American fighter jets, bombers and cruise missiles targeted Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Syria on Tuesday morning.
The strikes, focused on the city of Raqqa, come within two weeks of United States President Barack Obama’s speech where he announced that the US would target ISIS bases in Syria, apart from Iraq, regardless of the objections of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus.
Mr Obama also pitched the fight against ISIS as a regional effort — and Arab nations have duly complied. Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates either participated in or supported the strikes, according to the Pentagon. It’s unclear how the conflict will unfold hereon.
Many are sceptical that airstrikes alone can neutralise ISIS’ progress as it controls territory the size of Belgium, thriving on revenue from captured oil fields, and having a motivated cadre of jihadis, including a few thousands from Europe.
But the US could not have avoided military reprisals given the macabre impact of ISIS’ advance that has seen relentless brutality, enslavement of women, beheading of westerners, and massive refugee flows.
The airstrikes can stem ISIS’ advance but degrading and destroying its capacity requires a degree of concert among US, Europe, Iraq and other regional powers that has rarely been achieved in the past.
The involvement of Arab nations is a significant step, as it signals that their regimes see ISIS not only as a regional threat but also as a destabilising influence in their own societies.
Backing US military action against an Islamic group that seeks to establish a caliphate is not without its risks for Arab regimes like Saudi Arabia that have religious constituents who back jihadi forces like ISIS.
The challenge for the US is to ensure that the fight against ISIS stays the course and does not degenerate into periodic military surges that are timed to stall the dramatic advance of the militants.
Success against ISIS will hinge on Sunni-Shia reconciliation and recovery of state capacity in Iraq, the suspension of Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry to fight a common terrorist enemy, and tacitly keeping the Assad regime on board without threatening its position.
This is diplomatically a near impossible task. But then again no one has ever accused the Americans of not trying, especially in West Asia.