US coalition against ISIS is fraying. Gulf Arab partners mull withdrawal over Iran’s involvement
The group of nations US President Barack Obama assembled last September for an air offence against ISIS inroads in Iraq and Syria is fraying. Wednesday, Feb. 4, US officials admitted that the United Arab Emirates had suspended its air attacks in early December, directly after a Jordanian bomber was downed over the Islamic State’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa and its pilot Lt. Mu’ath al Kassasbeh was taken prisoner.
He was later burned alive by Islamic State executioners, as a video released this week revealed.
Although the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Bahrain joined the coalition from the start, most observers believe their participation was more symbolic than active. Iraq has no air force to speak of and its army turned tail against Islamic State forces; the Saudis allotted a trifling number of planes to the effort; while Bahrain doesn’t have an air force at all. The UAE has the biggest and most modern air force in the Gulf region and so its withdrawal is a major blow to Washington’s war effort, such as it is.
It is noteworthy that neither Washington nor Amman has disclosed the scope of Jordan’s aerial activity since the pilot was captured.
The UAE dropped out more than a month ago, when it turned out after the Jordanian pilot’s capture that no personnel or facilities had been put in place to rescue air crews whose planes crashed behind enemy lines. The nearest US facility able to respond to this contingency is located in Kuwait, too far away to be able to reach downed air crews in time to save them from capture. This was and remains a source of major concern for all the air crews taking part in the coalition offensive.
The four Gulf Arab participants in the US-led group entertain profound reservations on another score: Iran’s increasing involvement in the US-led war on ISIS and the growing operational coordination between the two powers – especially in the Iraq arena – compared with Washington’s dwindling cooperation with the Gulf participants.
It is feared in Riyadh – and not just in Abu Dhabi – that the joint US-Iranian war effort against the Islamic State is providing a screen behind which the Obama administration is opening doors for Iran to advance its regional aspirations.
They are adamantly opposed to Obama’s policy in this regard and are loath to lend their air strength for its support. Therefore the entire Gulf component, and not just the UAE, may be quietly taking its leave of the US-led coalition against ISIS.