OBAMA: Saudi Arabia has agreed to host our efforts to train and equip Syrian opposition forces. Australia and Canada will send military advisers to Iraq. German paratroopers will offer training. Other nations have helped resupply arms and equipment to forces in Iraq, including the Kurdish Peshmerga.

KELEMEN: Senators sought more details from Secretary of State Kerry, just back from a trip through the Middle East and Europe. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Democrat Robert Menendez, said this must be a coalition defined by deeds not words.

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SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: The U.S. can lead this coalition. But our partners, particularly Sunni partners, must be all in. I fully acknowledge that getting skin in the game will be different for different coalition partners, but Congress cannot be providing a blank check for the anti-ISIL campaign.

KELEMEN: Menendez says the administration needs to do a better job spelling out the endgame of this campaign against ISIL - as the Islamic State is often called. On the other side of the aisle, Senate Republicans did not mince words either, blasting the U.S. strategy particularly when it comes to fighting the militants in Syria.

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SENATOR BOB CORKER: This doesn't even seem serious.

KELEMEN: That's Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. He says the moderate Syrian rebels that are part of the Free Syrian Army haven't been effective. Yet in Syria, he says the administration's entire ground game against the Islamic State seems to depend on them.

CORKER: We know the Free Syrian Army cannot take on ISIL. You know that. You talk about a multi-year process; we're talking decades.

KELEMEN: Corker says he hopes the international coalition against the Islamic State militants won't be just a group of, in his words, coat-holders. He pressed Kerry to name Sunni Arab states that are willing to join in airstrikes or carry out ground operations. Kerry says he expects countries to come to the U.N. General Assembly to announce their plans, though it won't involve ground troops.

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U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: At this moment, no country has been asked to put boots on the ground or no country is talking of it, and we don't think it's a good idea right now. So there's no discussion of that at this moment.

KELEMEN: The secretary says retired Marine General John Allen is working with top State Department officials now to coordinate the anti-Islamic State coalition. And it's not just a military matter.

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KERRY: Some of the most important aspects of what we will be doing are not military. This mission isn't just about taking out an enemy on the battlefield. It is about taking out a network - decimating and discrediting a militant cult, masquerading as a religious movement.

KELEMEN: Kerry says that means countries need to get tough to dry up the funding of the Islamic State and stop the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. That's a topic of a meeting he plans to chair Friday at the U.N. Security Council. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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