President Barack Obama has chosen, once again, an “in-between” approach to keep all his options open, no matter how contradictory they are. The anti-ISIS coalition operations started by imposing U.S. priorities on the members of the alliance, with the US insisting that that their concerns must wait because the US has priorities including the elimination of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and continuing the attempts for rapprochement and appeasement with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Arab countries that have taken part in the strikes against ISIS in Syria this week, underscored Barack Obama’s insistence on his priorities. They took part operationally in the raids in the hope that the partnership would practically prompt the US president to contain Iranian regional ambitions in Syria and Iraq – the main theater of the war on ISIS – to challenge them directly and in earnest. Will those hopes be shattered? The answer to this question remains ambiguous, given the conflicting information – if not conflicting US policies in the nuclear negotiations with Iran.
There are clear hints that the five Arab countries that took part in the air strikes in Syria had been coerced, countries that are linked to the US by bilateral security ties that supersede their priorities in Iraq and Syria equally. Yet there are gains that the five countries – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain – have made through their involvement in the operations in Syria: first, they proved their merit in assuming the responsibilities assigned to them in the coalition against ISIS, no matter where it is, regardless of differing views with the US leadership over this alliance.
Secondly, they precluded the kind of partnership that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had sought to forge with the US in counterterrorism, as a way to rehabilitate himself and replace the key Arab countries in the alliance against ISIS wherever it may be.
Thirdly, the US entered – finally – as a direct party in Syria, after a long period of repudiation, hesitation, and pussyfooting that accompanied the positions of the President Obama, since the peaceful quest for reforms turned into a devastating conflict.
Fourthly, the Barack Obama administration, finally and after the death of 300,000 Syrians, showed its willingness to provide practical support to the moderate armed Syrian opposition by allowing its Arab allies to supply weapons, train fighters, and provide aid. This is a qualitative shift that could alter the balance of power on the ground, in order to make it possible to resume work toward political solutions.
Fifthly, they opened the door to the possibility of overcoming the Assad complex, along the lines of how the Nuri al-Maliki complex was resolved in Iraq by forcing him to step down from his post as prime minister.
Sixthly, more measures have been taken against foreign fighters in Syria, under a binding resolution of the UN Security Council, which includes Hezbollah fighters.
What the Arab states taking part in this alliance are using as their ammunition is the fact that they are indispensable in this alliance and this war, which the US president said will not end except after the goal of destroying ISIS and its ilk is achieved, no matter how long it takes. These countries are key partners in the war, and are the main influences on the fighters on the ground – or the boots on the ground – in Iraq and Syria. The US president, meanwhile, wants a war that he vowed would have no American troops fighting in it.
The cards that Saudi Arabia holds in particular are crucial, especially in Iraq, where Saudi can – if it wants – be the most important actor that influences the indispensable warriors in the war on ISIS and the like, namely, Sunni tribes in Iraq. Riyadh does not need Washington in this matter, as much as Washington needs Riyadh, which has the keys to those fighters on the ground.
On the Syrian arena, the indispensable warriors are the Free Syrian Army and other forces that are classed as part of the moderate armed Syrian opposition. The Arab countries that can provide weapons, ammunition, cash, and take part in air strikes – such as the UAE – are indispensable for the US as well.
In other words, the war that the US president declared from behind the rostrum at the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, cannot be fought without the Arab partners – including Arab states and the Syrian opposition.
Nevertheless, the key Arab partners in Obama’s war were drawn into his priorities, and agreed to begin military operations without prior guarantees for their priorities, namely: containing the ambitions for Iranian hegemony in Syria and Iraq, and removing Bashar al-Assad after convincing his regime to agree to a transitional governing body that would include representatives from the regime and the opposition until elections are held.
One of the reasons, perhaps, is their conviction that U.S. military operations in Syria would not stop with ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates, when it becomes clear to President Obama that the actual result of these raids is shoring up the regime in Damascus and allowing it to defeat the moderate opposition, with the US having shunned the terrorist opposition This is an adventure that the Arab poles are engaging in, in the course of their alliance against ISIS. As to the reason for this, the answer lies in their priorities as well. These Arab powers see in turn that ISIS is a direct threat to them in their home soil, and an existential threat to their states.
So, actually, what will happen in Syria is the next step in the war of attrition, with direct US participation and direct Arab assistance. For this reason, the Syrian conflict could drag on.
The conflict in Syria could drag on and on, in the absence of political accords, especially between the US and Iran, and Washington and Moscow. The attrition would affect the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is deeply involved in Syria, as well as Hezbollah, which continues to fight all spectra of the Syrian opposition in Syria. Most likely, Lebanon will pay a price through ISIS’s retaliation against Obama’s war on the group in Syria and for the ongoing Hezbollah involvement in