Washington has welcomed the muscular role Arab militaries are playing in Yemen and Syria, but their greater participation could also create a greater risk of a wider Sunni-Shia conflict across the Middle East.
President Barack Obama has been pressing Sunni Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state allies to do more to address the problems across the region. “Why is it that we can’t have Arabs fighting [against] the terrible human rights abuses that have been perpetrated, or fighting against what [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has done?” Obama asked in an interview Sunday with The New York Times.
Yet more aggressive moves by Arab militaries also have the potential to create unexpected consequences, according to military officials and analysts, as regional leaders plot strategies for a long game against Shiite Iran that may not necessarily track with U.S. objectives. And last week’s conclusion of a preliminary nuclear deal between Iran, the U.S. and other world powers only complicates the situation. The perception of a rapprochement between two longtime archrivals, Washington and Tehran could prompt the Sunni Arab states to further increase their own operations across the regions to make up for an impression they’ll have less support from the U.S. against Iranian mischief.
“For Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies, there is now a greater need to increase support for proxies fighting against Iran’s proxies in Syria and in Iraq, and potentially in Lebanon,” said Firas Abi Ali, a country risk analyst for IHS Janes. “This risks allowing greater access to weapons and funding for militant Sunni groups that have a history of turning jihadist.”
Some wealthy Saudis and other Sunni Muslims across the Middle East already bankroll terror groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Al Qaeda, as well as some resistance groups battling the Assad regime. Plus, the governments of several key states are helping the U.S. in its effort to build a $500 million “new Syrian force,” with training sites set for Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Obama administration is trying to reassure regional governments that the Iran deal framework does not mean Washington will begin to turn a blind eye toward Iran’s use of proxies or other adventurism around the Middle East.
The president has been working the phones. He called Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said on Monday and “reiterated the United States’ commitment to working with Oman and other regional partners to address Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” the White House said. American policymakers have been frustrated for years about what they perceived as a lack of action by the Arab allies, so today they’re pleased at the role Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries are playing. In Yemen, Saudi, Emirati and other air forces are attacking the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels who overthrew Yemen’s government last month, while Egyptian navy warships blockade Yemen’s coast to keep Iran from resupplying the Houthis.
Meanwhile, the air forces of Bahrain, Jordan, the UAE and Saudi Arabia continue to pound ISIL targets in Syria, the Pentagon says. But it is the new crisis in Yemen, sparked last month when a Houthi rebel assault forced the country’s leaders to flee, that is now ground zero for more robust Arab military operations.
The Arab League even said last month that it would establish a unified Arab military force to address new security challenges. Although it could take months to materialize, it was another sign the Middle Eastern militaries plan to maintain their active role. New participants don’t mean old problems get any easier to solve, however.
Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, observed in a recent report that although Riyadh had scored an impressive diplomatic success in assembling the group of nations it’s leading against the Houthis in Yemen — and securing support from the U.S. — no one appears to know what the endgame looks like for the war in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia “should not take its successes in building a regional coalition against the Houthis for granted,” Sharqieh wrote. “Removing a party from power is much easier than rebuilding a state and putting — as the nursery rhyme goes — ‘Humpty Dumpty back together again.’”
Sharqieh cited America’s difficulties in following its military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan with peace and stability. In fact, there’s already evidence that terrorist groups are using the power vacuum in Yemen to their advantage. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula staged a daring prison break last week that freed about 300 prisoners, according to local reports, including a top AQAP commander, Khaled Saeed Batarfi.
Sharqieh’s colleague, Brookings senior fellow Kenneth Pollack, warned when the Saudi-led operations began that “this is one of those situations where the United States needs to restrain its allies for their own good.”
“The long and well-examined history of civil wars offers a clear warning that greater Saudi intervention in Yemen is unlikely to improve the situation and could easily undermine the kingdom’s own security and stability over the medium to longer term,” wrote Pollack, a former CIA analyst. “For Saudi Arabia’s sake and our own, the best thing that we can do is also the hardest: convince them to cash in, rather than double down and bust.”
Washington is also urging the Saudis to take more care with how they and the other Arab air forces operate. Defense Secretary Ash Carter phoned Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman on Monday to emphasize “the importance of limiting civilian casualties when conducting airstrikes and working towards a political solution in Yemen,” the Pentagon said. They also “discussed the importance of continuing to combat AQAP.”
The U.S. military is playing a key role in the Yemen operation, even if American troops aren’t taking part in attacks themselves. Carter has authorized the U.S. Air Force to refuel the allied warplanes. The Pentagon is sending more precision-guided weapons as the militaries exhaust their stockpiles. And American warships have already helped rescue two Saudi pilots who ejected from their Strike Eagle after mechanical problems over the Gulf of Aden.
Just as important, the U.S. is increasing its intelligence support for the Saudi-led campaign because the regional air forces do not have anything like the U.S. military’s ability to do detailed surveillance and targeting. Only the U.S. has the ability to give a comprehensive picture of the battlefield, help point out targets, assess damage and then help direct the follow-on attacks accordingly, said a U.S. defense official, who asked not to be identified.
“They just don’t have that level of sophistication.”