Editor’s note: Jane Kinninmont is deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at London-based Chatham House, and is currently directing a research project on Future Trends In The Gulf. Follow @janekinninmont. The views expressed in this commentary are solely the author’s.
(CNN) — The involvement of five Arab countries in the air strikes against ISIS in Syria is a major new development for the region. It is not yet clear exactly what role they have played in what the Pentagon described as “participation and support” for the operation, but this is about symbolism more than military might.
For the U.S., it was vitally important to avoid this looking like another Western attack on a Middle Eastern country, and to emphasize that opposition to ISIS comes from within the Arab and Muslim worlds – where the vast majority of their victims have come from.
But what’s in it for the Arab countries?
The move reflects a combination of concerns about their domestic security and their international reputation. Longer term, beyond the concerns about ISIS itself, it reflects a desire on the part of these Arab states to play a more active role in regional security — but also illustrates the risks that can affect anyone wanting to become the policeman of the region.
Firstly, these states see ISIS as a threat to their own domestic security. ISIS’s ideology doesn’t only condemn the “infidel West;” like al Qaeda, it is also dead set against the existing regimes in the Arab states, and wants the states themselves to fall and be replaced by a caliphate.
Saudi Arabia, which has confirmed its air force was involved in Tuesday’s strikes, has been the victim of al Qaeda (AQ) attacks before, in 2003-04, and Jordan was bombed by an AQ affiliate led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi, an ideological precursor of ISIS. For its part, the UAE has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting to overthrow it.