BEIRUT, Lebanon — Many Arab governments grumbled quietly in 2011 as the United States left Iraq, fearful it might fall deeper into chaos or Iranian influence. Now, the United States is back and getting a less than enthusiastic welcome, with leading allies like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey all finding ways on Thursday to avoid specific commitments to President Obama’s expanded military campaign against Sunni extremists.
As the prospect of the first American strikes inside Syria crackled through the region, the mixed reactions underscored the challenges of a new military intervention in the Middle East, where 13 years of chaos, from Sept. 11 through the Arab Spring revolts, have deepened political and sectarian divisions and increased mistrust of the United States on all sides.
“As a student of terrorism for the last 30 years, I am afraid of that formula of ‘supporting the American effort,’ ” said Diaa Rashwan, a scholar at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded policy organization in Cairo. “It is very dangerous.”
The tepid support could further complicate the already complex task Mr. Obama has laid out for himself in fighting the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria: He must try to confront the group without aiding Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, or appearing to side with Mr. Assad’s Shiite allies, Iran and the militant group Hezbollah, against discontented Sunnis across the Arab world.
While Arab nations allied with the United States vowed on Thursday to “do their share” to fight ISIS and issued a joint communiqué supporting a broad strategy, the underlying tone was one of reluctance. The government perhaps most eager to join a coalition against ISIS was that of Syria, which Mr. Obama had already ruled out as a partner for what he described as terrorizing its citizens.
Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, told NBC News that Syria and the United States were “fighting the same enemy,” terrorism, and that his government had “no reservations” about airstrikes as long as the United States coordinated with it. He added, “We are ready to talk.”
Others were less than forthcoming. The foreign minister of Egypt — already at odds with Mr. Obama over the American decision to withhold some aidafter the Egyptian military’s ouster last year of the elected president — complained that Egypt’s hands were full with its own fight against “terrorism,” referring to the Islamist opposition.
In Jordan, the state news agency reported that in a meeting about the extremists on Wednesday, King Abdullah II had told Secretary of State John Kerry “that the Palestinian cause remains the core of the conflict in the region” and that Jordan was focusing on the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.
Turkey, which Mr. Kerry will visit on Friday, is concerned about attacks across its long border with ISIS-controlled Syria, and also about 49 Turkish government employees captured by the group in Iraq. Speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, an official advised not to expect public support for the American effort.
At a meeting in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, to build a coalition for the American mission, at least 10 Arab states signed a communiqué pledging to join “in the many aspects of a coordinated military campaign,” but with the qualification “as appropriate” and without any specifics. Turkey attended the meeting but declined to sign.
Even in Baghdad and across Syria, where the threat from ISIS is immediate, reactions were mixed. Members of Iraq’s Shiite majority cheered the prospect of American help. But many Sunni Muslims were cynical about battling an organization that evolved from jihadist groups fighting American occupation.
“This is all a play,” said Abu Amer, 38, a government employee, who withheld his family name for his safety. “It is applying American political plans.”
The difficulties are all the more striking because ISIS has avowed enemies on both sides of the region’s Sunni-Shiite divide.
Sunni-led governments view it as a threat at home and believe it has aided Mr. Assad by attacking his more moderate Sunni opponents. For Shiites, whom ISIS views as apostates deserving death, the group poses an existential threat, yet Shiite-led Iran, a longtime foe of the United States, is excluded from the coalition.
Some Arab leaders appeared to fear a domestic backlash, perhaps like the attacks against Saudi Arabia by Osama bin Laden and others after the kingdom allowed American troops to use its territory as a staging ground during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Also looming was a broader worry that airstrikes could increase soft support for, or reluctant tolerance of, the group.
Most Sunnis are terrified of ISIS and its aim to impose a caliphate ruled by its brutal interpretation of Islamic law; they have borne the brunt of its beheadings and other atrocities. In an arc of Sunni discontent spanning the region, some say they feel abandoned enough to accept help “from Satan, not because we like Satan,” as one Sunni tribesman in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, Syria, put it on Thursday.
Sunnis have endured a decade of what are, from their perspective, catastrophic setbacks. In Iraq, the American ouster of Saddam Hussein ended centuries of Sunni dominance, ushered in years of sectarian conflict and increased the influence of Shiite Iran.
In Lebanon, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah has come to dominate since the Sunni patron Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. More recently, in Egypt and Syria, revolts that Sunni Islamists saw as their chance at power have been rolled back or brutally thwarted.
“The Sunnis need to feel that they have a voice in their capitals,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, a Syrian correspondent for the pan-Arab newspaper Al-Hayat and a critic of Syria’s government. “Otherwise, you push more Sunnis toward ISIS.”
Without a simultaneous effort to address the political environment that has disenfranchised many Sunnis, “I think that’s a real risk,” a Western diplomat working on Syria said in Beirut. “There are consequences to every action.”
A growing number of diplomats argue that fighting ISIS effectively requires a political settlement to Syria’s three-year civil war, perhaps allowing Mr. Assad to stay but insisting he cede some powers to a Sunni-inclusive national unity government. But Mr. Assad’s inner circle has given no sign of interest in any compromise.
Ryan C. Crocker, a former United States ambassador to Syria and Iraq, said that with “no good options,” hitting ISIS in Syria was essential to American security. Attacks, along with aid to relatively moderate insurgents who would be pressured to embrace an inclusive Syria, could open the door to a political solution there, he said.
But that, he said, would require fancy footwork from Mr. Obama to “make it clear this is about American security, not about favoring any side in the Syrian civil conflict.”
But such talk does not often play well in a region weary of disappointments from American policy, from the invasion of Iraq to the failure to curb the killing in Syria.
A longtime opponent of ISIS in Raqqa, Ibrahim al-Raqawi, said he had refused to give a caller from Washington information on ISIS positions because he feared civilian casualties. He said he opposed airstrikes if they did not also hit Mr. Assad’s forces and stop him from killing civilians.
Members of a range of Syrian insurgent groups that consider ISIS an enemy said they, too, opposed American strikes unless they also targeted the government.
And even those most supportive of the strikes — members of the American-vetted groups that stand to gain new aid to fight ISIS — complained that the United States had abetted the extremists’ rise by failing to help other insurgents earlier. They said the United States was attacking ISIS now only because the group threatened it as well as the broader world.
They said that they welcomed new American aid, but that it remained to be seen whether it would improve on smaller efforts in recent years that have failed to produce a unified, effective or consistently moderate opposition force.
A member of Hezbollah familiar with its thinking said that while coordination with Syria would be best, any attacks against ISIS would curb the group and help Syria’s government.
Um Taha, a 35-year-old Sunni in Baghdad who withheld her full name, captured the mixture of cynicism and tenuous hope that may pass for the prevailing mood in the Arab world now.
She said she hoped the coalition succeeded, “despite the fact that America was one of the reasons why this radical organization originally existed.”Follow enlightenedlbrl