The Increasingly Brittle Relationship Between the US and Saudi Arabia
An already volatile situation in the Middle East took a decisive turn for the worst over the weekend when Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, sparking outrage across the Shiite community and world human rights advocates, angry Iranian demonstrators invaded the Saudi embassy in Tehran.
Riyadh quickly cut off relations with Iran and moved to diplomatically isolate Iran. Bahrain and Sudan joined Saudi Arabia in cutting off relations with Iran, and the United Arab Emirates, a key Iranian trading partner, recalled its ambassador from Tehran. Kuwait quickly joined the group by recalling its ambassador too, and Qatar followed suite.
On Thursday, Tehran accused Saudi Arabia of bombing its embassy in Yemen.
The turmoil couldn’t have come at a worse time for Washington.
The fact is that most of the nations who have retaliated diplomatically against Iran aren’t just allies of Saudi Arabia. They also formed the bulwark of American policy in the Middle East for the last several decades. This bloc continues to be part of American strategic calculations, and is a critical part of the Obama plan to defeat ISIS. They are also major American arms customers.
After the Iranian-Saudi rift, Washington responded to Saudi Arabia’s decision by calling for leaders throughout the region to take “affirmative steps” to reduce tensions, Reuters reports.
“We’re aware of reports that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has ordered the closure of Iranian diplomatic missions in the Kingdom,” an Obama administration official said.
“We believe that diplomatic engagement and direct conversations remain essential in working through differences and we will continue to urge leaders across the region to take affirmative steps to calm tensions.”
However, at this point the Saudis are beyond caring what Obama thinks, and made that quite clear. They think that Obama ignored their concerns in the attempt to get a nuclear deal with Iran. They also see a growing American vacuum in the region – a vacuum that Russia seems willing to fill.
The American Dilemma: Saudi Arabia or Iran?
Now that Riyadh has cut diplomatic ties with Iran in the wake of attacks on the Saudi embassy, the Obama administration will have to make a choice: stick with the Saudis in order to preserve the prevailing Middle East order and ensure that the ‘special’ relationship between Washington and Riyadh isn’t damaged, or side with the Iranians with whom the administration is desperate to establish a cordial relationship after years of mutual distrust and hostility.
As The New York Times noted, “The United States has usually looked the other way or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists. In return, Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran.”
However, Saudi Arabia has also seen a feckless American president move away from the Saudi relationship too. In 2011, Saudi leaders berated Obama and his aides for failing to support President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring, fearing he might do the same thing if the uprisings spread to the kingdom.
The nuclear deal with Iran only fueled the Saudi sense that the United States was rethinking the fundamental relationship – and Saudi officials, on visits to Washington, openly questioned whether they could rely on their American ally.
One result was that when Secretary of State Kerry warned the Saudis against executing Sheikh Nimr, he was ignored. “This is a concern that we raised with the Saudis in advance,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, acknowledged Monday. He said the execution has “precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about.”
The big question is this: has preserving the relationship with the Saudis become more trouble than its worth for the US? And if so, is it finally time for Washington to reorient its Middle East policy by doing the previously unthinkable and siding with Tehran over Riyadh?
That’s not an easy option. “It’s not as if you have an Iranian alternative. And if you have no alternative, your best choice is to stop complaining about the Saudis,” according to a “senior Gulf Arab official” who spoke to The New York Times about Washington’s position on the sectarian strife playing out across the Mid-East.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is anxious to ensure that the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal goes smoothly. If the Iranians were to back out at the last minute, it would be a major blow to the President’s legacy during his last year in office.
Another problem is that Riyadh is moving closer to Israel as a result of the Iranian deal. Rumors have persisted that Saudi Arabia might allow the IAF to overfly the country in order to hit Iranian nuclear facilities. If Washington moves closer to Iran in its dealings, they lose the power to control the reactions of both Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The problem also spills into the raging civil war in Syria. The White House is desperate to salvage its policy in Syria where Russia’s intervention has highlighted America’s shortcomings in the “war” on ISIS. Siding with Iran cripples the American backed Syrian rebels, who are fighting the Iranian backed Assad regime.
America also has to deal with the fact that Russia is using this crisis to regain its superpower status in the region.
Yahoo recently reported, “Russia is ready to serve as an intermediary to resolve the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran that saw the kingdom break off diplomatic relations with Tehran, a Russian foreign ministry source told AFP on Monday.
“Russia is ready to serve as an intermediary between Riyadh and Tehran,” the source said, without providing any specifics about Moscow’s potential role in resolving the crisis.”
“Another unnamed Russian diplomatic source quoted by TASS news agency said Moscow was ready to host the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers — Adel al-Jubeir and Mohammad Javad Zarif — for talks.”
“If our partners Saudi Arabia and Iran show they are ready and willing (to meet), our initiative will remain on the table,” the source said.”
According to a former US diplomat who served in Saudi Arabia “To the Saudi ruling family “Being the “honest broker” in this conflict is something that the US can’t do because they have squandered American standing with the Saudi ruling family while gaining literally nothing from Tehran. No one trusts Obama to maintain peace in the region anymore. They know that Tehran gave him a nuclear deal- that no one believes will work – in order to get more than $100 billion in assets. This money, in turn will help support their allies in Syria and Iraq.”
He added: “This has forced Saudi Arabia to “go it alone.” Since it can no longer count on America, it has started a more aggressive foreign policy in order to isolate and “push back” Iran and its allies.”
Where Saudi Arabia stands was made clear this week when Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Ahmad Al-Jubeir announced that Riyadh has cut diplomatic ties with Tehran. Jubeir said the attack in Tehran was in line with what he said were earlier Iranian assaults on foreign embassies there and with Iranian policies of destabilizing the region by creating “terrorist cells” in Saudi Arabia.
The comments from Al-Jubeir seem to indicate that Riyadh is set to step up efforts for confrontation with Tehran, possibly by getting more involved in Syria, increasing the kingdom’s commitment to the fight in Yemen, and, quite possibly, taking a more assertive role in Iraq by using the fight against ISIS as a smokescreen for some manner of intervention.
Critics of Obama in Washington concluded, after seven years of erratic foreign policy, Obama has few options. As was seen when Obama threatened sanctions over Iran’s missile program, the White House is afraid of pushing Tehran too much. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is unwilling to trust Obama’s promises.
Meanwhile, polls show American voters are worried about the escalating tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran but think America needs to mind its own business.
Given the conundrum, America will likely fall back on its classic “non-solution,” solution –arms sales to the Saudis. The question is if the Saudis will have the money to spend as oil prices decline and Saudi financial reserves are being rapidly tapped out.
Arms sales will help Obama solve a couple problems. Sales will be a boost to the US defense industry at a time when the American economy is sluggish. It will also help Saudi Arabia replenish its munitions reserves, which are being depleted by the wars in Yemen and Syria. This will placate Riyadh, without causing a rift between Tehran and Washington.
The problem is that arms sales to the region aren’t a long term solution. It may placate Saudi Arabia, but will only heighten the tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. And, it will only leave a bigger problem for the next American president to address.
2. Militias Occupy Federal Building in Oregon
The civil unrest that has been growing in America in the last couple of years was stepped up a notch as members of American militias occupied a federal wildlife refuge headquarters on Saturday.
The problem’s genesis is a result of two ranchers being ordered to go to prison for two controlled burns several years ago. The burns, which are common in the West to control invasive plants, were treated as terrorism by the Obama Administration, which meant longer prison terms. The judge had lowered the length of time to be served, but the Obama Administration had appealed the sentence and had them lengthened.
Several militias had volunteered to protect the ranchers if they refused to go back to jail, but then decided to stand down when the ranchers made it clear that they intended to comply and report to prison.
However, about 20 militiamen decided to occupy the remote headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday. The headquarters were unoccupied and the militiamen encountered no resistance.
The occupation has been denounced by many militias and presidential candidates of both parties. The family of the jailed ranchers and the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association has also denounced the action.
The militiamen, led by Ammon Bundy, who came to national attention in 2014 with the Bundy Ranch standoff (reported here in the Monitor), said that they were prepared to occupy the site for “years if necessary.”
So far, the US government hasn’t done anything and many feel that, given the bitter cold of the eastern Oregon mountains, the best solution is to wait for hunger and cold to force the group to leave the site.
Although this standoff could be peacefully ended, there are political issues that could cause more problems.
Although many of Obama’s supporters have called for the government to attack the militiamen because they are armed and occupied federal property, occupation of government property is a common form of civil disobedience in America. Occupy Wall Street did that during the demonstrations of 2012.
Occupying federal buildings is also something that Obama administration officials have engaged in too. As a freshman at Columbia University in 1970, future Obama Attorney General Eric Holder participated in a five-day occupation of an abandoned Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) headquarters with a group of black students later described by the university’s Black Students’ Organization as “armed.” Holder was then among the leaders of the Student Afro-American Society (SAAS), which demanded that the former ROTC office be renamed the “Malcolm X Lounge.”
Of course, in America – especially the West – being armed is very common. In fact, 49 of America’s 50 states allow some sort of legal carrying of firearms and several have “Constitutional Carry,” which means that no permission is needed to carry a firearm in public for self-defense.
At this time, it appears that the government is letting cold and hunger wear down the occupiers. However, there could be a problem if the government tries to retake the building forcibly.
NBC reported, “One of the armed protesters occupying a federal wildlife refuge in rural Oregon said he would rather die defending the building than be arrested by the FBI…Asked if he would rather be killed than be arrested — were the occupation to turn violent — 54-year-old occupier LaVoy Finicum, said: “Absolutely … I have no intention of spending any of my days in a concrete box.”
“There are things more important than your life and freedom is one of them,” he said. “I’m prepared to defend freedom.”
Some of the militias that have denounced the occupation have also warned of any attempt to forcibly retake the building. Three Percenter militia leader Mike Vanderboegh, who denounced the action, wrote, “The government has an absolute duty to see that the situation ends without violence…We must get across to the Feds that if they do not end this peacefully, if they go for a dynamic raid that gets people killed, that they will start a national conflagration.”
This distrust of the government isn’t limited to the far right wing. When the Gallup Poll asked Americans last month to name the “biggest threat to the U.S…For the second consecutive year, dissatisfaction with government edged out the economy as the problem more Americans identified as the nation’s top problem in 2015.” When asked to choose between big government, big labor and big business, 69 % of those who were surveyed overwhelmingly named big government as the “biggest threat to America’s future.” This distrust extends across the political spectrum.
This distrust is leading to confrontation. On New Year’s Day, Texas Governor Greg Abbott responded to Obama’s executive action on gun control by tweeting, “Come and take it,” implying that Abbott and the State of Texas won’t take the executive action without a fight. Texas on New Year’s Day also instituted an “open carry” law, which allows people to carry firearms on their person in plain view.
Given the distrust of government and civil unrest in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, the Bundy Ranch and other places, we have to consider that the level of civil unrest in the US will only grow in 2016.
Accept the Uncomfortable Truth: It’s Time to Support Assad
By Jay Hallen
Foreign Policy Initiative
January 7, 2016
As the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis metastasize, we need a new approach for these unfolding human tragedies. To date, the Obama administration has mostly sat on the sidelines, in part because of war fatigue, but mostly because in the crowded mix of factions fighting in Syria, there are no good actors to support. After the Pentagon’s embarrassing admission that $500 million put only “four or five” Syrian opposition fighters on the ground, it is clear that it’s fantasy to think we can find reliable Syrian allies who are both anti-ISIS and anti-Assad — which is the official policy of the administration and most leading presidential candidates. It would require threading a needle that is impossibly thin, with the assumption that we could vet and then arm rebels who might claim loyalty to the U.S. one day, but who resort to sectarian and tribal vendettas the next. And even in the event that we did find such a group and it assumed control, we’d still have a long way to go before consolidating power and making the transition to relative peace.
Combatting the ISIS Foreign Fighter Pipeline: A Global Approach
By Lisa Curtis, Luke Coffey, David Inserra, Daniel Kochis, Walter Lohman, Joshua Meservey, James Phillips and Robin Simcox
January 6, 2016
In just two years—from fall 2013 to fall 2015—ISIS established a presence in at least 19 countries. With a slick and sophisticated Internet and social media campaign, and by capitalizing on the civil war in Syria and sectarian divisions in Iraq, ISIS has been able to attract more than 25,000 fighters from outside the Islamic State’s territory to join its ranks in Iraq and Syria. These foreign fighters include over 4,500 citizens from Western nations, including around 250 U.S. citizens who have either traveled to the Middle East to fight with extremist organizations or attempted to do so. The civil war in Syria has been the main catalyst for young people to leave their home countries and join ISIS to fight the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Failure of Western nations to respond to incidents like Assad’s 2013 chemical attack on civilians facilitated ISIS recruiting. Unexpected ISIS success in Iraq, where, in June 2014, it captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate that same month, has further accelerated the flow of fighters to the region. ISIS’s unprecedented success in recruiting fighters from around the world has been its ability to convince impressionable young Muslims of a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West, making it the duty of all Muslims to join the war.
We Defeat ISIS. Then What?
By Ted Galen Carpenter
The National Interest (Online)
A consensus has emerged in the American political community (throughout both its GOP and Democratic branches) that the United States can and should obliterate ISIS. The implicit (and sometimes explicit) assumption that inflicting a crushing defeat on the terrorist organization will solve most of our major problems in the region. For realists, this creates an eerie sense of déjà vu. We have encountered such unrealistic, often downright magical, thinking all too often before, with extremely unpleasant results. Rather than ushering in an era of enlightened tolerance, the defeat of ISIS is more likely to be simply another round in an ongoing, extremely complex regional struggle for power. And for America, the verse from the old Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson” may apply: “Laugh about it, shout about it, when you’ve got to choose. Ev’ry way you look at it, you lose.” The defeat of ISIS will not change the underlying reality that both Iraq and Syria are horribly broken societies—largely because of U.S-led, regime-change schemes. It will be nearly impossible to put either country back together again.
Best of Enemies: The Russia-Turkey Confrontation beyond Syria
By Jeffrey Mankoff
Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 6, 2016
The most striking moments from Vladimir Putin’s December 17 press conference came when the Russian president condemned Turkey in rather colorful terms—the English transcript cleaned it up from “lick the Americans in a certain place” to “brown nose the Americans”—over its downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber on November 24, an act Putin had previously termed a “stab in the back.” The downing of the Russian plane is just the most dramatic episode in the two countries’ long-running struggle in Syria. The Syrian crisis put a halt to what had been a historic rapprochement between two important powers with a long history of enmity and mistrust. Russia and Turkey have been rivals since the Middle Ages, fighting (depending on who’s counting) anywhere from a dozen to nearly 20 wars. The last of these, World War I, brought down both the Russian and Ottoman empires, but did not resolve the longstanding rivalry over territory and ideology that had characterized their previous history.
Obama Sides With Iran–Again
By Lee Smith
January 5, 2016
On Monday, thousands of Iraqi Shiites took to the streets of Baghdad to protest Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr. “We demand that the government close the Saudi embassy, kick out the ambassador and boycott all Saudi products,” said one protestor, a sentiment echoed by many. The Saudi embassy in Baghdad reopened just last month, 25 years after Riyadh broke off relations with Iraq to protest Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. And now Iraqi mobs are threatening to burn it to the ground, just as Iranian protestors torched the Saudi embassy in Tehran Saturday as well as the consulate in Mashad. There were other demonstrations, from Beirut to Dearborn, Michigan, to protest the killing of Nimr, put to death with 46 other Saudis, mostly Sunni Islamists. It seems that no one has shed many tears about putting al Qaeda members to death, but almost everyone agrees that executing a Shiite Cleric who threatened to call for a Shiite secessionist movement and violence (”the military option“) to bring down the Saudi ruling family was a big mistake.
The Die Is Cast: The Kurds Cross the Euphrates
By Fabrice Balanche
January 5, 2016
Since October, Islamic State (IS) forces in the eastern part of Syria’s Aleppo province have been under pressure and compelled to fight on several fronts: against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its Arab allies near the large Tishrin Dam; against the Syrian army and Russian aircraft around Kuwaires military airport and al-Jaboul Lake; against the rebel umbrella group Jaish al-Fatah (dominated by Ahrar al-Sham and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra) in the Azaz corridor between Aleppo and the Turkish border; and against the local population in Manbij, toward which the PYD and its allies are advancing. With the PYD seizing the only intact bridge across the Euphrates River for several hundred miles and the Syrian army potentially advancing further north or west, a large group of IS fighters in the Aleppo area could be left without land access to their capital in Raqqa. This prospect raises the question of who would benefit from eliminating IS on this front, and how.
Riyadh’s Message Is to Washington as Well as Tehran
By Patrick Clawson
January 4, 2016
Saudi Arabia’s January 2 execution of prominent Shiite dissident Nimr al-Nimr was primarily for domestic reasons, but it also carried a strong foreign policy message — namely, if the United States will not stand up to Iran, Riyadh will do so on its own. Recently, the Obama administration backed off its planned response to Iranian missile tests, cancelling additional sanctions whose details had leaked to the press. Instead of new restrictions, Washington has held intensive discussions with Tehran, as reported by Iranian media outlets and mentioned by senior U.S. lawmakers who have been briefed by administration officials. Meanwhile, Iran has upped the ante, conducting provocative rocket tests in a busy shipping lane not far from a U.S. aircraft carrier. The sanctions backpedal comes after the many administration statements during the debate over the Iran nuclear deal assuring that the United States would, in President Obama’s words, “be aggressively working with our allies and friends to reduce — and hopefully at some point stop — the destabilizing activities that Iran has engaged in.” Those words matter less to Persian Gulf leaders than the actions Washington takes to put them into effect.