John Kerry
By Paul Richter contact the reporter

The Obama administration was more successful than many expected in convincing five Arab nations to join its air campaign against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq. Holding the group together for what could be a long campaign, however, is likely to prove challenging.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain took an active military role in the strikes that began overnight, and Qatar expressed political support without scrambling fighters. The backing was an important political statement, because the Obama administration wanted to avoid accusations that it was again intervening in the Middle East in the face of Arab opposition.

But some of the Arab nations, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have different priorities in the conflict, believing that fighting the Syrian government is more important than the narrow counter-terrorism mission that President Obama has in mind.

As the fight goes on, they are likely to be urging the U.S. to broaden its campaign.

“Having different members of the coalition pulling in different directions could be harmful to the coalition, and it raises the risk that countries like the United States will get in deeper than they wanted,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Saudi Arabia would like to see the United States escalate this campaign.”

Another potential source of conflict lies in the issue of which groups will take control of the Syrian territory if Islamic State militants can be forced to retreat. Washington is championing the so-called moderate rebel groups, which are weak and disorganized, while some Arab countries would like the more potent groups with Islamist leanings to take control.

“The question is, what’s the right opposition to replace ISIS,” said Dafna Rand, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, using one of the acronyms for Islamic State. “It could begin to threaten the coalition.”

Another question is whether Turkey will side with the coalition or take a position that might threaten the joint effort. Ankara has stood aside so far, worried about domestic public opinion that opposes military involvement, and concerned about the fate of a group of diplomats who had been hostages of Islamic State.

Those hostages were freed this week, and now all sides are waiting to see what Turkey does next.

Some members of Congress, such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), expressed frustration Tuesday that Turkey, a NATO ally, was holding back and was even seeking to halt Kurdish fighters opposed to Islamic State from fleeing into Turkey, which fought a long war against home-grown Kurdish rebels.

Neither France nor Britain, which are typically U.S. military partners, joined the new effort. But the British government, which was embarrassed last year when Parliament rejected its proposal to join the U.S. in airstrikes against Syria then under consideration, is signaling that it may increase support for the current campaign, possibly including airstrikes in Iraq, if not in Syria.

Barnes-Dacey predicted that France also would probably move toward a greater role in the anti-militant effort, despite President Francois Hollande’s misgivings that the airstrikes violate Syrian sovereignty.

Russia came out against the U.S.-led campaign as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty, and China may follow suit, in keeping with its traditional position on issues of military intervention.

But Russia’s views may have little impact on world opinion in this fight because Russia has lost ground among Sunni Muslims in the Arab world for siding strongly with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is related to Shiite Islam. The Kremlin’s criticism also could be seen as hypocrisy in some capitals in light of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

The impact of players like Russia and China is likely to be “secondary,” said Rand.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times11:25 a.m.: This post has been updated throughout with new details.

The story was originally posted at 8:25 a.m.