The coalition of Arab nations that joined the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria signaled a new war on terror phase in which the Sunni Muslim-led states of the region are showing unprecedented willingness to take on Sunni Muslim extremists in their midst.
But while the Obama administration hailed the coalition’s backing Tuesday, it is still struggling to win over moderate Sunni tribal leaders and militias on the ground. And questions remain whether the wider Sunni Muslim Arab public — from the Persian Gulf to North Africa — will rally behind the military campaign.
In the wake of the U.S.-led strikes, there was almost palpable quiet across the Middle East Tuesday. The governments who participated in the campaign — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain — made only vague public statements and offered few specifics with regard to whose air forces actually dropped bombs.
Analysts say the relative silence underscores deeply rooted political and social sensitivities in the region toward aligning militarily with the United States.
The fundamental reality, said Joshua Landis, who monitors Arabic media and society on his blog, Syria Comment, is that many Sunni Arabs simply see all U.S. military action — even action targeting extremists who kill other Muslims — as motivated by a desire to divide and do damage to the Sunni masses.
Many Sunni Arabs have “enough anti-American, anti-imperialism that they’ve absorbed from their mother’s milk [to the effect] that U.S. military action in the region hurts them,” said Mr. Landis, who also heads the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Mr. Landis said such feelings persist, even as key Sunni religious leaders, including the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdulaziz Al al-Sheikh, the highest Sunni religious authority in Saudi Arabia, have publicly condemned the al Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremists in Syria and Iraq.
Mr. Landis said Tuesday that the vast majority of the Sunni Arabs may well view the Islamic State movement in Syria and Iraq with fear, but there is still great risk that the U.S.-led airstrikes “will be perceived as an American injustice — even if there is this conglomerate of Arab potentates flying as America’s wingman.”
The “underlying problem,” Mr. Landis said, “is that Sunni Arabs in general feel like the U.S. has hurt them badly because it destroyed Sunni Arab control of Iraq and cast the Shiites to control in Baghdad” following a decadelong U.S. military occupation of Iraq.
U.S. defense officials Tuesday were tight-lipped on the role of the U.S. Arab allies in the current campaign. Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Tuesday that some four dozen coalition aircraft participated in the campaign and that, collectively, their pilots dropped about 200 missiles on Islamic State targets in Syria.
But he offered no details, saying only that “those nations have requested that we not publicize their contributions” and that “they have said that they would like to discuss their actions” on their own.
Pentagon sources told The Washington Times that Qatari pilots were assigned to patrol Syrian airspace while pilots from other Arab allies were dropping bombs on Islamic State targets on Monday night.
“The Qataris conducted combat air patrol,” said one Pentagon official. “It means they flew around looking for enemy aircraft. In this case, Syrian aircraft.”
Jordan’s military offered the most extensive justification for the mission, saying in a statement that it had decided to participate only after making repeated, failed requests to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad to control the flow of militants roaming freely across the Syria-Jordan border during recent months.
Some analysts in Washington believe the silence from the Arab partners is because the Obama administration has only assembled a “paper coalition,” in the words of Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.
Mr. May said the current level of support may soon waver if Washington is seen as indirectly bolstering the Shiite-aligned power of the Assad regime in Syria by defeating its Sunni extremist adversaries.
Some analysts said the strength of the coalition in the longer run will depend on the Obama administration following Monday’s strikes with ongoing action against the extremists.
Regional partners such as Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and European allies like Britain and France, can be counted on if the Obama administration “shows it is truly committed and will listen as well as lead,” according to Tony Cordesman, a longtime Middle East and security analyst at the Center for Strategic International Studies in Washington.
Mr. Cordesman pointed to an analysis Tuesday saying the U.S.-Arab coalition “showed the U.S. effort to create an alliance was real, ended the Islamist State’s ability to claim that the fight was fought by foreign and crusader forces and effectively showed that this was an international effort, not simply a U.S. one.”
But Mr. Cordesman also noted challenges on the ground, such as whether Sunni Arabs will play an effective role in the ground assault against the Islamic State inside Iraq.
More broadly, Mr. Landis argued that beyond the Shiite-controlled governments in Syria and Iraq, there is widespread unease among Sunni Arabs toward their own Sunni-controlled governments.
“I think Arabs understand at this point there is something deeply dysfunctional about the political order of the Mideast,” he said. “The governments are not representative. While many citizens are fearful of slipping into civil war and being disobedient subjects, they still chafe at the political order.”
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