HUFFINGTON POST
09/23/2014 06:25 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

What Do America's Arab Partners Against ISIS Really Want?

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. launched the first airstrikes against the Islamic State and other militants inside Syria, it drew on support from five Arab nations: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. President Barack Obama views Arab involvement as key, administration officials have said. He reportedly waited for diplomatic alliance-building efforts to bear fruit before approving the Monday night strikes.

The Arab allies are playing a visible role at the beginning of what the administration has said will be a years-long campaign against the Islamic State. Maintaining that multilateral support will be a priority for the U.S., experts say. Arab investment in the campaign is critical for reasons ranging from the difficult optics of American involvement in the Middle East to the hope that regional leadership -- particularly by Sunni nations -- will help rally local opposition against the insurgent group also known as ISIS or ISIL.

"The Obama administration wants to do everything possible to make this campaign against ISIS look different than the George W. Bush campaign against Saddam Hussein," said Max Abrahms, a Northeastern University professor who studies counterterrorism. "Obama hopes to do this in two ways. The first is multilateralism, and the second is no U.S. boots on the ground."

"We don’t want to be seen as occupiers," Abrahms added.

The question now is how the Arab allies see the campaign -- and how much Washington can rely on them for continued support. Washington has already been disappointed by one other country it often works with on Middle East issues: NATO member Turkey has yet to overtly join the effort against the Islamic State.

The leaders of the five Arab ally states share some aims. For the Gulf states in the coalition -- all except Jordan -- this moment is an opportunity to bolster their reputations as leaders in the region and good allies internationally, said Randa Slim, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Abrahms said all five of the current partners would also benefit if they could use the campaign to show their domestic constituencies that they are undermining the rule of Bashar Assad. The Syrian president's massacres of his own people have made him unpopular across the region, particularly among the Sunnis who hold majorities in all but one of the allied countries and who are wary of Assad's sectarian connections. He belongs to the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam and has been backed by the main Shiite power in the region, Iran.

Beyond these goals, experts and news reports suggest, each country has its own motives for participating in the U.S.-led fight.

Saudi Arabia: While Riyadh's rulers have long been willing to cooperate in Middle East operations that matter to the U.S., they take the fight against the Islamic State personally: The group is widely seen as seeking to replace the reigning Saud family with leaders more committed to extreme Wahhabi ideology. The stronger the group becomes, the more capable it is of launching an effort to take over the holy Muslim sites of Mecca and Medina.

The Saudi rulers' control of the historic mosques in those two cities confers a special kind of authority on them in the Muslim world. It has been a chief target of anti-Saudi ISIS propaganda, which vows "to liberate the 'Land of the Two Holy Mosques' once their mission in Syria has been accomplished," according to Fahad Nazer, a former political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

The fact that Riyadh seems prepared to temporarily align with its traditional regional rival, Iran, in this fight offers some proof that the Saudis feel especially threatened.

Beyond stemming a current threat, the Saudis may also be thinking about their long-term influence, Slim said. She noted that by hosting camps for non-jihadist Syrian fighters whose training the U.S. is paying for, the Saudi government can develop relationships with groups that may eventually rule Syria. That would give the Saudis an ally in an important regional capital now friendly to the Iranians.

Jordan: Like Saudi Arabia, Jordan considers itself a prime target for Islamic State ambitions. It is internally weak, given its faltering economy, ongoing domestic dissent and a continued influx of refugees from the Syrian civil war. And earlier this year, the Islamic State publicly threatened the U.S.-friendly Jordanian king.

For this fragile nation, a more stable neighborhood would be a blessing. With its military and intelligence capabilities, Slim said, Jordan is also well-equipped to help undermine the Islamic State.

Bahrain: Since major protests in Bahrain during the Arab Spring a few years back, the leadership there has relied heavily on Saudi assistance -- in practical terms, to tackle the protesters from the Shiite majority who hoped to topple the Sunni monarchy, and strategically, to balance the influence of the regional Shiite power, Iran. Bahrain's motives for participating in the anti-Islamic State campaign are primarily to prove its commitment to both its Saudi backers and the West, Slim said.

The focus on public relations benefits goes both ways, she added. "What does Bahrain bring? I don’t think it brings so much except another name" to add to the list of U.S. regional partners, said Slim.

Qatar: This tiny state's role is perhaps the most complex. Because it has a relationship to maintain with the U.S. -- the country hosts the largest American military base in the region -- Qatar's name on the list of Arab partners helping with the Syria strikes was not a surprise.

But The New York Times reported earlier this month that the wealthy country is viewed by at least two other partners in the anti-Islamic State coalition -- Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- as "a godfather to terrorists everywhere." The U.S. Treasury Department has identified Qatar as a host to shady private donors to terrorist organizations operating hundreds of miles away from its borders. In addition, it has irked monarchs like those in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi by previously backing the Islamist, quasi-democratic Muslim Brotherhood.

To satisfy its Gulf neighbors as they scramble to unite, the Qatari government did recently ask top Brotherhood leaders to leave its capital.

Reports suggest that the Qatari participation has thus far been only in a supporting role. Moreover, the Islamist factions that Qatari funders have been backing include al-Qaeda's affiliates in Syria -- such as the Khorasan Group, which the coalition targeted Monday night. So while Qatar publicly embraces the U.S.-led campaign, there is regional cynicism about its long-term goals.

United Arab Emirates: The UAE's interests here are largely aligned with those of Saudi Arabia, Slim said. They both want to assert regional and international power. The Emiratis are less of an Islamic State target than the other Arab allies, but they too seek continued American backing and a friendly government in Syria that includes neither the Islamic State nor Assad.

If anything, the Emiratis may be too enthusiastic to prove that they believe in the campaign:

The U.S.-led airstrikes so far had killed at least 70 Islamic State fighters, 50 al-Qaeda-affiliated militants and eight civilians, Reuters reported Tuesday, citing figures from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. In New York, Obama met with representatives from the five nations that had assisted with the strikes and thanked them for their support. Monday night's action, he added, "is obviously not the end of the effort but this is the beginning."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Fahad Nazer as a former Saudi diplomat. He was a political analyst at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.

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