President Obama invited the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to a meeting at Camp David on Thursday to clear the air as the President looks to finalize his nuclear deal with Iran. But on Sunday, Saudi King Salman said he was not attending, and soon after the Bahraini monarch followed. The only Gulf leaders in attendance will be the Emirs of Qatar and Kuwait. Since leaders do not just have other things to do when they are scheduled for a private meeting with the President of the United States, this can be taken as a pointed snub to President Obama, and no amount of administration spin about Salman’s absence having nothing to do with political substance will change that.
The New York Times reported that the Gulf States, alarmed by Iran’s imperial expansion in the region, had asked Obama for a treaty, which would legally bind the President to defending them if they came under external attack. Obama refused and offered them an Executive understanding. Understandably the Arabs were nonplussed: Soon after taking office, Obama revoked the 2004 understanding President Bush had reached with the Israeli government via an exchange of letters. Obama’s word would be no more binding on his successors than Bush’s was on Obama, even Obama’s word bound him—which the Arabs doubt.
Next there was the promise on May 8 by Secretary of State John Kerry that the United States was “fleshing out a series of new commitments that will create between the U.S. and GCC a new security understanding, a new set of security initiatives that will take us beyond anything that we have had before.” This had included the sale of additional weaponry, but this ran into the problem of the U.S. commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, which includes a ban on certain types of weapons being given to the Arab States.
Then there is Obama’s statement, in his interview with Thomas Friedman, that the greatest threat to the Gulf States is not Iran but dissatisfaction among their internal populations. The Gulfies are furious about this, quite rightly interpreting it as a threat: they have just watched Obama try to topple Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, after Netanyahu made public his disagreements with Obama over Iran. The Arabs rulers’ reaction is best summarized as: “If Obama would do that to Israel, what would he do to us?” Legitimacy for the Gulf regimes is a major problem—for very good reasons—at the best of times; to see it threatened by the American President if they make too much fuss about his Iran policy is obviously not received well.
The sense that Obama is looking to make a partner of Iran at the expense of America’s traditional allies is heightened still further when Obama so publicly remarks on the Arabs’ internal arrangements, but stays silent about the repression of Kurdish demonstrators and the mass-executions (96 in just over a fortnight in April!) in Iran. And this is to say nothing about the barbarism Iran is inflicting on Syria, where the individual episodes of horror no longer seem to require Executive statements. An Obama administration official once said that the “core” reason the President stayed largely silent as Iran suppressed the 2009 Uprising was that “we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.”
Seeing this, the Saudi King therefore decided to publicly embarrass the President as part of a campaign to resist America’s Iran policy.
Obama is trying to leverage his nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran into a broader rapprochement that deputizes Tehran to secure certain American interests—specifically in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria—and leaves an “equilibrium” in the Middle East that allows the region to sort itself out so America can significantly scale down her involvement. Obama, after all, was elected to “end” wars—to remove the American troops, anyway.
The Arabs understand, however, as Michael Doran recently noted, that this policy “will deliver disequilibrium” because Iran has the asymmetric structures like the Quds Force to project power that the Gulfies do not. Despite the best hopes of the Obama administration, Iran will not submit itself to the American-underwritten regional security architecture. Iran will not be satisfied with a “balance” because Iran is a revolutionary regime bent on hegemony: there will always be another cause or pretext for Iran to make trouble in its neighbours. “This is a regional struggle,” says Phillip Smyth, the foremost expert on Iran’s proxy Shi’ite militias, one of the primary instruments by which Iran projects power in the region. “Ignoring [Iran’s bid for hegemony] will not make it go away. Allying with it will certainly not make it go away”.
In Syria, the official American policy is regime-change. But Obama’s actual policy has been to give Bashar al-Assad a security guarantee, with a “red line” is anything that would weaken his regime. Assad and Iran, which has largely seized control of the Syrian State, orchestrated a campaign, through the media and on the ground, to make Sunni extremists the face of the insurgency, intending to frighten the minorities into rallying around the regime and ward off international help to the opposition. It worked. U.S. airstrikes in Syria only hit ISIS—allowing the regime to destroy the moderates and further its narrative. And the Syrian rebel army the U.S. is training is only allowed to target ISIS, and Obama is undecided about what he will do when Assad attacks this force.
Further, Iran has been allowed to orchestrate a multinational Shi’ite jihad, sending tens of thousands of Shi’a fighters, many of them with American blood on their hands like Hizballah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, into Syria to save Assad. These militiamen are convinced that ISIS is a U.S.-Israeli plot to destroy the Shi’a, and with Iran’s record, when one of these Shi’a jihadists tries to attack ISIS’ “supporters” at source, Iran will help them. This has encountered no U.S. resistance. When the Arabs get the idea the U.S. has sided with the Assad/Iran regime in Syria, they’re not pulling it out of thin air.
In Iraq, the U.S. siding with Iran is blatant: American air power has been deployed in support of proxies of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, despite horrific sectarian atrocities, from Amerli and Tikrit.
The Gulf pushback against this U.S. policy of enabling an Iranian Empire began in Yemen, where Iran overthrew the Saudi-aligned government. With an hour’s notice to the U.S., a Saudi-led coalition intervened with airstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthis. There have been significant civilian casualties from the bombing and the coalition does not have a force on the ground, which means Operation DECISIVE STORM is not going as well as it might militarily—though Riyadh, which has mended relations with Turkey and Qatar, is reaching out to the Ikhwani Islah Party and is making preparations to create a ground force in Yemen. Politically, however, the Saudis’ Yemeni operation is going better than might have been expected.
Saad al-Hariri explained that many young Sunnis “felt something like … euphori[a]” with the onset of the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen: at last the Sunni governments were doing something to stop Iran’s march across the region. This feeling was buttressed by the significant insurgent gains against the Assad regime, notably the fall of Idlib City, the Saudi-Turkey-Qatar reconciliation has enabled. The combination of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the insurgent gains in Syria has stolen ISIS’ thunder. Many Sunnis had looked to ISIS as a political project, the protector of the Sunnis against a rapidly-expanding and viciously sectarian Persian theocracy; now there are other options in resisting Iran.
The problem is that the main insurgent umbrella group advancing in northern Syria is Jaysh al-Fatah, which includes Jabhat an-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. The Saudi-Turkish-Qatari reconciliation led to the Saudis lifting their restrictions on Turkey and Qatar supplying insurgent groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and some other even less salubrious characters.
This is the harvest of Obama’s Syria policy: Where previously the Saudis had been triangulated into supporting the moderates by a desire to oppose Assad/Iran and Qatar, now the Saudis have thrown caution to the wind and turned to all useful assets in the face of what they perceive as an existential Iranian threat.
The Gulf States have also taken matters into their own hands in Libya.
Obama’s pro-Iran tilt does not help defeat ISIS because ISIS is symbiotic with the expansion of Iranian power: the more threatened Sunnis feel by Iran, the more of them will turn to ISIS for protection. The U.S. “insistence” on supplying weapons to anti-ISIS forces in Iraq only through Baghdad gives Iran a veto over supplies to the Kurds and most importantly the Sunni Arabs, whose rebellion—of which ISIS is now the vanguard—came about in no small part in the first place because of Iran’s increased power in Baghdad.
The tribes, in eastern Syria and western Iraq, remain woefully underused in the anti-ISIS campaign, and the help to the (largely Sunni) rebellion in Syria likewise remains minimal, yet it is these forces that are needed to defeat ISIS. The anti-ISIS offensive by the Syrian rebels has led to ISIS’ most lasting strategic losses. If a contingent of U.S. ground forces, especially Special Forces, were added to a no-fly zone over northern Syria that stopped the barrel bombs and chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, it would give assurances to Sunni forces that they have reliable anti-Assad/Iran allies other than ISIS and that, unlike the Shaitat or Albu Nimr, they are not going to be left alone to be massacred with their families if they revolt against ISIS.
With Obama about to legitimize Iran as a threshold nuclear-weapons State, Saudi Arabia has signalled its willingness to call in the nuclear bomb it has “on order” from Pakistan. Egypt and Turkey would almost certainly follow, and if Turkey has a nuclear bomb it is anybody’s guess how the Balkan States would react.
In short, if Obama intends to defeat ISIS, keep Iran from a nuclear weapon, and contain regional proliferation, then his policies have to be judged a catastrophic failure—on present trajectory achieving the exact opposite in all cases.