Islamic State Prompts Biggest U.S.-Arab Coalition Since 1991Islamist rebels from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) on the outskirts of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria, in this July 4, 2013 file photo.
A surge in attacks by the fastest-growing Sunni Muslim militant group has prompted the broadest Arab-U.S. military coalition since the 1991 Gulf War.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain and Qatar joined the U.S.’s bombing campaign against Islamic State extremists to rein in a group that has rampaged through Syria, threatened to ignite a civil war in Iraq and sought to recruit Saudi militants. Arab backing provides crucial cover for President Barack Obamaas he deploys military assets in a region where the U.S. has been accused of waging war on Islam.
“There’s common interest to make sure that these guys are destroyed before they” extend their rule, said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risk in the Middle East. In the past week, Islamic State has gained ground against Syrian Kurdish forces near the border with Turkey. Jordan has accused militants of plotting to attack it.
The strikes against the most powerful opposition force in Syria’s civil war may benefit President Bashar al-Assad, a leader that the U.S. and its Arab allies want to oust, and expose regional powers to retaliatory attacks by Islamic State, an al-Qaeda breakaway group. Still, the group’s expansion has made “inaction even riskier for the region,” Nuseibeh said.
Concerns have grown in Arab states as the militant group declared a caliphate in the heart of the Middle East as it seeks to redraw national boundaries set nearly a century ago.
The coalition used a “mix of fighter, bomber, remotely piloted aircraft and Tomahawk” missiles to strike the Islamic State, the U.S. Central Command said today. The U.S. had been attacking the movement’s fighters in Iraq since August.
Since the 1991 war to force Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait, in which Arab states also contributed ground troops, U.S. allies have largely shied away from taking part in American military ventures in the region. Most of them publicly opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Their involvement in the attacks in Syria is militarily symbolic, Shashank Joshi, senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said by phone today.
“It makes a political and strategic difference and shields the U.S. from accusations it’s waging some kind of religiously motivated war,” he said.
Jordan, Bahrain and the U.A.E. confirmed their fighter jets took part in today’s strikes. Jordan said it acted in response to repeated attempts by militants to cross into its territory, according to the state-run Petra news agency.
The coalition fulfills Obama’s pledge to seek partners in the campaign against Islamic State. For America’s Arab allies, mostly ruled by absolute monarchs and armed with U.S.-made planes and weapons, it’s the latest signal they are prepared to forge an aggressive foreign policy against jihadist movements and groups pursuing an Islamist agenda through elections.
Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have extended billions of dollars in aid to Egypt’s military-backed government since the army led the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July last year. U.S. officials last month said the U.A.E. bombed Islamist militias inLibya last month, using Egyptian air bases as a launchpad. Egypt has denied its forces were involved, while the U.A.E. said claims of its intervention were an attempt to divert attention from political reversals suffered by Libya’s Islamists.
Unlike in Iraq, where the U.S. has been backing government and Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State, the retreat of mainstream Syrian rebels under attack by both Islamist militants and troops loyal to Assad may limit the gains of the campaign across the border.
“There is no ground force in Syria to exploit the strikes,” Joshi said. The attacks “can hit bases, training camps, vehicles on open terrain, but they can’t clear Islamic State from cities, or replace it with some kind of alternative authority in these areas.”
The U.S. and its allies have been split since the start of Syria’s war in 2011 over which rebels were best placed to overthrow Assad, and some turned a blind eye as men and cash flowed to the more militant elements.
Islamic State will use the coalition attacks as a tool to recruit more fighters, said Andrew Hammond, Middle East policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The strikes may also move Arab nations up the list of targets, he said by phone. “Saudi Arabia has appeared in their rhetoric here and there, but now they are putting themselves in the firing line. It’s a real risk they are taking.”