Arab states risk backlash by joining Syria strikes

Mideast Islamid State Arabs Role

In this image released Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014 by the official Saudi Press Agency, a Saudi pilot sits in the cockpit of a fighter jet as part of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on Islamic State militants and other targets in Syria that began early Tuesday. Arab countries’ prominent role in initial airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Syria shatters the notion of what a typical American-led military operation looks like and won the Mideast allies’ praise from U.S. President Barack Obama for their willingness to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The Arab nations that joined the United States in striking the Islamic State group in Syria were unusually open about it, throwing aside their usual secrecy and wariness about appearing too close to Washington. Saudi Arabia even released heroic-looking photos of its pilots who flew the warplanes.

Their boasting reflects the depth of Gulf nations’ concern over the threat of the extremist group sweeping over Iraq and Syria. It also shows their desire to flex some military muscle toward regional rival Iran, a key supporter of the Syrian and Iraqi governments.

But the Sunni monarchies run the risk of a backlash by hard-line Islamists angered by the attacks against the Sunni fighters, whom many see as battling a Shiite-led government in Baghdad. Militant websites sympathetic to the Islamic State group lit up on Wednesday with the photos of the Saudi pilots, alongside calls for them to be killed.

Even beyond the ranks of hard-liners, many around the region are suspicious of U.S. motives in yet again launching military action in an Arab nation. Many among the Syrian rebels grumble that the United States and Arab nations ignored their pleas for action against Syrian President Bashar Assad for years and are intervening now against the radicals only because it is in their interest.

Moreover, the U.S. expanded the strikes beyond the Islamic State, hitting al-Qaida’s branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, in a bid to take out a cell called the Khorasan Group that is believed to be plotting attacks against the United States. That has other Syrian rebel factions with Islamic ideologies — and there are many of them — worried they, too, could be hit by the Americans.

“For four years, we called on the West to help us topple the regime, but it’s clear the target is the Islamic factions,” said a Damascus-based opposition activist, Abu Akram al-Shami, speaking via Skype.

The countries whose air forces carried out strikes were all Sunni-led states run by hereditary monarchs with longstanding ties to the American military: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain. Another Gulf monarchy, Qatar, played a supporting role, according to the Pentagon. President Barack Obama — who had been eager for Arab backing in the campaign — praised them for their willingness to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the U.S.

Perhaps most vulnerable to a backlash is Jordan, which borders Syria and has a strong community of Islamists and ultraconservative Salafis who have sympathies with the Islamic State group. Jordan was the homeland of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the militant who founded al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, which eventually evolved into the Islamic State group. He was killed eight years ago in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq.

Mohammed al-Shalabi, a prominent figure in the jihadi-Salafi movement in Jordan, told The Associated Press that while the Islamic State group has “made mistakes” — killing journalists, for example — it is still part of the Muslim nation and U.S. strikes against it will only build support for it.

“The U.S. is hated in the region because of its support for Israel. People will now feel sympathy with (the Islamic State group) against the U.S.,” he said.

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