10/01/2014 11:52 pm ET Updated Dec 01, 2014

Obama's Tenuous Middle East Coalition

Pool via Getty Images

President Obama devoted nearly half his 39-minute address at the United Nations General Assembly last week appealing to world leaders and publics to join in turning back the jihadist offensive in Syria and Iraq of a self-styled "Islamic state." By the time the foreign minister of Cape Verde delivered the last of the leaders' speeches on Tuesday, it was clear that whatever international buy-in Obama's carefully crafted strategy has secured is still tentative and fragile.

The same may be said, of course, of public support in the United States for the steps Obama has undertaken thus far.

There is, to be sure, apparently universal loathing for the extremists who this year have broken out of their stronghold in eastern Syria and overrun much of northwestern Iraq. The Security Council unanimously approved the Obama administration's resolution mandating that all countries ban their citizens' travel abroad to enlist in terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Nusra.

Still, the coalition to roll back and destroy ISIL remains tenuous. The strategy itself is delicately balanced to keep on board the Wahhabist Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are apparently much more exercised about the survival of the secular authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria than about ISIL's expansion into Iraq. Hence the strategy includes aid to the anti-Assad fighters of the Free Syrian Army, duly "vetted" by Washington.

On the other hand, the reconstituted government in Baghdad that Obama is most eager to assist emphatically opposes any military action that would weaken Assad's forces in Syria. Moreover, Iraq's new prime minister Haider al-Abadi insists that he "totally" rejects any Gulf Arab states' joining air strikes against ISIL within Iraq. The Americans and Europeans provide all the help Iraq needs, he says.

The Iraqis in fact are in sync with Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif, who observed in New York: "You cannot fight [both] ISIS and the government in Damascus together." Russia's Sergey Lavrov, another Assad ally now providing aid to Baghdad as well, claimed vindication: "We warned against a temptation to make allies with almost anybody who proclaimed himself an enemy of B. Assad: be it Al Qaeda, Jabhat an Nusra and other 'fellow travelers' seeking the change of regime, including ISIL, which today is in the focus of our attention. As the saying goes, it is better late than never."

Having now identified ISIL as America's real enemy rather than Assad, the Obama administration is at pains not to betray those fighting the Damascus government who have not yet gone over to ISIL. These worry that the mounting air campaign against ISIL positions inside Syria will strengthen Assad's hand. Many are dismayed that the Americans have also struck the Nusra extremist group.

With so much of official Washington invested in the apparently failed campaign to overthrow Assad, Obama has pointedly refused any collaboration against ISIL with the Baathist regime - yet made a point of officially notifying its ambassador at the United Nations when U.S. air strikes inside Syria were about to begin. Obama's U.N. address castigated "the brutality of the Assad regime," but in calling for "an inclusive political transition" he conspicuously did not repeat the worn refrain that Assad must go.

It was French president François Hollande, not Obama, who told the General Assembly that Assad's opposition is "the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people." But Hollande proved to be the outlier, along with Britain's David Cameron-- the last of the anti-Assad interventionists outside the Arabian peninsula. Leaders of both Germany and Italy committed their countries to resolute action against the "barbarity" and "threat" of ISIL, but were pointedly silent about Syria, and have declined to join the airstrikes inside Syria's borders. Even as Jordan staggers under the weight of Syrian refugees, the only prescription King Abdullah offered for Syria was to "get the moderate opposition and the regime back to the negotiating table immediately."

Actually, "immediately" may not be optimal for restarting the peace talks that failed last winter. Far more urgent is to achieve an immediate cease-fire between Damascus and the Free Syrian Army, allowing both sides a respite from the grinding war--and a cooling-off period before talks on a political settlement begin. Assad's backers in Moscow and Tehran should have as much of an interest in an extended truce as Obama.

In early September Obama met with the leaders of the Christian churches in Syria and Iraq, both Orthodox and Catholic, who have been alarmed by the jihadists' murderous persecution of their flocks. "I know Assad has been good for the Christians," Obama acknowledged to the prelates, the patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church recently told me--"but at the same time he is killing people by the thousands, which is pretty un-Christian, and un-Muslim."

Like most of Syria's Christians, the patriarch fears all the anti-Assad militias, including those blessed by Washington. Yet he left the meeting with Obama reassured that the president actually "understands the issue," recognizing that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe for Iraqi Christians. The concerns of the region's ancient Christian communities have had little purchase in the Washington debate, where for three years interventionists have taunted Obama for his non-adventurism, and there may be some irony in Obama's proving the most sensitive to them.

At the United Nations this week, it was the Vatican secretary of state, cardinal Pietro Parolin, who provided the most measured rebuttal to the political tempest in Washington. "The framework of international law offers the only viable way of dealing with this urgent challenge" of jihadi terrorism, Parolin said, recalling the disastrous consequences when "unilateral solutions have been favoured over those grounded in international law."

Taking a swipe at the Washington consensus against any outreach to the tainted Syrian government, Parolin continued: "Since there is no juridical norm which justifies unilateral policing actions beyond one's own borders, there is no doubt that the area of competence lies with the Security Council. This is because without the consent and supervision of the state in which the use of force is exercised, such force would result in regional or international instability."

A return to direct U.S. involvement in the region's instability appears to have few takers in the American public. Congressional candidates on the campaign trail report an eerie silence among voters about the war brewing in the region: they seem upset by beheadings, indifferent to bombing, but alarmed by House Speaker John Boehner's call for boots on the ground. Obama's delicate juggling act seems as far as they will go--and probably not for long.