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Obama’s coalition: Just political cover?

Five Sunni Arab nations joined the U.S. in the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria: Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Such

Five Sunni Arab nations joined the U.S. in the airstrikes against ISIS in Syria: Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  Such cooperation isn’t exactly business as usual in that part of the world.  Getting Arab countries to join the assault on ISIS was key to the administration’s case.

So this was the lead of President Obama’s remarks the morning after the airstrikes.

"The strength of this coalition makes it clear to the world that this is not American's fight alone," Obama said. "Above all, the people and governments of the Middle East are rejecting ISIL, and standing up for the peace and security that the people of the region and the world deserve."

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reinforced the point. “We now have a kind of credible campaign against ISIL [ISIS] that includes a coalition of partners,'' Gen. Martin Dempsey said.

Nonetheless, says Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, “Obama's critics will attempt to downplay his achievement in building this coalition. They shouldn't. Getting this set of countries to act in their own defense has never been an easy task.”

They shouldn’t, okay, but they do. There is a strong tendency to dismiss the coalition as nothing more than political cover and militarily insignificant.

Soon after the airstrikes were announced, the BBC’s Washington bureau chief, a veteran of the Middle East, tweeted, “Military pundits on US cable news hugely over playing Gulf military role in strikes. They're giving crucial political not military support.”

That political support is crucial, though, perhaps in ways difficult to gauge, as a frequent critic of Obama noted.

"We have five Arab Muslim Sunni-based nations attacking a Sunni-based terrorist organization and that is … something we have not seen in the past, General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the Army told the BBC. “That is really quite an accomplishment."

The multinational aspect may not do much political work for Obama domestically. But Goldberg argues it is vital in the Middle East:

"The Arabs of the Gulf (Arabian Gulf, Persian Gulf, take your pick) have overcome their fear of Obama's irresolution and joined him publicly in this campaign. This has happened for two reasons: One, Obama made a convincing case to U.S. allies that he's in the ISIS fight for the long-term. The Gulf Arabs are exposed, almost existentially so, to the ISIS threat, so they obviously feel that the U.S. is not pivoting away from them (to borrow a term). The second reason is embedded in the first reason: the president was pushing on an open door. Precisely because the Arab states fear ISIS so much, they needed to take a bit of a leap of faith with a man they haven't trusted since the ‘red line’ crisis of last year."

Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs columnist for The Guardian of London, makes the opposite argument:

“The participation of Saudi Arabia and four other Arab countries in the military attacks is a major development in the post-2003 Iraq-Syria story. The subsequent threat by an Isis spokesman to take unspecified, violent reprisals against them underlined the extent to which the Syrian civil war may be fuelling a region-wide conflict. The involvement of these “moderate” Sunni Muslim regimes in attacking Sunni extremists also underscores the supposedly widening schism with the Shia Muslim world, as represented by Iran and its Alawite allies in Damascus. Tehran acquiesced in US attacks on Isis in Iraq, but is opposed to similar action inside Syria. What Iran does next may depend to some extent on the outcome of its long-running nuclear negotiations with the west.”

It obviously is significant that the airstrikes took place on the eve of United Nations General Assembly.  Announcing the coalition airstrikes by Saudi Arabia and the other countries is certainly a dramatic bit of coalition building. The U.S. will try to build on that this week at the U.N.  Britain and France supported the strikes in Syria but did not participate.  The U.S. also is looking for more help from other countries such as Turkey as well.

U.S. news coverage of this new front of warfare in the coming days will likely focus on military hardware, military second-guessing and the fighting strength of ISIS.  The complicated spillover to the rest of the region will take a back seat. But the participation of Sunni nations in military actions against a Sunni group in Syria is likely to be a whole lot more important than just providing political cover.

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