For an undertaking so fraught with sectarian tensions and regional rivalries, the U.S.-led air campaign against Islamist extremists in Syria was a diplomatic feat for its inclusion of five Sunni Muslim states that traditionally are skittish about bombing in the neighborhood, foreign policy analysts said Tuesday.
The joint foray against the Islamic State in Syria muted critics at home, who doubted President Barack Obama’s coalition-building skills, and offered important diplomatic cover in the Middle East by enlisting the Sunni monarchies who’ve been most vocal in blaming U.S. inaction for the nonstop bloodshed since the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime began in 2011.
The United States was so preoccupied with the jihadist outgrowth of the civil war that Sunni states feared Obama would strike a truce with Assad or work more closely with their archenemy, Iran. Instead, the administration went in the other direction, wooing back the Sunnis in a diplomatic charge that resulted in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State positions. Qatar didn’t bomb but flew patrols, officials said.
“The U.S. has taken a Sunni-centric approach to developing its anti-ISIS strategy,” said Shashank Joshi, a London-based analyst who monitors Syria for the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security research center. “It’s going for what it perceives as this mass of moderate Sunnis from Damascus to Baghdad. It boils down to peeling them away from the jihadists.”
Obama met with representatives of the five Arab partners on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, praising them for the “opportunity to now send a very clear message that the world is united” in the fight to eradicate the Islamic State, which is also called ISIS or ISIL.
“This is not going to be something that is quick and is not something that is going to be easy,” Obama told reporters. “It will take time and it is not only a military effort.”
Middle East specialists had predicted that Arab nations were concerned enough about Islamic State extremists to join the U.S.-led coalition, at least in name. But the ponying up of fighter jets and other military support offers a much bigger fig leaf for U.S.-led operations in a region that’s highly skeptical of Western motives for military interventions.
Experts warned, however, that there are still spoilers. The Arab partners are hardly perfect – they’re kingdoms and police states with their own checkered records of supporting militants in the region – and they could return to their old ways if they perceive the United States isn’t living up to its end of the bargain.
“As long as the focus is ISIS you get the coalition, but the moment you start talking political solutions to Syria, then there’s real risk of fragmentation of the coalition,” said Manal Omar, acting vice president of the Middle East and Africa Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.
“What happens when we don’t make a decision on Assad?” she added.
While U.S. diplomats wouldn’t discuss the quid pro quo involved in winning the Sunni support, experts said the most likely pledges were to continue backing relatively moderate rebel factions in Syria and to push for the Shiite-led government in Iraq to better address Sunni grievances.
U.S. officials began building a coalition as soon as Obama gave his prime-time address two weeks ago in which he said he’d go after the Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry called the Saudis and asked them to host a regional counterterrorism summit in Jeddah. Kerry helped to lead that meeting, where the regional alliance appears to have gelled, despite both the Arabs’ frustration with Washington and their own infighting.
“At that meeting what was surprising to us – obviously, we did dozens of calls leading up to it – was that the question from the countries in the region was not whether they could be involved but how,” said a senior administration official with knowledge of the situation but who is not authorized to speak publicly as a matter of practice. “They were very forward-leaning, many of them, about their engagement.”
After taking heat from critics who wanted a faster U.S. response to the Islamic State, the Obama administration on Tuesday was practically gloating over how its more deliberate approach had resulted in greater Arab buy-in than expected.
Defense officials said Tuesday that the “preponderance” of the Arab aircraft participated in the third wave of coalition attacks, which targeted Islamic State command, control and communications facilities, barracks, training grounds and vehicles.
Politicians who’ve been hard on Obama’s handling of the ISIS problem issued statements that praised the administration’s recruiting of regional partners to share in the heavy lifting.
“I’m encouraged by the participation of our Arab allies in this operation and hope this is the first step in building a lasting regional coalition committed to confronting ISIS,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“It is especially notable that five Arab nations participated in or supported the strikes, and I hope the world continues to coalesce against these dangerous terrorist organizations,” said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
And in a joint statement, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., saluted the Arabs’ “historic and valuable involvement” in the coalition, but stressed that Tuesday morning’s airstrikes should be “just an opening salvo.”
The State Department sent out a compilation of official statements and news items that showed Arab allies acknowledging their roles in the coalition and talking tough about the extremist threat.
An official military statement from Jordan, for example, blamed the Islamic State for “sending terrorist elements to carry out acts of sabotage” in the kingdom and vowed that the royal air force “would not hesitate to send a firm message to these groups in their dens if such attempts were repeated.”
But the statements also included allusions to the challenges ahead: on the Syria side, who will follow up on the airstrikes with the ground operations that experts insist are necessary to dislodge the jihadists?
The State Department’s compilation included a statement from Hadi al Bahra, the head of the main Syrian opposition coalition. At first glance, Bahra appears complimentary of the U.S.-led intervention, but a closer reading reveals lingering rebel fears that Obama, who tried his best not to get embroiled in Syria, wouldn’t stay the course.
Worse, they fear, the campaign will only strengthen Assad if there’s not a simultaneous boosting of the moderate rebel movement, which is now in tatters after years of fighting both Islamist rivals and regime forces. One ominous sign appeared Tuesday when a U.S.-backed Syrian rebel group, Harakat Hazm, condemned the strikes.
“Our forces on the ground – the Free Syrian Army – have fought both sources of terror with very little help,” Bahra said in the statement. He went on to warn that “no army can sustain a fight on two fronts without support.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had the wrong name for the Islamic State in the headline and the wrong name for the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.