America Immobilized as Iran-Saudi Arabia Proxy War Turns Bloody

04/06/2015 07:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015
MOHAMMED HUWAIS via Getty Images

BEIRUT -- The Middle East plainly gets it now: the U.S., after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, inter alia, does not want to decisively intervene with military force in the region's many complicated conflicts. Rather, it wishes to "re-balance" the region's major powers -- to strike an equilibrium of antagonisms -- and wishes them to sort issues out amongst themselves. "This is your sectarian problem; you deal with it," was how one Saudi commentator described the American attitude toward Saudi Arabia's complaints about Houthi actions in Yemen.

It is hoped that such balance -- if it is achieved -- will allow America to stand aloof from the Middle Eastern centrifuge, which always seems to suck America back into its internecine quarrels. The involvement of special forces is a different matter, in Washington's perspective: this, together with financial information, drones and cyber war, represents one tool by which the U.S. can manage the situation, tipping it one way or another in line with shifting interests. The nuclear talks are about bringing Iran into the new balance.

I have wondered before about the viability of such an approach in today's Middle East, where states and non-state structures may simply opt out of any ground rules by which the balance can be maintained. Indeed, Saudi Arabia is doing just that -- and egging on Turkey to follow suit. Rather than find balance, recent events seem to suggest that a messy -- and for some, existentially dangerous -- trial of strength is required before the new contours of the Middle East can emerge.

"It is not Iranian tanks sitting on their front lawn that Saudis fear, it is the revolutionary concepts embedded in Shiite thinking -- and the contagion from that thinking."

To be fair, as before, I note that in the domestic context in which America finds itself today, a process of disengagement was probably the best of bad options. But what makes good rational sense may not make psychological sense -- at least not yet. Psyches can take longer to adjust, and can usually make the adjustment only after a dose of pain is inflicted on inflated egos.

Though the tentative agreement by the P5+1 leaves more unsaid than said (and it may not be sustainable in Iran, which has made major concessions for benefits that, at least in the initial published document, remain opaque), it nonetheless will do nothing to calm Saudi paranoia. Saudi Arabia purports to believe Iran is fomenting Shiite uprisings throughout the region against the status quo, and is seeking to drag the entire Middle East within the pale of a new Persian empire.

It is unlikely that most Saudis really believe that Iran harbors expansionary imperial ambitions (it has not invaded foreign territory in the last half millennium). More likely, Saudi paranoia derives from knowing that Iranians have not forgotten the Wahhabis' murderous sack of Karbala in 1801-2, the wanton destruction of Shiite sacred shrines then and since, the branding of the Shiites as apostates who must be killed, the firing-up of radical jihadism to counter Shiism and the repression of Shiite populations across the Gulf.

No, it is not Iranian tanks sitting on their front lawn that Saudis fear, it is the revolutionary concepts embedded in Shiite thinking -- and the contagion from that thinking -- that Saudis fear and seek to delegitimize and quarantine.

The Trusty Tools of Sunni Jihadism

One clear result of this growing Iran "psychosis" (as a result of America's quasi-rapprochement with Iran) is that the brief Sunni flirtation in recent months with the West's battle against jihadism and extremism is over, and that the present trial of strength requires the old trusty tools -- psychologically inflamed Sunni jihadism -- to be unsheathed again.

But of course, Iran and its allies will not permit this. Iran, Hezbollah, the Iraqi Shiite militias, the Syrian army and the Houthis will seek to inflict a substantive defeat on any re-launch of inflamed Sunni jihadism in their respective arenas. This was the crux of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's speech on Mar. 27: Iran, we may infer from his tough words, no longer sees any prospect of an understanding emerging with Saudi Arabia in the wake of the nuclear agreement. Saudi Arabia, in Nasrallah's estimation, is opting to push against Iran and its allies at all levels, and his speech foreshadows an equally tough response. Far from finding its equilibrium, the region is heading for further dramatic political change.

"America finds itself immobilized -- caught between the 'rock' of fickle allies, who are deeply invested in one way or another in radical Sunnism, and the 'hard place' of legacy-constraint that prohibits any real move towards those who are ISIS' true adversaries."


Amidst all this flexing of muscles, America is effectively disempowered by its stand-off policy, but also from its political investment in the war on ISIS, with its many contradictions and tensions. In Iraq, for example, it is Iran and allied Shiite militias that are leading the fight against ISIS; in Yemen the (Iran-backed) Houthis are engaged in bloody clashes with al-Qaeda. But in the former instance, America tacitly acknowledges Iran's contribution, whereas in the latter case, it supports the bombing of the Houthis fighting the jihadists, apparently on the grounds that an Iranian "proxy" cannot be allowed to threaten a principal crude shipping lane.

America finds itself immobilized -- caught between the "rock" of fickle allies, who are deeply invested in one way or another in radical Sunnism, and the "hard place" of legacy-constraint that prohibits any real move towards those who are ISIS' true adversaries (the Syrian Arab Army, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Iraqi forces).

"Pull the Carpet out From Underneath the Iranians"

Consider this: "Taking matters into our own hands is the name of the game today," Jamal Khashoggi, a veteran Saudi journalist and former adviser to the government, told the New York Times. "Saudi Arabia is moving ahead with its operations to pull the carpet out from underneath the Iranians in our region." He claimed that pushback was showing signs of success without help from the Americans.

The Times report continued: "Saudi Arabian and Turkish sponsors, he [Kashoggi] said, had backed the coalition of jihadist groups [Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda] that recently captured the Syrian city of Idlib in the first major victory in months against the government of President Bashar al-Assad ... members of the jihadi coalition 'are the ones who captured Idlib, it is an important development, and I think we are going to see more of that,' Mr. Khashoggi said, adding, 'Coordination between Turkish and Saudi intelligence has never been as good as now.'"

Khashoggi was referring to the combined efforts, led by Turkish intelligence and supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to field thousands of fighters in a jihadi coalition that resulted in the tactical withdrawal of the Syrian army from the part of Idlib on which its hold was already somewhat tenuous -- and with its lines of supply quite extended. It can be argued that the withdrawal is not so significant in the wider context of the Syrian conflict.

Even if that is so, the symbolic significance is acute: Turkey and Saudi Arabia worked together to facilitate the takeover of Idlib, in the name of Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaeda's Syrian branch), a counterpoint to ISIS' seat of power in Raqqa. Jabhat al-Nusra, we are now told by several leading western and Gulf commentators, that, though it is al-Qaeda, nonetheless is an expression of "pragmatic" jihadism, and "could become an ally in the fight against the Islamic State." (A few short months ago this view might have brought about an interview with western security officials. How times change!)

The Saudi desire to "pull the carpet out from underneath the Iranians" is also reflected in Iraq. The Times reported that the Saudis warned Washington "not to allow the Iranian-backed militia to capture too much of Iraq during the fight to roll back the Islamic State, according to Arab diplomats familiar with the talks." In other words, do not let ISIS be defeated too much.

"If the prospect of a Sunni coalition force does prove to be a chimaera, and Yemen a Saudi failure, we shall surely see as a by-product more firing-up of jihadists in Syria and Iraq."

But, of course, the centerpiece of Saudi Arabia's new assertiveness is its war in Yemen. The air campaign against Ansar Allah (the Houthi movement) and the forces loyal to former President Saleh represents in a very personalized way Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman's attempt to do what some Saudis say America should be doing, but which it is not doing. Bin Salman's air campaign has, so far, been greeted exultantly in some Gulf quarters. But, noticeably, his co-regent, Muhammad bin Nayef, has stayed silent -- bin Nayef is considered to be a rival for the Yemen portfolio, and he might be quietly hoping that bin Salman will fail. It is a bold step to emulate America both in action and in the manner of that action (reliance on firepower), but the soaring emotions occasioned by the televised broadcasts of airstrikes are often subsequently tempered by an understanding of their inadequacies.

Optimism is so high that Khashoggi, the Saudi commentator, wrote:

Now that Decisive Storm is on, there must be someone observing the situation. What happened is setting a new rule in the science of "resolving crises," and if this succeeds, it will encourage other regional powers to try it somewhere else.

The Syrians called for such an approach once operations began as they felt that there's a clear similarity between their case and the Yemeni case, and they hoped that their illegitimate president and regime were targeted by a storm like that of the Decisive Storm.

Kashoggi goes on to quote President Erdoğan's adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, as saying: "Yes, there are similarities and differences between Syria and Yemen. However the problems, circumstances and rivals are the same. The Saudi operation may repeat there and we must think about that."

The key question is whether the Yemen operation will succeed. But beyond the hype, Saudi Arabia seems far from achieving its goal of restoring former President Hadi to power (his mandate has expired and he has a weak political constituency on the ground). The air campaign has barely impeded Ansar Allah and Saleh's forces from extending their control over most of the country. As so often, air campaigns can serve to consolidate a nation in opposition to an external attacker -- and this seems to be the case in Yemen.

Boots on the ground?

But what next? Invasion by a combined Arab military force? It is clear that the details of such an invasion force were not tied down well in advance of the order to launch an air campaign. It all smacks more of rhetoric than serious preparation and planning. The Houthis and their allies continue to fight for Aden. Saudi Arabia seems taken by surprise -- and is casting around for external volunteers to re-take the port -- but neither the U.S. nor Pakistan appear keen.

The Saudis' reluctance to invade might fade. This will have wide repercussions, if it does. A Saudi failure to becalm Yemen would further disintegrate Sunni authority and identity. It would not be surprising if that were both the Iranian and the American calculation: Let bin Salman go with it, expecting quite plausibly that the desire to resolve regional crises will peter out. Perhaps that is Mohammad bin Naif's calculation, too?

But if the prospect of a Sunni coalition force does prove to be a chimaera, and Yemen a Saudi failure, we shall surely see as a by-product more firing-up of jihadists in Syria and Iraq (the old remedy again).

It is in this context that Nasrallah's speech is most pertinent. He said indirectly that the old rules of the game were finished with Saudi Arabia's attack on Yemen. If Saudi forces (air or land) are deployed across Yemen, then, hypothetically, why shouldn't the Iraqi militia and army -- after taking Tikrit -- move up to Syria's border, and together with the Syrian army attacking from the north, cross into Syria and push ISIS into a military cauldron?

Just a thought.

Saudi Airstrikes Yemen