What Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen and Iran’s Regional Strategy Are Really About

The World Financial Review has published our latest piece, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Offensive, Iran’s ‘Proxy’ Strategy, and the Middle East’s New ‘Cold War.’”  To read the article, click here; we’ve also appended the text (with links) below:

 Saudi Arabia’s Yemen Offensive, Iran’s ‘Proxy’ Strategy, and the

Middle East’s New ‘Cold War’      

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

 Riyadh’s war in Yemen marks a dramatic escalation in its efforts to roll back Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East.  Saudi Arabia portrays its Yemen campaign simply as a battle of “good” Arabs and Sunnis supporting Yemen’s legitimate government against “evil” Iranians trying to overthrow it via local Shi’a “proxies”—reiterating a generalized Saudi (and Israeli) narrative about Iran’s use of proxy allies to consolidate regional “hegemony.”  More considered analysis shows that Iran’s “proxy” ties are part of an effective strategy to expand political participation in contested regional venues.  While Saudi Arabia (like Israel) considers this a mortal threat, it is essential to effective conflict resolution.  Riyadh’s intensely sectarian response—including its Yemen war—now fuels what some call a new Saudi-Iranian/Sunni’- Shi’a “Cold War” in the Middle East.

Riyadh’s increasingly destructive war in Yemen has sparked overripe discussion in Western capitals about Iran’s use of “proxies” to subvert otherwise “legitimate” Middle Eastern governments.  Driving such discussion is a self-serving narrative, promoted by Israel as well as by Saudi Arabia, about Tehran’s purported quest to “destabilize” and, ultimately, “take over” the region.

Assessments of this sort have, of course, been invoked to justify—and elicit Western support for—Saudi intervention in Yemen.  More broadly, the Israeli-Saudi narrative about Iranian ambitions is framed to prevent the United States from concluding a nuclear deal with Tehran—or, failing that, to keep Washington from using a deal as a springboard for comprehensively realigning U.S.-Iranian relations.

Determination to forestall Iran’s international normalization by hyping its “hegemonic” regional agenda was on lurid display in Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s much-watched March 3, 2015 address to the U.S. Congress.  As Netanyahu warned his audience,

“Backed by Iran, Shiite militias are rampaging through Iraq.  Backed by Iran, Houthis are seizing Yemen, threatening the strategic straits at the mouth of the Red Sea…Iran is busy gobbling up the Middle East.”

Two days after Netanyahu spoke in Washington, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal offered Riyadh’s version of this narrative, stressing Iran’s “interference in affairs of Arab countries.”  With U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry beside him, Saud recapitulated a reading of Tehran’s regional strategy regularly expounded by Saudi elites:

“We are, of course, worried about atomic energy and atomic bombs.  But we’re equally concerned about nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region.  These elements are the elements of instability in the region.  We see Iran involved in Syria and Lebanon and Yemen and Iraq…Iran is taking over [Iraq]… It promotes terrorism and occupies lands.  These are not the features of countries which want peace and seek to improve relations with neighboring countries.”

Given all that is at stake in the Middle East, it is important to look soberly at claims by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their surrogates about Iran “gobbling up” the region.  Sober evaluation starts by thinking through, in a fact-based way, how Iranian strategy—including its “proxy” component—actually works.  It also entails dispassionate examination of what really concerns Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states about Iran’s regional role.

Playing Defense

Since the 1979 revolution that ended monarchical rule in Iran and created the Islamic Republic, Iranian strategy has been fundamentally defensive.  Unlike other Middle Eastern powers—or the United States, for that matter—the Islamic Republic has never attacked another state or even threatened to do so.

The revolutionaries who ousted the last shah promised to restore Iran’s real sovereignty after a century and a half of rule by puppet regimes beholden to external powers.  From the Islamic Republic’s founding, its leaders have viewed the United States—the world’s superpower, whose ambitions to consolidate a highly militarized, pro-American political and security order in the Middle East condition it to oppose independent power centers there—as the biggest threat to fulfilling this revolutionary commitment.  After the United States, Iranian policymakers have seen Israel—a U.S. ally with aspirations to military dominance in its neighborhood—as a serious threat to the Islamic Republic’s security and strategic position.  Tehran has also been deeply concerned about Saudi Arabia leveraging its ties to Washington to advance its intensely anti-Iranian agenda—including the arming and funding of violently anti-Shi’a groups like al-Qa’ida and the Taliban.

The Islamic Republic’s leaders have designed its foreign policy and national security strategy to preserve Iran’s territorial and political integrity in the face of these threats.  The aim is not to establish Iran’s regional hegemony; it is to prevent any other regional or extra-regional power from attaining hegemony over Iran’s strategic environment.  Even the U.S. Defense Department acknowledges the defensive character of Iranian strategy; as a recent Pentagon report puts it, “Iran’s military doctrine is defensive.  It is designed to deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor, and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities while avoiding any concessions that challenge its core interests.”

Leaving aside intentions, there is the more objective matter of the Islamic Republic’s capabilities to perpetrate aggression in its regional neighborhood.  Simply put, Iran today has effectively no capacity to project significant conventional military power beyond its borders.

To be sure, the revolutionaries who took power in 1979 inherited the last shah’s U.S.-built military.  But Washington cut off logistical and technical support shortly after the revolution—a debilitating measure exacerbated by an embargo on military transfers from most other countries as the fledgling Islamic Republic fought off, from 1980 to 1988, a (U.S.-and Saudi-backed) war of aggression by Saddam Husayn’s Iraq.  After the war, Iran shifted resources from the military into reconstruction and development, reducing its conventional military capabilities to marginal levels.  Today, the United States spends almost seventy times more on its military than Iran does.  Saudi Arabia, with one-quarter Iran’s population, spends over five times as much; the GCC collectively spends eight times as much.

Cultivating “Proxies”

Given these realities, assertions that the Islamic Republic poses an offensive threat to its neighbors are baseless; to borrow a phrase from the U.S. Army, Iran won’t be parking its tanks in anybody’s front yard anytime soon.  To protect Iran’s territorial and political integrity, the Islamic Republic has developed increasingly robust capabilities for asymmetric defense and deterrence that it can credibly threaten to use in response to aggression against it.  Among these capabilities are ballistic missiles armed with conventional explosives and a range of interrelated systems—anti-ship missiles, submarines, mine-laying systems, and large numbers of small “fast attack” boats—to disrupt Persian Gulf shipping, including both U.S. warships and vessels transporting oil.

Even with such capabilities, threats to the Islamic Republic’s security and independence are magnified by what military planners call “lack of strategic depth.”  Iran today has land, maritime, and littoral borders with fifteen states.  None is a natural ally; most have been hostile to the idea of an Islamic republic in Iran.  Many of the Islamic Republic’s neighbors and other states in its regional environment are also susceptible to co-optation as anti-Iranian platforms by America, Israel, and/or Saudi Arabia.  To compensate, Tehran has cultivated ties to sympathetic constituencies in other states open to cooperation with the Islamic Republic.

The Islamic Republic has made a point of aligning with constituencies systematically marginalized by their countries’ existing power structures:  Shi’a majorities in Iraq and Bahrain; Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality; Shi’a and anti-Taliban Sunnis in Afghanistan; Zaidis in Yemen; Iraqi Kurds; occupied Palestinians.  By helping such communities organize to press their grievances more effectively, Tehran creates options for influencing on-the-ground developments in contested venues across the Islamic Republic’s strategic environment.

For more than three decades, Tehran’s proxy partnerships have helped it push back against hostile initiatives—e.g., U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, Saudi-backed expansion of Taliban control in Afghanistan, Saddam’s antagonism toward the Islamic Republic, U.S. occupation of Iraq—that threatened Iran’s strategic position.  They have also enabled Tehran to reduce the chances that nearby states—Lebanon, Afghanistan, post-Saddam Iraq, Bahrain (where America’s Fifth Fleet is based)—will again be used as platforms to attack the Islamic Republic or otherwise undermine its security and independence.

Over time, these payoffs from the proxy component of the Islamic Republic’s regional strategy are amplified by Iranian allies’ political gains.  Given the chance, Iran’s partners have repeatedly shown themselves capable of winning elections in their local settings, and winning them for the right reasons:  because they represent unavoidable constituencies with legitimate grievances.  Tehran doesn’t manufacture its partners by paying people as mercenaries.  It didn’t create Iraq’s Shi’a majority, or Bahrain’s; it didn’t create Lebanon’s Shi’a plurality, occupied Palestinians, or the Zaidis in Yemen.  But Iranian support for these communities means that any expansion in political participation in their countries empowers Tehran’s allies.

Stoking a New Middle Eastern “Cold War”

It is this aspect of Iranian strategy that most alarms Saudi Arabia, some other GCC states, and Israel.  Today, neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel truly represents most of those it governs.  Neither can endorse more participatory politics in the region; neither can endorse proliferation of regional states genuinely committed to foreign policy independence.  This also means that neither can exercise positive political influence to facilitate conflict resolution in contested regional arenas; on their own, Israel and Saudi Arabia can only make things worse.

This is why, when U.S. forces invaded Iraq and overthrew Saddam in 2003, Saudi Arabia played a critical role in funding and organizing Sunni insurgents there, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to forestall a more representative political order which Iraq’s Shi’a majority would inevitably dominate.  This is also why Riyadh viewed the outbreak of the Arab Awakening in late 2010—which Tehran welcomed—as a mortal threat.  The Saudi response has been:

–to undermine Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, prepared to compete for power in elections;

–to build up violent jihadi groups, including groups that have aligned with al-Qa’ida and coalesced into the Islamic State, as alternatives to the Brotherhood; and

–to co-opt popular demands for reform by coercively intervening—including through jihadi proxies—in Libya, Syria, and now Yemen, with disastrous humanitarian and political consequences.

As it has done these things, Riyadh has reframed political struggles around the region in starkly sectarian, anti-Iranian/anti-Shi’a terms.  This is especially striking vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict.  Saudi intervention in Syria ensured that jihadis — many non-Syrian—dominate opposition ranks, killing any potential Brotherhood role in leading anti-Assad forces.  It also turned what began as indigenous protests over particular grievances into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against a UN member state’s recognized government—but with a popular base too small either to bring down that government or to negotiate a settlement with it.

In the process, Saudi Arabia has exploited Tehran’s support for Syria’s government to swing the balance of opinion in Sunni publics—which had increasingly seen the Islamic Republic as championing more participatory politics and resistance to U.S. and Israeli hegemony—against Iran.  The turn in Sunni attitudes gives Riyadh political cover to double down on supporting violent jihadis—as with Saudi backing for a new “Conflict Army,” organized around the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra, that recently captured a major Syrian city.

Deconstructing the Yemen War

These dynamics are fueling a new Saudi-Iranian/Sunni-Shi’a “Cold War” in the Middle East; Saudi military action has made Yemen an important battleground in this wider contest.  In Yemen, Tehran has followed its established strategic template of helping an unavoidable constituency with legitimate grievances—the Houthis and Ansar Allah, based in the country’s non-Sunni Zaidi community—organize to press for a meaningful share of power.  And the roots of Riyadh’s current campaign against the Houthis go back to the Arab Awakening’s early days.

Following the ouster of Tunisian’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, peaceful mass protests calling for the removal of Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh broke out in Sana’a and other Yemeni cities.  Ansar Allah—which had been prosecuting a relatively successful revolt in north Yemen against Saleh’s rule before agreeing to a ceasefire in 2010—endorsed the demonstrations; it also joined other anti-Saleh groups in a so-called National Dialogue, set up to lay the foundations for a more representative and regionally federalized political order.

As pressure for change mounted, Saudi Arabia—determined to perpetuate the Zaidis’ marginalization—set out to thwart Yemenis’ manifest desire to replace Saleh’s autocracy with more representative and participatory political structures.  In particular, Riyadh worked to block implementation of the National Dialogue agenda by engineering Saleh’s replacement by his then-vice president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi.  To this end, the Saudis upped financial support to intensely sectarian Sunni salafi groups while undercutting the more moderate, Muslim Brotherhood-related Islah party—including by designating Islah as a terrorist group.  These steps ensured that no Sunni party was empowered to work with Ansar Allah and the Houthis to stand up a new, more representative political order; in the end, Hadi was the only candidate on the ballot for Yemen’s February 2012 presidential election.  Riyadh also worked to exclude Iran from the group of regional states ostensibly set up to help Yemen chart its political future.

Faced with these provocations, Ansar Allah and the Houthis renewed their military campaign against the central government in late 2011; their military gains accelerated over the next two and a half years.  Hadi’s provisional term expired in 2014, two years after his February 2012 election.  By that point, support for Hadi had crumbled—in no small part because of popular perceptions that he was a U.S. puppet collaborating with America’s ongoing “counter-terrorism” campaign in Yemen, including high-profile drone strikes killing large numbers of civilians.  In early 2015, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia.  Left with no political options for imposing its preferences on Yemen, Riyadh launched military operations in March 2015, appealing not only to its Western backers for support but also to Sunni publics to back its leadership of a millennial holy war against infidel Shi’a.

Defusing Crises

Ansar Allah says it wants to realize the vision of the National Dialogue, but lacks sufficient support across Yemen to do this on its own.  Tehran, for its part, has long recognized that there ultimately has to be a political solution in Yemen, based on a negotiated settlement among the country’s disparate regional, tribal, and sectarian elements.  Since the start of the Saudi military campaign, the Islamic Republic has stressed the need for a negotiated resolution to the conflict—just as it has consistently held that a political settlement is the only way to end the conflict in Syria.  It is Riyadh that rejects negotiation—regarding Yemen or Syria—unless it can, in effect, dictate outcomes in advance.  In Yemen, as in Syria, Saudi actions are now enabling al-Qa’ida to make territorial gains.

Looking ahead, creating a genuinely more stable Middle East will require wider recognition of how dangerous the Saudi-stoked “Cold War” really is, and how much more damage it could do to an already severely stressed region.  It will also require deeper appreciation of Iran’s regional importance, and of the indispensability of its influence to putting the Middle East on a more positive long-term trajectory.

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Hillary Mann Leverett to Argue that “The West Should Get Out of Bed with the House of Saud” in Upcoming BBC/Intelligence Squared Debate

On Thursday, May 28, at 6:45 in Cadogan Hall, London, Hillary will take part in an Intelligence Squared debate, “The West Should Get Out of Bed with the House of Saud”; the debate will subsequently be broadcast by BBC and posted as a podcast.  Hillary and Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy will argue for the motion; arguing against will be Jamie Rubin, former spokesman for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during President Clinton’s second term, and Sir Alan Duncan, a Conservative MP and former Minister of State for International Development.  Readers in London can click on the link above for tickets.

Also, Hillary appeared last week on Press TV’s The Debate to discuss the ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1, see here.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett  

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Obama Panders to GCC States Over a Prospective Nuclear Deal with Iran: Leverett and Marandi on CCTV’s The Heat

Hillary assessed the Obama administration’s exceptionally maladroit handling of President Obama’s “summit” with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC leader) at Camp David on CCTV’s The Heat last week, see here.  She noted that, while ostensibly called to “reassure” GCC elites, Obama’s gathering at Camp David failed utterly to address the concerns that some Gulf Arab rulers actually have:

“Although there is some language that the U.S. would potentially use force to protect our Gulf allies, it’s very carefully caveated, with this language:  that we would be prepared—prepared, not that we would, but we would be prepared—to potentially use force if their territorial integrity, according to the UN Charter, is threatened.  That means, first and foremost, a very loud signal to them that if there’s an uprising in your country and they want to change the government, the United States is not coming.  That’s a very pointed message.  We have the example of Bahrain, where there’s been a lot of unrest.  If the people of Bahrain decided to rise up and change the government, the United States isn’t going to be there.

This is just about this speculative concern that maybe Iran, somehow, would invade these [GCC] countries and we would protect them.  But that’s not their fear; their fear is from their internal populations.  They call these segments of their populations—which, in some case, have been restive; they’ve often been marginalized, especially among the Shi’a communities—the Gulf States have taken to calling them ‘foreign, Iranian-backed elements.’  But they are part of their populations; these are their domestic constituencies…

Their [GCC] concerns are [also] about rising Iranian power in the region.  I have never met an official or an analyst from a Gulf state—or from here, in the U.S. government in Washington—that thinks Iran is going to send its military into any one of these countries.  The Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded another country, and has never even threatened to do so.

Their [GCC] concern is not that a nuclear-armed Iran is going to use nuclear weapons to annihilate them.  Their concern is that, the more money Iran could amass coming out from under sanctions, the more it will have economic power, and it will translate that into military power, which it could use to support—either militarily or just philosophically—these domestic constituencies in the Gulf states, to rise up against their governments or to constrain their governments from attacking Iran.  That’s their concern; it’s not about Iran acquiring some mythical nuclear weapon.”

Hillary explained that the refusal of the kings of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to “even show up” at the meeting with President Obama was a particularly significant development:

“It was a very deliberate message, signal to the United States that Saudi Arabia may be going its own way.  Even more important, in some ways, than the Saudi king not coming—he said it was ostensibly because of developments in Yemen—was the probable Saudi instruction to the King of Bahrain, this small state where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based, that the King of Bahrain not come here and instead go to London for a horse show with the Queen of England.  There could not be any greater insult…What it signifies is a profound shift, by the Saudis, away from the United States, and potentially for them even to deploy some of the elements of their power against the United States, in a way we’ve seen some precursors of before, but we’ve not really seen full force.”

Hillary goes on to elaborate some of the ways in which Saudi Arabia can deploy some of the elements of its power against the United States.

Of course, if the Obama administration really wanted to use a prospective nuclear deal with Iran to recast America’s Middle East strategy in more positive ways—including by recalibrating U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia—then GCC leaders’ unhappiness with the Camp David summit wouldn’t matter that much.  But the administration isn’t seeking to use an Iran nuclear agreement as the springboard for a comprehensive revision of America’s Middle East strategy.  In this regard, preemptively circumscribing the potential diplomatic impact of an Iran nuclear deal is the Obama administration’s most consequential—and foolish—way of pandering to GCC (and Israeli) concerns about nuclear diplomacy with Tehran.

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes made this clear on the day GCC representatives met Obama at Camp David.  Speaking about a prospective nuclear deal with Iran, Rhodes presented the administration’s perspective in stark terms:

“It’s a transaction on the nuclear issue.  This is not a broader rapprochement between the United States and Iran on a range of issues; it is a very specific agreement that will deal with the Iranian nuclear program…We’ll still be just as concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities, support for terrorism and proxies across the region.”

The episode of CCTV’s The Heat on which Hillary appeared also includes an important and in-depth discussion with our colleague, Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran’s Faculty of World Studies, see here and (for YouTube) here.


 

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Obama’s GCC “Summit” and the Deepening Incoherence of America’s Middle East Strategy

The Wire, a new and extremely promising Indian media venture edited by our colleague Siddharth Varadarajan (former editor of The Hindu), has just published our latest article, “Strategic Confusion and Obama’s Hapless Persian Gulf Diplomacy,” see here; we’ve also appended the text below.

Strategic Confusion and Obama’s Hapless Persian Gulf Diplomacy

Defying escalating rhetoric that Iran is “gobbling up the Middle East,” President Obama told the New York Times recently that “the biggest threat” to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states may not come from Iran, but “from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”  Yet, displaying how deeply mired in Washington hype his administration remains, Obama has called on GCC leaders to parade with him at Camp David this week as if Iran is their biggest threat.

Saudi King Salman has refused to join in this spectacle, underscoring that, in foreign policy, friendship and interest should not be conflated.  Obama, by contrast, studiously overlooks this reality that, today, U.S. and Saudi interests on a number of key issues not only diverge, but conflict.  By refusing to deal with GCC states on the basis of interest, rather than friendship, Obama actually helps some of them continue pursuing policies deeply damaging to U.S. interests.

However much GCC elites evoke specters of Iranian “aggressiveness”—framed either in essentialist caricatures of “Persian expansionism” or depictions of the Islamic Republic’s allegedly radical Shi’a sectarianism—Iran is not the source of their insecurity.  In reality, GCC leaders have felt existentially threatened since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq upended a regional order based on Sunni Arab autocracies linked, in various ways, to Washington.

Saudis and the IS

With U.S. encouragement, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states had supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein financially in the 1980s, as he pursued aggressive war (including extensive chemical weapons use) against Iran.  While Saddam eventually threatened GCC states, his overthrow in 2003 created major challenges for some of them, especially Saudi Arabia.  Riyadh could not endorse a more representative post-Saddam Iraqi polity that would, by definition, empower Shi’a, make Sunnis a permanent minority, and boost Iran’s influence.  So, the Saudis urged militant Sunni jihadis—of a sort they had long supported, some of whom had created and remained involved with al-Qa’idato go to Iraq and help Sunni tribal militias and remnants of Saddam’s army destabilize the new Iraqi state, including by attacking U.S. occupation forces.

This trifecta of former members of Saddam’s military, Iraqi Sunni fighters, and foreign jihadis would eventually give rise to the political/military/religious phenomenon now known as the Islamic State.  In the meantime, GCC anxiety over the erosion of a regional order based on pro-U.S. Sunni autocracies grew more acute as, from 2011, demands mounted in overwhelmingly Sunni Arab societies for expanded political participation and protection from—not collusion with—a U.S. “war on terror” that has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims.  In this context, the “threat” to the GCC from today’s Iran is not that it is “Persian” or Shi’a, but that it is simultaneously Islamic and republican—that it seeks to integrate principles and institutions of Islamic governance with participatory politics and elections while maintaining a strong commitment to foreign policy independence.

Paving the way for jihadis

GCC leaders are relatively unconcerned about reform calls from secular liberals, judging (rightly) that this agenda elicits limited support in Arab societies.  But they worry deeply about Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, willing to compete for power in elections.  For GCC rulers, these groups are profoundly threatening, for if Muslim-majority Arab publics can elect Islamic governments, the historically most potent argument for monarchy in Arabia—that it is essential to propagating true Islam—goes out the window.  To forestall this, Riyadh and its partners have declared the Brothers “terrorists” in GCC jurisdictions, and have worked to quash them around the region—as with Saudi and Emirati backing for the July 2013 coup against Egypt’s elected Brotherhood government.

By undermining the Brothers as a vehicle for expanding Sunni political engagement, Saudi Arabia and its allies leave jihadi groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State as the only options for Sunni Arabs dissatisfied with the status quo.  They make things worse by building up violent jihadis as alternatives to the Brothers—in Libya, Syria, and, now, Yemen—with Washington’s collaboration, and with disastrous humanitarian and political consequences.

What has unfolded in Libya since 2011—the state’s destruction, civil war, a U.S. ambassador’s murder, and incubation of a major jihadi hub that had not existed before—is hardly due to Iranian perfidy.  It is the result of a military campaign, led by America and Saudi Arabia, to bring down the Qadhafi government—and, in the process, show that it wasn’t only pro-Western autocrats who were vulnerable to overthrow.  Many of this campaign’s devastating effects flow from Riyadh’s use of the Libya war to revive jihadi cadres worn down by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq—cadres the Saudis then deployed in Syria.

Saudi intervention ensured that jihadis—many non-Syrian—would dominate Syrian opposition ranks, undercutting any potential role for the Brotherhood in leading anti-Assad forces.  It also turned what began in Syria as indigenously generated protests over particular grievances into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against the recognized government of a UN member state—but with a popular base too small either to bring down that government or to negotiate a settlement with it.  It is Saudi policy—not Iran’s support for Syria’s government against an externally-fueled insurgency that, as Syrian oppositionists themselves admitcouldn’t defeat him at the ballot box—that is responsible for Syria’s agony.

Cost of reckless strategy

The most glaringly negative consequence of Riyadh’s posture toward both post-Saddam Iraq and the Arab Awakening has been the Islamic State’s explosive ascendance, marked by impressive territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria.  The Islamic State’s proclamation of a religiously legitimate caliphate represents a much bigger problem for Saudi Arabia than for the United States.  Yet, while Riyadh has ostensibly joined Washington’s anti-Islamic State “coalition,” it is doubling down on its jihadi proxy strategy.  After using the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra to destroy non-jihadi opposition forces in Syria, Riyadh has persuaded Qatar and Turkey—previously the Syrian Brotherhood’s biggest backers— to help it promote a new, Jabhat an-Nusra-led jihadi alliance that recently captured a major Syrian city.  In Yemen, Saudi airstrikes have helped al-Qa’ida make territorial gains—and to eclipse even further the Brotherhood’s Yemeni affiliates.

Saudi Arabia pursues these policies—however risky (even reckless) they seem to outsiders—because decision-makers in Riyadh judge that they maximize the ruling family’s chances of holding onto power.  The United States, for its part, should continue cooperating with Saudi Arabia where U.S. and Saudi interests overlap.  But U.S. interests also require that Washington undertake strategically-grounded diplomacy with all major regional players—including, above all, a rising Iran.  And Washington certainly should be able to confront the Saudis and others in the GCC when they pursue policies contrary to U.S. interests.  Like too many of his predecessors, Obama has yet to learn how to do this.

–Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett

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Saudi Arabia’s “Great Game” in Yemen and America’s Deluded Response: Hillary Mann Leverett on CCTV’s The Heat

Hillary underscored the witlessly reflexive character of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen this week on CCTV’s The Heat, see here and (for YouTube) here.  Critiquing the ongoing Saudi military campaign in Yemen, Hillary points out that “no one in Washington is sure what the goal is, what the Saudis are trying to achieve.  It is certainly destabilizing, empowering of al-Qa’ida, and further inflaming the tensions throughout the region.”

Given simultaneous uncertainty about Saudi goals and clear evidence of downside consequences for U.S. interests, why have American policymakers let their country get sucked into supporting such an ill-conceived enterprise?  As Hillary explains, U.S. backing for the Kingdom’s latest escapade against its southern neighbor has virtually nothing to do with Washington’s concerns about on-the-ground developments in Yemen.  Rather, U.S. backing for Riyadh’s war in Yemen has virtually everything to do with America’s longstanding but increasingly dysfunctional strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia:

“Saudi Arabia is the linchpin, is the pillar of American policy in the Middle East, is the way the U.S. exercises its hegemony in the Middle East.  Without Saudi Arabia, we don’t have that kind of policy.  For the Saudis, Yemen is incredibly important, and that’s why we support this Saudi campaign in Yemen, even though it is squarely against U.S. interests, especially in terms of how it’s empowering al-Qa’ida—and even ISIS, the Islamic State—in Yemen and elsewhere.”

Hillary also discusses Iran’s real role in Yemen—it’s not what conventional narratives in Washington and Western mainstream media would have you believe—and the prospects for a political settlement In Yemen based on “devolved power.”

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett 

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