Clashing Goals in Syria Strikes Bedevil Obama


BEIRUT, Lebanon — President Obama said the American-led airstrikes in Syria were intended to punish the terror organizations that threatened the United States — but would do nothing to aid President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who is at war with the same groups.

But on the third day of strikes, it was increasingly uncertain whether the United States could maintain that delicate balance.

A Syrian diplomat crowed to a pro-government newspaper that “the U.S. military leadership is now fighting in the same trenches with the Syrian generals, in a war on terrorism inside Syria.” And in New York, the new Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in an interview that he had delivered a private message to Mr. Assad on behalf of Washington, reassuring him that the Syrian government was not the target of American-led airstrikes.

The confident statements by Syrian leaders and their allies showed how difficult it already is for Mr. Obama to go after terrorists operating out of Syria without getting dragged more deeply into that nation’s three-and-a-half-year-old civil war. Indeed, the American strikes have provided some political cover for Mr. Assad, as pro-government Syrians have become increasingly, even publicly, angry at his inability to defeat the militants.
On the other side, Mr. Obama’s Persian Gulf allies, whom he has pointed to as crucial to the credibility of the air campaign, have expressed displeasure with the United States’ reluctance to go after Mr. Assad directly. For years, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have pressed Washington to join the fight to oust the Syrian president.

And for years, the United States has demurred.

“We need to create an army to fight the terrorists, but we also have to fight the regime,” Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, emir of Qatar, said Thursday in an interview with New York Times editors. “We have to do both.”

Mr. Obama told the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday that the United States would work with its allies to roll back the Islamic State through military action and support for moderate rebels. But he added, “The only lasting solution to Syria’s civil war is political: an inclusive political transition that responds to the legitimate aspirations of all Syrian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, regardless of creed.”

Yet as the Syrian conflict transformed from peaceful, popular calls for change to a bloody unraveling of the nation, it also became a proxy battlefield for regional and global interests. Iran and Russia sided with Mr. Assad. Arab Gulf nations sided with the rebels, though not always with the same rebels. The United States called for Mr. Assad to go, but never fully engaged.

The rise of the Islamic State militant group, also known as ISIS, prompted Mr. Obama to jump in, but under the auspices of an antiterrorism campaign. The United States was not taking sides in the civil war, or at least it did not intend to. But the minute it entered the battlefield, it inevitably muddled its standing in Syria and across the Middle East, analysts and experts in the region said.

When American attacks, for example, killed militants with the Nusra Front, a group linked to Al Qaeda, it angered some of the same Syrian insurgents who Mr. Obama has said will help make up a ground force against the Islamic State.

Some of the groups that had said they would support the United States’ mission have now issued statements condemning the American strikes on the Qaeda-linked militants. Those groups have also expressed concern that by making the Islamic State its priority, the United States has acknowledged that it does not seek to unseat Mr. Assad.

Conversely, supporters of the Syrian government say hitting the Nusra Front is proof that the United States has switched sides.

“Of course coordination exists,” said a pro-government Syrian journalist speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, who had criticized the prospect of the strikes but turned practically jubilant once they began. “How else do you explain the strikes on Nusra?”

But the battle lines are not so clear-cut, as both sides try to spin the American involvement to their advantage, pressing Washington to shift even as Mr. Obama remains determined to stay his course. The Arab allies have, to Washington’s delight, made no effort to hide their involvement in the bombing raids. They have, in fact, even boasted of their roles.

Saudi Arabia has released “Top Gun”-style photos of its pilots posing with their jets, and the United Arab Emirates has bragged that one of its pilots is a woman. But the delight has as much to do with the countries’ hope that the United States will eventually come around to helping oust Mr. Assad as it does with aiding the United States in a fight against extremism, analysts said.

“The key gulf states agreed to the American request in a large part to try to steer America’s Syria policy after years of frustration,” said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “They believed that if they had said no to the Americans, the hope for a shift in U.S. policy toward Syria would be nil.”

Other commentators said gulf nations frustrated with Mr. Obama’s hesitancy had gladly joined in when his tone changed.

“Once there is a determined America and a determined President Obama, he will find a receptive ally in the region to work with him,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political analyst in the United Arab Emirates.

At the same time, these Arab partners see that the United States is once again depending on regional strongmen and monarchs with absolute authority to pursue its interests in the region.

For a time, it appeared that Washington was moving away from that decades-old model toward supporting popular movements that sought to bring democracy and greater rights to the region. That infuriated Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies, but with the collapse of the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, the old alliances have been reinvigorated.

“We are back to the future,” said Salman Shaikh, the director of the Brookings Doha Center, a Qatar-based branch of the Brookings Institution. “After the rush of the Arab Spring, there is a realization that they are our real friends and allies in the region and in this fight.”

American officials have called the participation of five Arab countries — Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — in the Syria campaign essential to combating the perception that the United States is waging war on Muslims.

All five are hereditary monarchies that limit political participation and often face criticism from human rights groups for cracking down on dissidents.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni powerhouse, has wielded its vast oil wealth to support the Egyptian military in its fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, funded rebels in Syria and deployed troops in 2011 to help the Sunni rulers of Bahrain put down a political uprising led by that nation’s Shiite majority.

The United Arab Emirates has also contributed to the regional battle against Islamists, most recently by teaming up with Egypt to bomb them in Libya. At home, it has rounded up Islamist activists and limited free speech.

Qatar, too, has bankrolled rebels in Syria, and in 2012 it sentenced a poet to life in prison for reciting a verse deemed insulting to the country’s ruler. Jordan also criminalizes criticism of the king and limits press freedoms.

Rights activists fear that these countries’ partnership with the United States will make it harder for the West to press them to make reforms.

“These are states with very problematic human rights records,” said Nicholas McGeehan, a Gulf researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This bonding together against a common enemy is understandable, but there will be implications for the human rights in these countries.”

The Arab allies worked to bolster their own global standing at the United Nations General Assembly this week, exposing the disagreements that have often kept them from acting together.

The king of Jordan cast himself as a staunch American ally and said Jordan would propose a Security Council resolution to make attacks on religious communities a crime against humanity.

Bahrain highlighted the problem of illicit financing for extremist groups from the region, in a clear dig at its neighbor Qatar.

But most of these countries stand together in supporting a leadership change in Syria, which the United States says is not its goal. And that stance from the United States has delighted pro-government Syrians.

“The Syrian Army will certainly benefit from the American airstrikes,” the unnamed diplomat told the pro-government Syrian newspaper Al Watan.

Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad and Mohammed Ghannam from Beirut, and Somini Sengupta and Michael R. Gordon from the United Nations.
A version of this article appears in print on September 26, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Clashing Goals in Syria Strikes Bedevil Obam