The backing from Gulf countries for the military intervention against militants of the so-called Islamic State in northern Syria, far from helping the United States in the battle for hearts and minds, may actually be hurting Washington in the region. And the reasons for that suggest just how densely complicated the Mideast quagmire has become.
While the participation of the super-rich Gulf monarchies in a coalition against the group widely known as ISIS or ISIL may help with some moderate Muslims, and may reassure European leaders, among those Islamists inside and outside Syria who are at the core of the opposition to President Bashar al Assad this development is viewed with deep suspicion.
“This has been labeled as a war against ISIS but it is a war against Islamic groups,” Tauqir Sharif, a British Islamist activist based in Idlib, Syria, told British Channel Four news Wednesday.
Already ISIS activists and jihadists sympathizers in the Gulf are leveraging their social media skills to fuel suspicions that the Americans are ready to give Assad a free pass and that the Sunni Muslims of Syria will be sacrificed with the connivance of the Gulf monarchies.
Ironically for a group not shy about slaughtering innocents, ISIS and its sympathizers are using the 20 or more civilian deaths reportedly sustained in the first waves of U.S.-led airstrikes in northern Syria to frame the military intervention. “Wer [where] was US & its lapdogs wen Assad was massacring civilians. Muslims who still don’t see thru it shud be smacked back 2 their senses,” tweeted one Abu Illyaas.
There are many overlapping and interwoven conflicts in the Middle East, where the enemy of your enemy may still be your enemy.
The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, particularly, are waging a campaign throughout the Muslim world to crush the most well known Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the monarchs played an important role supporting the overthrow of the Brotherhood’s elected government in Egypt last year.
Syrian Islamists, meanwhile, have long bewailed Washington’s refusal to supply them with advanced weapons, which they say they need to topple Assad. And they fear Saudi Arabia is determined to use the intervention to undercut them and regional rivals that back them: Turkey and Qatar.
That the bombing Tuesday in the first wave of airstrikes hit a network of jihadist veterans linked to Jabhat al Nusra has added to distrust about the intervention and what it may mean for the anti-Assad cause. Although it is the official al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, al Nusra is aligned with major Islamist rebel militias in the country.
President Obama has made much of the presence of Arab states in “a broad coalition” assembled by the U.S. to defeat ISIS militants who have seized a huge swath of eastern Syria and western Iraq and imposed a draconian form of sharia law that they viciously enforce. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Bahrain joined in Tuesday’s airstrikes on ISIS positions.
Another Gulf monarchy, Qatar, which has backed some hardline Islamists in Syria, played a supporting role, say Pentagon officials, but conspicuously refrained from deploying any of its nine Mirage 2000-5EDA fighters, which have ground attack capability, as though it were hedging its bets.
“The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not America’s fight alone,” Obama said at the White House before heading for New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly, where he called on Muslims to reject extremist ideologies, saying jihadists “have perverted one of the world’s great religions.”
The president’s claim drew an onslaught from Islamists as well as jihadist bloggers and social media activists. One, Abu Zubayr, agreed in a tweet that America isn’t alone – the coalition includes “Several Arabic Munafiqeen [hypocrite] Rulers,” he noted.
The Gulf’s ruling princes, with their opulent lifestyles and Machiavellian politics, are anathema to many Syrian Islamists, who see them as every bit as imperial and tricky in their designs as the West. That the Saudis profess a strict ultra-conservative form of Wahabi Islam does nothing to reduce their hostility to Islamist groups which oppose monarchies.
To undermine the Muslim Brotherhood the Saudis first supported more radical Salafi Islamist groups in Syria and in the region. To roll back Brotherhood political gains after the Arab Spring the Saudis and Emiratis not only encouraged the ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected Islamist president, but supported the opponents of Libyan Islamists who recently seized control of Tripoli. Indeed, the Emiratis waged a secret bombing campaign in Libya, flying out of air bases in Egypt.
Two Syrian rebel brigades—one affiliated to the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and another more hardline Islamist faction—have condemned this week’s airstrikes against ISIS and Nusra. They are unlikely to be the last, if Washington doesn’t come up with a much clearer strategy with how to deal with Assad and actively assist in the uprising to topple him, analysts say.
The moderate Islamist Harakat al Hazm militia, which numbers about 7,000 fighters and has received anti-tank weapons supplied by the U.S. in the past, warned in a statement that the airstrikes would not succeed in uprooting extremism but only encourage its growth by adding to the chaos in Syria. “The sole beneficiary of foreign interference in Syria is the Assad regime,” the group argued.
Suqour al-Sham, an Islamist militia that has close ties with al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and earlier this year conducted with it a joint suicide bombing in Idlib, has also denounced the intervention, saying the strikes will only help preserve the Assad regime.
“The administration was sending an important message to the people of Syria and Iraq” when it bombed the Khorasan Group, an al Qaeda cell, says Jonathan Schanzer, a Mideast expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank. It was saying “that it sees all jihadist groups as a threat to stability in the region.”
But he says there are real risks involved if the U.S. fails to appreciate Sunni sensitivities in both countries—above all the fear the Assad regime in Syria will be bolstered by the intervention.