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الجمعة, 31 أيار 2019 14:44

The Obama Doctrine: Let the Mideast Fight Its Own Wars

كتبه  By Paul D. Shinkman, Senior National Security Writer
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The Obama Doctrine: Let the Mideast Fight Its Own Wars

The White House has pushed Arab nations to start securing their neighborhood on their own, but the U.S. might not like the result.

THROUGHOUT HIS presidency, Barack Obama has tried to place the responsibility for Middle East security on the region’s leaders, particularly allies like Saudi Arabia whom America has provided with billions of dollars worth of military machinery. At the same time, his administration has backed away from deploying American troops to what have become a growing number of dangerous hot spots.

“It’s more effective to use our capabilities to help partners on the ground secure their own country’s futures,” Obama said in a weekly address in September, employing what has become his oft-repeated line about refusing to get “dragged into another ground war” in the Middle East. Instead, he has been pushing for Arab nations to move their militaries beyond their traditional roles of securing territorial borders and protecting the ruling establishment against domestic uprising.

Now, a volatile conflict in Yemen threatens to expand Iranian influence at the expense of regional rivals including Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Those countries, backed by a band of Sunni Muslim leaders, have grown tired of waiting for U.S. assistance and are instead taking responsibility themselves. Their week-old air war against the Iran-backed Shiite Muslim Houthi rebels and consideration of a subsequent ground invasion have only minimal support from the U.S.

It looks as if Obama got exactly what he wanted. But Yemen’s internal complexities, combined with foreign meddling, has prompted concerns of all-out regional war. The renewed violence will now prove whether the American government is prepared to accept its new role in the Middle East as a supplier and organizer, but not a leader.

The president’s hands-off Middle East military policy materialized in the early days of the ongoing civil war in Syria. Even when Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed Obama’s so-called “red line” by deploying chemical weapons against his own people, the White House did not budge from the commander-in-chief’s refusal to deploy Americans to assist, either by arming, training or even fighting against the extremism brewing there.

“Because of Syria – the U.S. ability, or willingness, or ambiguous approach to the Syrian conflict – the Saudis, the Jordanians and Arab States in the Gulf have determined they cannot wait for the U.S. to act when it comes to protecting their national interests,” says regional expert Alon Ben-Meir, a Baghdad native of Jewish descent and a professor at New York University.

“They want to create the perception that nobody, including Iran, should take Saudi Arabia and the Sunni states for granted,” he says. “It’s sending a clear message: We are no longer going to wait for a green light to act. We are going to act because the changing dynamics in the Middle East is demanding that.”

Most previous Arab alliances, such as the Arab League, have proved largely toothless at rounding up coalitions and effecting some sort of successful military mission. If Saudi Arabia is serious about a follow-on ground mission in Yemen, that likely explains why it sought support from other countries with advanced militaries, such as Morocco, Egypt and Pakistan – each a recipients of billions of dollars of U.S. military equipment like fighter jets and tanks. Saudi Arabia also sought out the symbolic inclusion of Sudan, which has previously allowed Iran to use its land for shipments to proxy fighters in and around Gaza.

The U.S. threw its support behind Saudi Arabia roughly a day after it coalesced the incongruous group of loyal countries last week to take on the Iranian-backed threat next door. But reports from some top echelons of Saudi power indicate the oil-rich nation would have acted without U.S. approval.

America in turn is constrained by its historic alliance with Israel – an increasingly tempestuous relationship amid Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s vocal opposition to continued U.S.-led negotiations with Iran over Tehran's nuclear program. Amid these high profile talks, Obama and his government are losing credibility among Gulf allies quickly.

 

"There is, underlying this, a growing and deep-felt expression about U.S. intentions in the region," says Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution's Doha Center in Qatar. "They no longer feel they can entirely trust that the U.S. will provide – be the main stabilizing actor in the region."

"More and more, there is discussion about what else the U.S. is talking to Iran about. Even if it's not and being denied, that is leading to the kind of coalition and push on the use of force the Saudis are now leading in Yemen."

Over the weekend, a summit of Arab leaders yielded a new joint force that will be used to direct airstrikes against rebel forces in Yemen. Saudi and Egyptian leaders may consider deploying the additional troops by ground to quell the insurrection, particularly if it worsens or expands further into key areas like Aden. 

The strategic port, partially overrun by rebels on Thursday, is at the axis of one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and a key point for transporting oil, as well as the site of the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and now the temporary capital of pro-Western President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s ousted government.

The conditions for peace presented by this new force are clearly rooted in a political settlement: The Houthis must lay down their arms and agree to peace under the governance of Hadi, who has been exiled from the capital.

Reinstating Hadi or any friendly leader in Yemen, however, would not stabilize the teetering balance of power or settle the regional rivalries nearby.

Stability in this region for the better part of the last millennium has been provided by an outside hegemony. The Ottoman Empire ruled through the 19th century, when European colonial powers began drawing up the lines that exist today as borders. Cold War battlefronts occasionally converged on the Middle East, and since 1990, U.S. troops and diplomats have attempted to oversee some form of order.

That began to deteriorate when President George W. Bush ordered U.S. troops to invade Iraq in 2003, becoming one of the modern era's most heavy-handed U.S. presidents in the region. The instability caused by the subsequent war, combined with the Arab Spring in 2011, has produced a new Middle East with a dwindling U.S. presence.

Instead of ground forces, Obama’s doctrine has included expanding the armed drone campaign invented during the Bush administration in the hopes he could both deploy America’s most ferocious ordnance abroad – notably in Yemen – to combat terrorism without endangering American troops. The Pentagon claims a drone campaign it initiated to target potent extremists within the Yemen-based terror group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is still in full effect, though the extent to which the Hadi government can cooperate from hiding remains unclear.

The young country, which only unified its sectarian north and south in 1990, remains a hotbed of conflict along its many ethnic and religious lines. Tribal forces have swayed in support of local leaders, including Hadi and former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the presence of extremist forces, like secessionist groups and al-Qaida’s most potent existing branch, further dampen any hopes of stability there.

It’s too early to tell whether the Saudi intervention into Yemen could escalate elsewhere, or whether the U.S. has established enough of a leadership role to prevent the war from tumbling out of control.

Saudi Arabia and Iran view the U.S. exeunt as an opportunity to establish themselves as the new big player on the block, and their next steps may decide whether chaos in the region prevails.

“So much of it depends on how the Iranians react, and whether they encourage their Houthi brothers to turn around,” says Shaikh. “This can become a broader regional conflagration, a broad regional conflict that is naked, out in the open. That is not good for anyone in the region.”

Conflict could even extend to inside Saudi Arabia or Iran, he adds.

“A lot of this does depend on what the Iranians are going to do, how we’re going to get into a serious political process, and what the Americans can do in this regard.”

And any plan for victory against the Houthis may appear successful in theory. But as Saleh said, operating Yemen is like “dancing on the heads of snakes.” Saleh himself, a Shiite who while president mounted attacks against the Houthis before reportedly building an alliance with them, exemplifies the incredibly complex concoction of international and local forces that make Yemen so dangerous. He weathered multiple coup attempts, oversaw Yemen’s unification, then sided with Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait. After the USS Cole was attacked at Aden, Saleh declared he would defeat al-Qaida and won Bush’s support.

“He’s a good snake dancer,” says Barbara Slavin, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. She expresses doubts at the ability of countries like Saudi Arabia to wage conventional war far away from its borders, and sees the current conflict as much about personal vendettas against Saleh as it is about international fears over Iran’s involvement.

“It’s tribal. It’s bloody. It’s not just the Houthis, there are other tribes trying to break away and have more influence over the government,” she says. “What we’re seeing is an effort by the Saudis to force the Houthis to accept Hadi.”

Saudi Arabia’s newfound adventurism has surprised some in Washington, including top officials at the Pentagon, who have privately expressed concerns with the Gulf power’s ability to restrain its military.

During the Arab Spring in 2011, Saudi Arabia infamously invaded Bahrain to quell the Shiite minority from ousting the Sunni establishment. Reports of atrocities emerged, along with accusations that the Western media that chose to cover the conflict offered an overly forgiving view of Saudi Arabia's actions.

The Pentagon has remained tight-lipped about the U.S. participation in this operation and what kind of control it can exert over its allied fighters. Just days after U.S. commandos were withdrawn from hunting al-Qaida operatives in Yemen, Obama last week authorized a small number of U.S. forces to assist this new coalition with intelligence and logistics assistance.

An unknown number of Americans are currently operating at a “fusion center” run by the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, providing intelligence and information, and performing the key mission of communicating the coalition’s actions back to Washington. This headquarters differs from the joint operations centers the U.S. has established in Irbil and Baghdad to coordinate the coalition’s air war in Iraq against the Islamic State group, says Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren.

“It’s a lot about communications and that we are also taking the opportunity to use this as a vehicle for bringing in a little bit better intelligence picture,” he said last Friday. He declined to specify what kind of intelligence the U.S. is providing, and whether it’s helping the Arab fighter jets find and hit specific targets. The special operations forces withdrawn last month have not been redeployed to this center, he said.

U.S. officials have also expressed concern about Saudi Arabia’s ability to operate with the kind of sophistication that avoids collateral damage, negative headlines and fodder for enemy recruitment. Despite nationalistic swagger, many allies who have fought with the U.S. admit that no other country can compare with its ability to perform command-and-control, to find targets and hit them precisely and to oversee battle spaces to ensure all parties are coordinated.

Inexperience with that kind of discretion is already beginning to show in Yemen, following reports Monday that an apparent airstrike killed 20 civilians at a United Nations refugee camp there. Iranian media also bragged Monday that Houthi rebels in Yemen were able to shoot down a Saudi F-15 fighter jet, forcing its crew to eject into the Gulf of Aden where American airmen rescued them in international waters. U.S. defense officials confirmed the mission, but would not say what caused the pilots to eject or why the plane went down.

A situation as complex as Yemen is rife with opportunities for misunderstanding. BBC Arabic then later retracted reports that the elusive Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani had been photographed at a Yemeni market. The leader of Iran’s hyper-zealous Revolutionary Guard Quds Force was previously reported to have been in Tikrit overseeing Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State.

Were Saudi Arabia to attack and kill a high profile Iranian officer, even accidentally, it may provoke a some form of war of retribution.

Even if the U.S. can secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the cryptic Shiite nation’s desire to assert power in the Middle East, and its Sunni foes’ retaliation, all but guarantees conflicts in this region for many years.

 
 
قراءة 52 مرات آخر تعديل على الخميس, 06 حزيران/يونيو 2019 06:49

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