Tag Archives: Kuwait

A New Middle East Is Coming

Middle East: A Complex Re-alignment

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 28, 2019

 

 

The fallout from the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities is continuing to reverberate throughout the Middle East, sidelining old enmities—sometimes for new ones—and re-drawing traditional alliances. While Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria is grabbing the headlines, the bigger story may be that major regional players are contemplating some historic re-alignments.

 

After years of bitter rivalry, the Saudis and the Iranians are considering how they can dial down their mutual animosity. The formerly powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf monarchs is atomizing because Saudi Arabia is losing its grip. And Washington’s former domination of the region appears to be in decline.

 

Some of these developments are long-standing, pre-dating the cruise missile and drone assault that knocked out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. But the double shock—Turkey’s lunge into Syria and the September missile attack—is accelerating these changes.

 

Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, recently flew to Iran and then on to Saudi Arabia to lobby for détente between Teheran and Riyadh and to head off any possibility of hostilities between the two countries. “What should never happen is a war,” Khan said, “because this will not just affect the whole region…this will cause poverty in the world. Oil prices will go up.”

 

According to Khan, both sides have agreed to talk, although the Yemen War is a stumbling block. But there are straws in the wind on that front, too. A partial ceasefire seems to be holding, and there are back channel talks going on between the Houthis and the Saudis.

 

The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war was supposed to last three months, but it has dragged on for over four years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was to supply the ground troops and the Saudis the airpower. But the Saudi-UAE alliance has made little progress against the battle-hardened Houthis, who have been strengthened by defections from the regular Yemeni army.

 

Air wars without supporting ground troops are almost always a failure, and they are very expensive. The drain on the Saudi treasury is significant, and the country’s wealth is not bottomless.

 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the Saudi economy from its overreliance on petroleum, but he needs outside money to do that and he is not getting it. The Yemen War—which, according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet—and the Prince’s involvement with the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has spooked many investors.

 

Without outside investment, the Saudi’s have to use their oil revenues, but the price per barrel is below what the Kingdom needs to fulfill its budget goals, and world demand is falling off. The Chinese economy is slowing— the trade war with the US has had an impact—and European growth is sluggish. There is a whiff of recession in the air, and that’s bad news for oil producers.

 

Riyadh is also losing allies. The UAE is negotiating with the Houthis and withdrawing their troops, in part because the Abu Dhabi has different goals in Yemen than Saudi Arabia, and because in any dustup with Iran, the UAE would be ground zero. US generals are fond of calling the UAE “little Sparta” because of its well trained army, but the operational word for Abu Dhabi is “little”: the Emirate’s army can muster 20,000 troops, Iran can field more than 800,000 soldiers.

 

Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen are to support the government-in-exile of President Rabho Mansour Hadi, control its southern border and challenge Iran’s support of the Houthis. The UAE, on the other hand, is less concerned with the Houthis but quite focused on backing the anti-Hadi Southern Transitional Council, which is trying to re-create south Yemen as a separate country. North and south Yemen were merged in 1990, largely as a result of Saudi pressure, and it has never been a comfortable marriage.

 

Riyadh has also lost its grip on the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar continue to trade with Iran in spite of efforts by the Saudis to isolate Teheran,

 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed for the 22-member Arab League to re-admit Syria. GCC member Bahrain has already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus. Putin is pushing for a multilateral security umbrella for the Middle East, which includes China.

 

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not,” Middle East scholar Mark Katz told the South Asia Journal. And while many in the region have no love for Syria’s Assad, “they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s ally.”

 

The Arab League—with the exception of Qatar—denounced the Turkish invasion and called for a withdrawal of Ankara’s troops. Qatar is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for pursuing an independent foreign policy and backing a different horse in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is Qatar’s main ally.

 

Russia’s 10-point agreement with Turkey on Syria has generally gone down well with Arab League members, largely because the Turks agreed to respect Damascus’s sovereignty and eventually withdraw all troops. Of course, “eventually” is a shifty word, especially because Turkey’s goals are hardly clear.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to drive the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border and move millions of Syrian refugees into a strip of land some 19 miles deep and 275 miles wide. The Kurds may move out, but the Russian and Syrian military—filling in the vacuum left by President Trump’s withdrawal of American forces—have blocked the Turks from holding more than the border and one deep enclave, certainly not one big enough to house millions of refugees.

 

Erdogan’s invasion is popular at home—nationalism plays well with the Turkish population and most Turks are unhappy with the Syrian refugees—but for how long? The Turkish economy is in trouble and invasions cost a lot of money. Ankara is using proxies for much of the fighting, but without lots of Turkish support those proxies are no match for the Kurds—let alone the Syrian and Russian military.

 

That would mainly mean airpower, and Turkish airpower is restrained by the threat of Syrian anti-aircraft and Russian fighters, not to mention the fact that the Americans still control the airspace. The Russians have deployed their latest fifth-generation stealth fighter, the SU-57, and a number of MiG-29s and SU-27s, not planes the Turks would wish to tangle with. The Russians also have their new mobile S-400 anti-aircraft system, and the Syrians have the older, but still effective, S-300s.

 

In short, things could get really messy if Turkey decided to push their proxies or their army into areas occupied by Russian or Syrian troops. There are reports of clashes in Syria’s northeast and casualties among the Kurds and Syrian Army, but a serious attempt to push the Russians and the Syrians out seems questionable.

 

The goal of resettling refugees is unlikely to go anywhere. It will cost some $53 billion to build an infrastructure and move two million refugees into Syria, money that Turkey doesn’t have. The European Union has made it clear it won’t offer a nickel, and the UN can’t step in because the invasion is a violation of international law.

 

When those facts sink in, Erdogan might find that Turkish nationalism will not be enough to support his Syrian adventure if it turns into an occupation.

 

The Middle East that is emerging from the current crisis may be very different than the one that existed before those cruise missiles and drones tipped over the chessboard. The Yemen War might finally end. Iran may, at least partly, break out of the political and economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel has imposed on it. Syria’s civil war will recede. And the Americans, who have dominated the Middle East since 1945, will become simply one of several international players in the region, along with China, Russia, India and the European Union.

 

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Iran: The Drift Toward War

Edging Toward War With Iran?

Dispatches From The Edge

Feb. 1, 2019

 

 

Keeping track of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is like trying to track a cat on a hot tin roof: We’re pulling out of Syria (not right away). We’re leaving Afghanistan (sometime in the future). Mexico is going to pay for a wall (no, it isn’t). Saudi Arabia, Russia, the European Union, China, Turkey, North Korea—one day, friends, another day, foes. Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to tell who’s on first.

 

Except for Iran, where a policy of studied hostility has been consistent from the beginning. Late last year, National Security Advisor John Bolton pressed the Pentagon to produce options for attacking Iran, and he has long advocated for military strikes and regime change in Teheran. And now, because of a recent internal policy review on the effect of US sanctions, Washington may be is drifting closer to war.

 

According to “On Thin Ice,” a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the Trump administration has concluded that its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions has largely failed to meet any of the White House’s “goals” of forcing Iran to re-negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement or alter its policies in the Middle East.

 

While the sanctions have damaged Iran’s economy, the Iranians have proved to be far more nimble in dodging them than Washington allowed for. And because the sanctions were unilaterally imposed, there are countries willing to look for ways to avoid them.

 

“If you look at the range of ultimate objectives” of the administration, from encouraging “protests that pose an existential threat to the system, to change of behavior, to coming back to the negotiating table, none of that is happening,” Ali Vaez of the ICG’s Iran Project, told Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor.

 

That should hardly come as a shock. Sanctions rarely achieve their goals and virtually never when they are imposed by one country, even one as powerful as the US. More than 50 years of sanctions aimed at Cuba failed to bring about regime change, and those currently aimed at Russia have had little effect beyond increasing tensions in Europe.

 

This time around, the US is pretty much alone. While the Trump administration is preparing to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear agreement—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the European Union (EU) is lobbying Iran to stay in the pact. Russia, China, Turkey and India have also made it clear that they will not abide by the US trade sanctions, and the EU is setting up a plan to avoid using dollars.

 

But the failure of the White House’s sanctions creates its own dangers because this is not an American administration that easily accepts defeat. On top of that, there is a window of opportunity for striking Iran that will close in a year, making an attack more complicated.

 

The nuclear agreement imposed an arms embargo on Iran, but if Teheran stays in the agreement, that embargo will lift in 2020, allowing the Iranians to buy weapons on the international market. Beefing up Iran’s arms arsenal would not do much to dissuade the US, but it might give pause to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE), two of Teheran’s most implacable enemies.

 

It is not clear who would be part of a coalition attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia and the UAE would almost certainly be involved, but that pair hardly has the Iranians quaking in their boots. The rag-tag Houthi army has fought the two Gulf monarchies to a standstill in Yemen, in spite of not having any anti-aircraft to challenge the Saudi air war.

 

Iran is a different matter. Its Russian built S-300 anti-aircraft system might not discomfort the US and the Israelis, but Saudi and UAE pilots could be at serious risk. Once the embargo is lifted, Iran could augment its S-300 with planes and other anti-aircraft systems that might make an air war like the one the Gulf monarchs are waging in Yemen very expensive.

 

Of course, if the US and/or Israel join in, Iran will be hard pressed. But as belligerent as Bolton and the Israeli government are toward Iran, would they initiate or join a war?

 

Such a war would be unpopular in the US. Some 63 percent of Americans oppose withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and by a margin of more than two to one, oppose a war with Iran. While 53 percent oppose such a war—37 percent strongly so—only 23 percent would support a war with Iran. And, of those, only 9 percent strongly support such a war.

 

The year 2020 is also the next round of US elections where control of the Senate and the White House will be in play. While wars tend to rally people to the flag, the polls suggest a war with Iran is not likely to do that. The US would be virtually alone internationally, and Saudi Arabia is hardly on the list of most American’s favorite allies.

 

And it is not even a certain that Israel would join in, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Iran an “existential threat.” Polls show that the Israeli public is hardly enthusiastic about a war with Iran, particularly if the US is not involved.

 

The Israeli military is more than willing to take on Iranian forces in Syria, but a long-distance air war would get complicated. Iraq and Lebanon would try to block Israel from using their airspace to attack Iran, as would Turkey. The first two countries might not be able to do much to stop the Israelis, but flying over a hostile country is always tricky, particularly if you have to do it for an extended period of time. And anyone who thinks the Iranians are going to toss in the towel is delusional.

 

Of course Israel has other ways to strike Iran, including cruise missiles deployed on submarines and surface craft. But you can’t win a war with cruise missiles, you just blow a lot of things up.

 

There are deep fissures among the Gulf monarchs. Qatar has already said that it will have nothing to do with an attack on Iran, and Oman is neutral. Kuwait has signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey because the former is more worried about Saudi Arabia than it is Iran, and with good reason.

 

A meeting last September of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emir Sabah Al-Sabah of Kuwait to discuss problems between the two countries apparently went badly. The two countries are in a dispute over who should exploit their common oil fields at Khafji and Wafra, and the Saudis unilaterally stopped production. The Kuwaitis say they lost $18 billion revenues and want compensation.

 

The bad blood between the two countries goes back to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, when Saudi Arabia refused to accept the borders that the British drew for Kuwait and instead declared war. In 1922 the border was re-drawn with two-thirds of Kuwait’s territory going to Saudi Arabia.

 

Lebanese legal scholar, Ali Mourad, told Al-Monitor that Kuwait has tightened its ties to Turkey because “they are truly afraid of a Saudi invasion,” especially given “the blank check Trump has issued” to Prince Salman.

 

Whether Kuwait’s embrace of Turkey will serve as a check on the Saudis is uncertain. Prince Salman has made several ill-considered moves in the region, from trying to overthrow the government of Lebanon, blockading Qatar, to starting a war with Yemen. Turkey and Saudi Arabia are currently at odds over the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, probably the only thing that the Saudi princes hate more than Iran.

 

Would—or could—Ankara really defend Kuwait from a Saudi attack? Turkey is currently bogged down in Northern Syria, at war with its own Kurdish population, and facing what looks like a punishing recession. Its army is the second largest in NATO, and generally well armed, but it has been partly hollowed out by purges following the 2015 coup attempt.

 

So is US National Security Advisor Bolton just blowing smoke when he talks about regime change in Iran? Possibly, but it is a good idea to take the neo-conservatives at their word. The US will try to get Iran to withdraw from the nuclear pact by aggressively tightening the sanctions. If Teheran takes the bait, Washington will claim the legal right to attack Iran.

 

Bolton and the people around him engineered the catastrophes in Afghanistan and Iraq (the Obama administration gets the blame for Libya and Yemen), and knocking out Iran has been their long time goal. If they pull it off, the US will ignite yet another forever war.

 

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