Air strikes: Arab partners' payback

Air strikes: Arab partners' payback
Saudi fighter pilots in their jet after a mission to strike ISIS targets in Syria on Tuesday.

The decision by United States President Barack Obama to launch missile and air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Qaeda affiliate Khorasan in Syria draws the US ever closer to yet another prolonged military confrontation in the region.

But there's a difference this time: the participation of a coalition of Arab states, variously offering diplomatic, intelligence and military support. So far, the partner states have been named as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Jordan.

From Washington's perspective, the importance of Arab participation is obvious: A synchronised display of high-level multinational cooperation is clearly meant to head off the usual criticism of the often unilateral nature of US foreign policies.

This is of particular importance for Mr Obama, who has invested considerable capital over the years in distancing himself from the Bush administration's war in Iraq.

As he put it in his brief statement announcing the strikes: "The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America's fight alone."

The White House clearly hopes that the participation of Arab partners will undermine that radical Islamist narrative of "the West versus Islam", and instead reframe the conflict as another chapter in the decades-old struggle between the vast moderate Muslim majority and a tiny minority of radicals.

But aside from these explicit US goals, Mr Obama's new Arab partners have their own interests.

Regional rivals

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia can hope to shift attention away from the criticism for their attitude to Islamist extremism.

Over the years, they have been charged not only with supporting radical Islamists in Syria, but also with allowing their religious elites to propagate a version of Islam that is open to easy manipulation at the hands of radical recruiters.

Both countries will also hope that weakening the radical Islamists of ISIS will help moderate elements of the Syrian opposition regain the initiative against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Some among the elites of Riyadh and Doha might even be hoping Washington will realise the threat of ISIS will never be extinguished while Mr Assad's regime remains in place - and that Mr Obama will see the job is finished.

Finally, Saudi Arabia in particular clearly has to be concerned with preventing the success of an organisation which aims to establish the perfect "Islamic state".

ISIS' claim to ultimate leadership of the world's Muslim community as put forward by its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, is a direct challenge to the Saudi claim for global religious leadership based on King Abdullah's role as "custodian of the two holy places" in Mecca and Medina.

The Saudi authorities are fully aware that Baghdadi's radical Islamist fringe project has attracted followers from Saudi Arabia, with recent estimates putting the number at up to 1,000.

As Mr Nawaf Obaid and Dr Saud Al-Sarhan have pointed out in a New York Times article, Saudi Arabia is the ultimate target for any "serious" radical Islamist organisation, whether ISIS now or Al-Qaeda in years past.

Al-Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (which consists not just of Yemeni Islamists, but also Saudi Islamists), driven out by Saudi counter-terrorism measures over the last decade, is now beginning to mutter words of approval and support towards ISIS, and Riyadh will be deeply concerned about the spectre of being engulfed in an arc of Islamist instability to its south and north.

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