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U.S. won Arab support for airstrikes, but challenges remain

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, points to a newspaper photo of the recent Arab summit in Saudi Arabia as an example of the kind of coalition he expected in combating Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry, appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, points to a newspaper photo of the recent Arab summit in Saudi Arabia as an example of the kind of coalition he expected in combating Islamic State extremists in Iraq and Syria.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

It was a telling contrast: a high-profile shout-out Tuesday from President Obama to Arab allies who joined in U.S.-led airstrikes against Sunni Muslim militants in Syria – coupled with cautious, distancing and sometimes belated statements from the Arab states involved.

The sharply different public postures suggested that the Obama administration still faces an uphill fight to galvanize regional allies for a long offensive against Islamic State, whose fighters have seized an arc of territory in Syria and Iraq, enforcing its rule with crucifixions and beheadings and forcing tens of thousand of civilians to flee.

“This is not America’s fight alone,” Obama declared Tuesday, listing a roll call of Arab states that had taken part in the initial airstrikes: Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. The United States, the president asserted, was “proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with these allies.

But for a variety of reasons, analysts say, most Arab states are reluctant to take on overtly visible roles in a U.S.-led military coalition. Some fear direct retaliation by Islamic State. Others worry about inflaming their own homegrown extremists, or do not want to act in ways that will advance the agenda of their regional rivals, particularly as concerns the combustible divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

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And if the American-led campaign escalates to a ground battle, Arab states are almost certain to step back, said Egyptian analyst Gamal Sultan.

“It would be almost impossible for any Arab nation to take part in sending ground troops to fight [Islamic State] under U.S. supervision,” he said. “If that happened, only then could we talk about real Arab participation in the fight.”

As regional ambivalence goes, Jordan is a case in point. The small desert kingdom, long a dependable U.S. ally, was the first of the five Arab allies to disclose its role in the airstrikes. While acknowledging in a military statement early Tuesday that its warplanes had bombed militant targets in Syria, Jordan stressed that it acted in self-defense and did not directly refer to working in concert with the United States. Nor did it specify that Islamic State was a primary target.

“Planes from the Royal Jordanian Air Force destroyed several selected targets of terrorist groups that had made it their practice to send elements to carry out sabotage” in Jordan, the military statement said, adding that its warplanes had returned safely to base.

Hours later, other partners in the campaign of strikes weighed in, stressing fraternal Arab relationships but avoiding any reference to a Washington-led campaign. The United Arab Emirates said in a carefully worded statement that its first strikes against Islamic State targets were “carried out in cooperation with the forces participating as part of the international effort.” In Bahrain, state news agency BNA cited an unidentified air force official as saying the tiny island state had carried out strikes “in cooperation with the air forces of brotherly [Persian Gulf] states and forces of our allies.”

All the states that took part were well-positioned to act. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have sophisticated air forces; Qatar and Bahrain are home to major American military installations.

The five participants were among 10 Arab states that this month signed a communique supporting the American-led campaign against Islamic State. At the time, Secretary of State John F. Kerry was unable to secure the backing of regional heavyweight Turkey, a NATO ally that only last week won the release of 49 hostages taken by Islamic State from Turkey’s consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul in June.

Turkey, inundated with tens of thousands of refugees from Islamic State’s push into Kurdish villages in Iraq, says the U.S. needs to assess its own culpability.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking Monday to members of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Islamic State “is using weapons. Whose weapons are they? In Iraq, those are the weapons that the United States gave to Iraq … and those tanks, artillery have become part of the occupation effort” by the group.

Despite Tuesday’s show of unity, the alliance may yet be hobbled by a number of issues. Some of the Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have different priorities in the conflict, believing that fighting the Syrian government is more important than pursuing the narrow counter-terrorism mission that Obama has in mind. As the fight goes on, they may well press the U.S. to broaden its campaign.

“Having different members of the coalition pulling in different directions could be harmful to the coalition, and it raises the risk that countries like the United States will get in deeper than they wanted,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Saudi Arabia would like to see the United States escalate this campaign.”

The centuries-old struggle for dominance between Sunni and Shiite Muslims also could come into play. In the wake of the “Arab Spring” uprisings of 2011, that rivalry has been echoed in regional faceoffs over whether to lend support to Islamists or to authoritarian-minded governments such as Egypt.

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Saudi Arabia, the main Sunni power, is allied with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates in bitter opposition to Islamist groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, Turkey and Iran – which is not part of the 10-state coalition – have lent their backing to Islamist groups, though none has publicly supported Islamic State.

The Sunni-Shiite competition for influence has played itself out in proxy conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq and Yemen, though one sign of a potential thaw came this week when the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia met in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. It was the highest-level such meeting since the election last year of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

In taking on Islamic State, U.S. officials have portrayed an active Arab role as crucial. But even solid allies like Jordan, which shares a combined 345-mile border with Syria and Iraq, had long resisted being dragged into their confrontations, other than clamping down on border incursions.

“Most people support Jordan in fighting terrorism, but with great caution, because there are groups that fear that this may affect Jordan’s stability through reprisal attacks,” said Fahd Khitaan, an Amman-based political analyst.

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And some in Jordan say flatly that Islamic State is not the enemy.

“We are against Jordan being a part of any alliance with America, which is the source of all of these problems in the first place,” said Hamzeh Mansour, head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamic Action Front, the largest opposition group in the country.

Jordan’s overwhelmingly Sunni population has been a major source of recruits for rebel groups fighting the Syrian government, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Islamic State also has a measure of local support.

A militant group based in Maan, a perennially restive city 140 miles south of Amman, in April pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr Baghdadi, Islamic State’s leader. More recently, the Jordanian government detained 11 people on Sunday as suspected militants from Islamic State, accusing them of plotting attacks inside the kingdom.

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Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondents Nabih Bulos in Beirut and Amro Hassan in Cairo contributed to this report.

Follow @laurakingLAT on Twitter for news out of the Middle East


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