Brian M Downing
The United States has entered into a portentous strategic partnership with Israel and a host of Sunni powers led by Saudi Arabia. The new Triple Entente was nominally formed to fight terrorism but actually to weaken Iranian-Shia influence from Lebanon and Syria to Iran.
An initial move was taken last weak when diplomatic and economic ties were broken between Qatar and many regional powers. Future moves will likely include attacks on Houthi rebels in Yemen, continued airstrikes on Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, and elimination of land routes linking Tehran to the Mediterranean.
Candidate Trump questioned what interventions in the Middle East had brought the nation. The same question might well be asked of America’s part in the Entente, which for all its adroitness brings considerable risk.
The US presence in the Gulf began with oil finds in the thirties and with Franklin Roosevelt’s accord with the Saudi warrior-king Abdul Aziz at the end of World War Two. It grew as Britain pulled back from bases in the Middle East after 1945. The American position became uncertain, at least in long-term calculations, when the US greatly reduced oil imports from the Gulf, criticized the absence of reform in the monarchies, and tried to improve ties with Iran. The Sunni princes were looking unkindly toward Washington and favorably toward Moscow and Beijing.
Formation of the Entente has shored up the US position in the Gulf. More significantly it has lessened, though not eliminated, Russia’s opportunities there. Moscow has been nudged onto the smaller and weaker Shia side of the likely protracted sectarian conflict. Russia, Iran, and what is left of Syria stand against Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, the US, and Israel. The correlation of financial and military forces does not favor Russia.
China’s quest for global power depends on Gulf oil. While Iranian supplies aren’t in question, the Entente opens the possibility of US pressure brought to bear on Sunni supplies. And of course American military bases will dominate the Gulf for the foreseeable future.
The Entente was solidified during President Trump’s recent visit to Riyadh where a $110 billion arms deal was inked. It will bring similar though smaller deals in other Sunni capitals. Russia and China had been making inroads on the lucrative Gulf arms trade, but this has been limited. Arms sales and attendant training and maintenance teams bring significant numbers of high-paying jobs — a reality that no American president, regardless of outlooks on globalism and Middle-Eastern politics, can ignore.
The US has put aside human rights considerations and aligned with authoritarian monarchies that repressed popular protests in the Arab Spring. In Saudi Arabia it was done through intimidation, in Bahrain through armed force. This will present serious problems one day, especially as counterterrorism training can impart expertise in suppressing legitimate dissent.
Demographics show about sixty percent of the population is under twenty-five. In that young people face bleak personal opportunity and continued oppression at the hands of sybaritic princes, another period of unrest in coming years is assured. Young people will be angered by their lords’ alignment with Israel and the United States and by their exorbitant foreign purchases that come at the cost of spending at home.
Sunni monarchies hold sizable Shia populations. In Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich Eastern Province has a large Shia populace. Bahrain’s Shia constitute a majority but are excluded from many opportunities by increasingly fearful Sunni rulers. As the Entente’s opposition to Iran takes military forms in Syria, Yemen, and perhaps inside Iran itself, Shia populations may look to terrorism and insurgency, possibly with the assistance of an increasingly besieged Iran.
The American presence will get larger as training missions expand and ground troops deploy. Though every effort will be made to reduce the US profile, local resentments will grow and possibly take the form of terrorism, as it has in seemingly tranquil Jordan in recent years.
Efforts underway in eastern Syria and western Iraq may be protracted and problematic. Activity by pro-Syrian and rebel forces in southeastern Syria, and the ongoing battle for Reqqa in north-central Syria, suggest that the Entente is trying to prevent land routes connecting Iran to Hisbollah in Lebanon and whatever western provinces Damascus can hold onto.
This campaign seeks to create Arab and Kurdish statelets, in both Syria and Iraq, stretching from the Turkish border south to the frontiers with Jordan and Iraq. Creating this Sunnistan will of course be vigorously contested by Syria, Iran, and Russia who are already deploying small units into the area. Continued fighting in western Syria, and the proximity of sizable bases in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, suggest that the Entente can field more troops in the region than Syria, Iran, and Russia can. As the Civil War general might put it, they’ll be in the Syrian-Iraqi deserts “fustest with the mostest”.
Turkey is angered by America’s backing of Arab and Kurdish forces. A strong Kurdish statelet sympathetic to Turkish Kurds and hostile to Ankara is in the offing. Erdogan could retaliate by ousting Americans from the Incirlik base from which the US supports operations in Syria.
However, closer ties with Jordan and Saudi Arabia make Incirlik less crucial to the US. A judicious leader in Ankara, who does not want a complete break with Washington, could see a Kurdish statelet in Syria as a fait accompli and recognize that American influence over it can limit support for Kurdish brethren in Turkey. Ankara might one day encourage its Kurds to resettle in the statelet and its counterpart in northern Iraq.
US training programs in Sunnistan will be necessary for years, possibly generations, to come. Rivalrous Arab and Kurdish commanders-cum-rulers will require financial support for just as long. Saudi youth will hardly welcome billions of petro-dollars diverted to the Entente’s vassals to the north.
Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing
Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.