Iran Coalition Out of the Doldrums and Back on Track

Sadly, the Counter-Iran coalition consisting of the United States, Gulf States, excepting Qatar, Egypt, and a number of other countries, seems to be increasing, in disarray, engaging in public arguments and differences over strategy more than in coordinated movements and joint decisive action.

These stark differences in paths and goals do not escape the watchful eye of the adversary, which feeds of any sign of internal weaknesses, uncertainty, or even potential for dispute. For that reason, the coalition should reexamine its commitment to the task and take all necessary measures to correct the course of action, before the blowback makes any progress substantially more difficult. The United States, specifically, rather than having a forward-looking, visionary policy of the Middle East, and working together with everyone who seems to be on board with a peaceful and stable future, seems, rather, retroactively dealing with disconnected bits of pieces, based in part on old failed paradigms.

In Iraq, the United States has held on to the illusion of Baghdad’s independence from and possible defense against Iran until reports of US weapons in the hands of the Iran-backed militias such as Hashd al-Shaab began to emerge. long after Qassem Soleimani, a designated terrorist, started building bases throughout Kirkuk area, and was seen cavorting with said militias. The State Department was silent on the blockade of Kurdish airports, that caused damage to the region’s economy, and the non-payment of salaries for the peshmerga, which has led to massive protests for many months.

Only recently did the administration started asking Baghdad to open the airport in Erbil and pay the Kurdish officials, and even these belated statements are not backed by action of any kind, despite the fact that the Kurds have been consistently aligned with US interests in the region, and that failure to come to their assistance by the Americans is causing them to have to engage in protracted negotiations with Baghdad, at this point, little more than an Iran proxy.

Additional evidence of bad faith is the recent story about an Abrams tank ending up in Hashd hands. As a result, the company reportedly suspended its contract in Iraq. However, this would not be the first time in recent times that advanced US weaponry ended up the hands of Iranian proxies. In 2015, Hizbullah apparently got hold of another Abrams tanks, as well as a variety of other advanced weaponry. Additionally, US supply of Lebanese Air Force controversially has led to Hizbullah acquiring other sophisticated weapons, which it continues to procure to this day.

How these actions measure with the US commitment to reversing Iranian expansionism and the global reach of Hizbullah is yet to be explained by the Pentagon and the State Department. Nor can the US agencies justify their policy of embracing and excusing terrible actions by dubious allies vis-a-vis showing real practical, and measurable support to actual allies who have served us well and would continue to do so. Iraq is just one example of such failed policies; allowing Turkey’s bloodthirsty attacks on Kurds in Afrin is yet another.

In the ten-day reign of terror perpetrated by Erdogan, who is obsessed with the Syrian Kurds (who have at no point threatened Turkey), has killed hundreds of Kurds, including as many as 60 civilians, of whom as many as 26 were children.  Although the Trump administration tried to convince Turkey to stop the outrageous campaign, after first disregarding the likelihood of its making good on its promise, no real pressure was placed on Erdogan to withdraw immediately. Furthermore, Erdogan’s direct threats to take over the rest of Syrian Kurdistan, even at the cost of clashing with US troops was met not with  sanctions, UN resolutions, or rapid deterioration in relations – in other words, any real consequences for trying to pressure the US – but with a mild statement that the US is not going anywhere and will continue to support the SDF.

Meanwhile, to the embarrassment of the administration, a possible (likely, even) Ankara plant of Turkmen origin, General Talal Silo, who was at one point with SDF, has defected back to Turkey and has publicly been revealing the US strategy to be deliberately divisive against the Kurds, and essentially, treating them like expendable assets rather than allies. The US has not really been able to dispute these claims successfully thus far, and nothing of the US actions in Syria for the past months contradicts this assessment.  The greatest damage the US is getting to its image in the Middle East is not from spies, disinformation campaigns, or enemies but from its own feckless policies and inability (and increasingly, willful unwillingness) to distinguish friends from enemies.  Still, it gets worse.

US intransigence in Syria has previously allowed Saudi Arabia and other Arab actors to support an Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat an-Nusra, to back their own agenda. Had the US been more involved and willing to take the time to develop real intelligence on the ground,  having to fall back on dangerous temporary forces with Islamist terrorists would not have been a necessity, or even, for that matter, a real option for the Saudis. US passivity both backs our other allies into the corn and caters to their worst trends and instincts. That is easily avoidable.

Unfortunately, a similar scenario can be observed in Yemen, according to a detailed report by Defense One (“The War in Yemen and the Making of a Chaos State”). US ignored Yemen up until the point when USS Cole was bombed. All that time, Saudi-backed President Saleh was robbing the country blind, including US counterterrorism aid, allowing Al Qaeda to take root in response to his corruption, and turning a blind eye to his own cronies, and regular Yemenites engaged in vigorous arms trade with Iran through Oman, which continues, unabated, to this date. Saleh, after trying to make peace with the Saudis having come out of his semi-retirement, was shot down by the Houthis, who because of the Saudis’ worst nightmare. Initially peaceful, they became radicalized over time, through a variety of factors. The US has kept its role against Houthis extremely limited and has focused on counterterrorism operations against the usual suspects; however, that untied KSA’s hands to work with Al Qaeda (temporarily) against the common enemy: the Houthis.

US own terrible record of working with Iranian militias against ISIS, and previously, with radicalized mujahedeen against the Soviets, should be an obvious example of why such alliances inevitably backfire. And yet, to Saudis, succeeding in Yemen, is not just a matter of pride, but rather an existential necessity, which they may not be willing to admit out loud.  However, at this point, there appears to be no real plan other than to press on. Neither the US nor the Saudis have an inkling as to stabilizing Yemen, nor is anyone addressing the equally concerning the fact of continuous weapons smuggling through Oman. Weapons smuggling that only facilitates Houthis’ advances is only the tip of the iceberg. The real story here is that Oman opens a path for Iranians (and not just Houthis) directly into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has a very big wall along its border with Yemen. But any physical construct can be overcome, particularly if the electronic detection equipment that fills this barrier is disabled. And Saudi cybersecurity is known for its vulnerability even to the relatively mediocre Iranian hackers. Oman is another option.

That Houthis are fighting a war of aggression is not to be doubted. They have fired over 87 missiles in the direction of the Saudi kingdom, including an intercontinental ballistic missile just two hours ago. As with many defense-related things, the Saudis are being cagey about the exact number of missiles fired, and how many were successfully intercepted. And that’s where the problems start.  It would seem to an observer, that it would be in the best interests of the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to make clear to all involved just how grave the security situation is and why US help and involvement should extend far beyond the minimal logistical support it currently provides.

Unfortunately, however, the Saudis are repeating the same mistakes that ended up putting them in a dangerous and constricting alliance with the ultraconservative clergy after the episode of the takeover of their mosque by terrorists in the 1970s. In a region, where the weakness is considered dishonorable, then-king and his advisers decided to cover up the shameful incident, just as they needed help the most, and wasted precious time and human lives, trying to hide their security failure from the world. That backfired in every imaginable way, not only resulting in public humiliation and a desperate call for support from the French, but in the consequent alliance with the clergy which helped cover up the mess, and the disdain from the US administration, which considered them deceptive and disingenuous.  The dilemma in the instance is obvious – and since the Saudis are unlikely to admit to it, I will outline it for them.

Indeed, Houthis are proving a formidable enemy heavily armed by Iran – but admitting any defensive shortcomings or the fact that Houthis are more than just a bunch of thugs that Saudis can take on along with their coalition would mean, to some extent admitting weakness, defeat, and dependence on Western support. After being vociferously criticized for what was widely perceived as a sloppy and ineffectual aerial bombardment campaign against Houthis which resulted in many civilian deaths (and earned the country a tongue-lashing from the United States), Mohammed bin Salman is understandably reluctant to make any such claims.

In essence, however, he is stuck between a rock and a hard place, because conducting aerial campaigns with no ground support, particularly against an asymmetrical enemy backed by a state, is excruciatingly difficult, as is having to deal with the new precision weaponry purchased from the US and as yet deficient in identifying sources of the missiles.  However admitting, the Saudi army’s limitations and lack of experience are just as humiliating, from his perspective. To the Pentagon, such thinking makes no sense. In fact, the cover-up of Saudi deficiencies and unwillingness to admit to failures, make Saudis appear to be untrustworthy, deceptive, and unreliable allies, which make the administration even more skeptical and reluctant to join in the fray, and more likely to criticize the Saudis for joining up with Al Qaeda and causing problems for US counterterrorism efforts.

The US then gets angrier and is more likely to publicly criticize the Saudis, who, in reaction and out of anxiety over appearing weak, are more likely to dig in their heels and go about the same measures anyway, particularly since they cannot count on the US support, and creating greater frictions. All the while, Iran is delighting in these growing divisions, confusion, and lack of planning and exploiting the situation wonderfully. While everyone is dealing with the mess in Yemen, which is in itself a victory even if the Houthis are eventually beaten down, Iran is plotting its path to the crown jewel (literally) in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is an example of the Soviet tactic of controlled chaos aimed at destabilizing weak proxy countries in order to distract and bog down stronger adversaries while planning more serious operations elsewhere. No doubt, Iranian intelligence had some assistance from Russia in this process of causing chaos on the ground and making good use of the opportunity. Meanwhile, the allies are increasingly trying not to lose face and position in front of each other, and appear to be at the impasse.

The diplomatic solution appears nonexistent because there are no experts who would understand the cultural sensitivities of the other side and come up with a mutually satisfactory solution. The US State Department is nearly empty of high ranking officials who would have such knowledge, and the Crown Prince is just beginning his own relationship with the United States, his advisers are also relatively new, which is of a tremendous advantage in modernizing the country and bringing in innovative outlook, less helpful in situations where practical experience is needed to resolve sensitive situations. However, one way to back out of this tight place and towards common ground would be for the US (and particularly the wiser, cooler heads in the Pentagon) to look at the value of having a united front and instead of treating Saudis as irritating, troublesome junior partners who need to be restrained from impulsive and damaging actions, they should think of the situation of maximizing mutual strengths to achieve a common goal.

Public upbraidings and impatience by either side will not serve that purpose, at least not in this context. Instead, the wiser course for the US would be to extend whatever help is needed to prevent a far greater immediate damage, and to utilize a constructive posture that would help Mohammed bin Salman to make the right choices. on his own. Ironically, that would actually also give the United States greater leverage. If the US sees Houthis as part and parcel of deterring Iran from continuing its existential threats, then, it becomes less an annoying “Saudi problem” and more of a mutual problem. Gaining sense of the Saudi perspective would make it natural to provide additional practical support, in exchange for far greater advance coordination of movements, consultations, and Saudi movement away from backing Al Qaeda, funding Salafi mosques (probably a direct result of having to deal with Al Qaeda and extremely conservative Sunni elements in Yemen), and working together to pursue a decisive yet liberalizing line of action.

It is true that most recently, the Trump administration claimed that it is not her strategy to reverse Iran’s movements in Syria, its land corridor and so forth, but rather to utilize it’s 30, 000 alliance force to contain Iran. Such position is as unwise, as it is enabling of evil. Practically speaking, containment has not worked with the Soviet Union and is unlikely to work with a country bent on world domination, in essence. 30, 000 troops will not stop the influx of Iranian proxies and trained operatives, not with all the other threats and distractions, including remnants of ISIS, Russians, Turkish incursions, and other groups.  And giving in to Iran’s essential takeover of sovereign lands and endangering the region is not containment, it is appeasement, which can only embolden the enemy. Yemen is another place where Iran cannot be appeased. As to the Saudis, they have cited the following goals in Yemen previously:

The protection of Yemen from a takeover by Houthi militias and their allies. The security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries, especially from ballistic missiles and heavy weapons captured by the Houthi militias and their allies. The neutralization of most of the military capabilities of the Houthi militias and their allies that represented a threat to Yemen and neighboring countries. The prevention of the flow of weapons from outside of Yemen into the country. The protection of the legitimate government and its ability to conduct its affairs.

If these goals are still accurate, much has changed on the ground. Saudis should have a bolder policy for the future, and embrace a vision of Yemen that goes beyond tolerating Saudi-backed fiefdoms. Then, when a cohesive vision of a prosperous and peaceful Yemen emerges, the right course of action will be much easier to take than the limited, defensive, and somewhat reactionary, and by definition, the fearful course of action emerging as a natural response to the above-stated items. Some of the issues the Saudis should consider for the future include:

Identifying, cultivating, and eventually supporting a legitimate government that will be kept in check from the unbridled corruption which has led to the current situation
Blockading weapons transfer to Yemen at their source, not merely trying to catch them at the borders.

Recognizing that smuggling routes via Oman are as dangerous as the ballistic missiles, and cutting down on both the supply and demand aspects.

Humanitarian aid and direct development of Yemen is a direct antidote to terrorists of all stripes and interventionism of other States. Saudis have already devoted $2.5 billion dollars in aid, which they recently announced, which is a very welcome step and should be recognized and praised by the United States. However, that is just a start, because distributing the aid in a practical and efficient manner is actually the other half of the battle. Additionally, the Saudis should be looking at Yemen as a tremendous potential for investment and growth rather than just another stack of rocks separating them from Iran. Such an attitude will assure greater care in future operations, and a much more invested and creative attitude in tackling the current problems. Furthermore, kindness and direct, personal outreach to local tribes, will go a long way towards moving away from Al Qaeda that on occasion provides the desperate population with humanitarian needs – and also away from the vicious Houthis.

The ideological element is as important as effective defense. If the Saudis choose to have an assertive, affirmative policy in Yemen rather than a defensive one, they will liberate themselves from the mental dependency on hardline groups that demand support for the familiar Wahhabi ideology.  If the Crown Prince wants to be credible with respect to his promises of more moderate Islam, he should back his word with action on ideological, not just counterterrorism level, and fund that liberal Islam in Yemen, perhaps with a gradual shift away from the current Salafi social center he is building (if he is honest about his intention, perhaps initially this center could be used for intelligence gathering, but in the future should definitely move away from Wahhabism, which will only breed the Al Qaeda types, instability, and eventually lead to greater threats to the monarchy anyway). It is in his best interests to not only reform the extremely conservative mindset that is creating difficulties with moving to modernize as quickly as he perhaps would like to inside Saudi Arabia but costs him in credibility and support in the West.

As a benefactor of a modern, stable, and secure Yemen, he would not only be greeted as a leader by the Middle East, as opposed to Iran’s colonialist cruelty, but would win many friends even among his greatest skeptics in the US and elsewhere – and ensure a much better future for the Middle East.

It will take the United States and the Saudi-led coalition effort on both accounts to strengthen the floundering and uncertain relationship, but it is well worth the effort, not only for the sake of being more effective against the mutual enemy they see in Iran but for the sake of strengthening and growing a real partnership in a far more vibrant and promising future that lies beyond that challenge. With some patience,  coordination, and understanding, I have no doubt, that these obstacles will soon be left behind, and the relationship will bloom like a cactus in the dessert (takes many years, but is always a surprising delight when it happens).

By Irina Tsukerman