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Arab Kings vs. ISIS Barbarians

Arab jets and spies are now part of Obama’s attack on Islamic extremists in Syria. But what is the allies’ real agenda?

Hassan Ammar/AP

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Arab warplanes flew deadly missions along with American jets over Syria early Tuesday morning. On the ground, Jordanian and Saudi intelligence operatives provided essential tactical information about ISIS and its deployments, according to Western sources. And as the fighters crisscrossed the skies and the spies made their assessments, some Arab leaders—and Washington, certainly—hoped this could be the beginning of a renewed alliance after many troubled years. Without such a regional coalition, the war against ISIS and a reinvigorated, newly aggressive al Qaeda, will be very long and dangerous indeed.

On Tuesday afternoon, some Arab officials went so far as to compare this alliance with the heady days of Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990 and ‘91, when the whole Arab world seemed to come together with the United States and Europe to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.

“The Gulf countries find the threat of Da’esh real,” said a Saudi source close to the country’s top leadership. (He used the Arab acronym for ISIS or ISIL, as the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” commonly is known.) And the Saudis, particularly, understand that the menace is not limited to the spread of the so-called “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. They also see its influence in Yemen, which is sliding toward chaos after being proclaimed a “model” for the Obama administration’s counter-terrorism strategy. There is also a growing threat in North Africa, where a jihadist faction that has sworn allegiance to ISIS tood a French citizen hostage after France started bombing targets in Iraq last week.

The air strikes over Syria, participated in directly by the Saudis, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain, represent “the beginnings of a real Arab defense force,” the Saudi source said optimistically. Other Arab states, including Qatar and Kuwait, reportedly provided or facilitated logistical support.

One U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast the Saudis and Jordanians have personnel on the ground in Syria. “They have people and they have contacts,” this official said, adding that U.S. intelligence agencies have been able to use this information. (This was confirmed by two other American officials.) But the source said the arrangement was not ideal. “It’s hard to trust that intelligence. It’s not part of a structure. There is not a check and double-check system in place.”

Clearly, much more is needed if this relatively small-bore coalition is to achieve significant strides militarily or, for that matter, diplomatically.

Conspicuously absent from the front-line airstrikes are the two largest armies and air forces in the region, Egypt and Turkey, whose governments are bitterly at odds with each other. Pulling them together is not about establishing a team of rivals, but a team of enemies.

Update: Turkey has the second largest army in NATO, borders ISIS-controlled territory, and is seeing a massive influx of refugees, but is only now showing signs it might take direct action against ISIS. While it’s motives may be complicated, on Tuesday Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan explicitly tied Turkish cooperation to demands for a clear strategy about how to deal with the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar Assad if ISIS is crushed. "We'll evaluate our position only after hearing these scenarios," he told the Hurriyet Daily News. Thus far, no convincing answers from Washington have been forthcoming, at least in public. But on Tuesday in New York, where he is attending the U.N. General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemed to have a change of heart. Turkey would give "necessary support to the operation," he told reporters. "The support could be military or logistics," he said, without elaborating. In the meantime, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he will ask parliament for authorization to use Turkish forces against ISIS forces in Syria.

Perhaps most striking of all is the absence, in this rump coalition, of the grand pronouncements we heard from earlier U.S. administrations—or from this one five years ago when President Barack Obama sought to turn a new page in Washington’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world.

In the current crisis, Obama has articulated no overarching cause, no doctrine about defending freedom and democracy. This offensive is purely defensive. It is not about the future: it is about a desperate effort to hang on to the present status quo as the region, having shed the enthusiasms of the Arab Spring like a soiled party outfit, is now trying to slip back into the drab, predictable uniforms of dictatorship and monarchy.

Now that the Arab kings and princes have joined in, it's obvious that this is a war to try to turn back the clock to before the Arab Spring of 2011, before Obama’s 2009 initiatives, before the efforts of President George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice to graft democracy onto the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The people of the region are tired of chaos. And at this point, Obama shows every sign he's tired, too. He appears to be settling for any tactical approach that might ward off the growing threat of new attacks on Americans and the American homeland posed not only by ISIS, but by the point men of al Qaeda in a group known as Khorasan that also came under attack by U.S. warplanes over Syria on Tuesday.

Unfortunately for that American policy, if such it can be called, what the Syrian civil war and the rise of ISIS have done is to create a situation where the status quo ante is no longer a reasonable objective. As in the Balkans 20 years ago, the effort to preserve “recognized international borders” is already a dead letter. ISIS did not limit its ambitions to national frontiers, and as of this week the U.S. and its Arab partners are no longer limiting their retribution to those frontiers either.

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Once the convention of established borders starts to fray, it opens up the region to a plague of irredentism from Morocco on the Atlantic to disputed islands (and gas and oil fields) in what both the Arabs and Persians call their Gulf.

As the same Saudi source told me, the first and most obvious significance of the joint raids over Syria is that they offer “good cover for Obama” as he continues struggling to build a wider, stronger coalition. But there’s a long way to go before this desert storm blows over.

—with additional reporting by Eli Lake and Kimberly Dozier