President Barack Obama on Tuesday heralded the cooperation between the U.S. and five Arab allies in launching airstrikes against the Islamic State group (ISIS) in Syria, saying the coalition “makes clear to the world that this is not just America’s fight alone.” The participation of five Arab partners -- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan -- was a success for President Obama, who had hoped for regional backing in countering ISIS, but it also highlights the surging anxiety that the group has caused throughout the region.
Obama had stressed the importance of building a coalition of Arab allies to assist in the anti-ISIS campaign in the weeks leading up to Monday’s strikes, and Secretary of State John Kerry spent several days this month touring the Middle East in hopes of cobbling together support and military assistance. During his visit to Saudi Arabia on Sept. 11, Kerry held closed- door meetings with leaders from several Arab states, including the five involved in Monday’s strikes.
But while the U.S. and 10 Arab nations issued a joint communique after the meetings declaring a “shared commitment” against the threat of terrorism and participation in the “many aspects of a coordinated military campaign,” it was not clear then what degree of involvement they would have in the United States’ planned air campaign in Syria. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Monday’s joint effort was unprecedented.
For the United States, the involvement of five Sunni Arab states offers prized political legitimacy for its campaign in the region, in addition to technical assistance. But the coalition also reveals the anxiety that ISIS -- which courts Sunni extremists -- has caused for majority-Sunni countries in the region. Saudi leaders, who earlier this year uncovered terrorist plots against government facilities by Saudis colluding with ISIS members abroad -- have been vocal about the threat the group poses to the region. Saudi Arabia donated $100 million to the U.N.’s counterterrorism efforts last month, while the country’s grand mufti declared ISIS Islam’s “enemy No. 1.”
The threat that ISIS poses to regional stability has also proven to be enough of a motivator for Gulf countries to momentarily brush aside rocky relationships to participate in the counterterror effort. Relations between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have been on shaky ground, stemming from Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, the United States has been working to secure additional support from other allies in the region to counter ISIS, with Turkey listed as a reluctant but potential partner.