Sunni pow­ers pur­sue NATO-like al­liance

Arab League hopes to counter Iran

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Seek­ing to com­bat threats from Iran and the Shi­ite rebels it is sup­port­ing in the Mid­dle East, Arab lead­ers meet­ing in the re­sort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, agreed in prin­ci­ple last week to forge a NATO-like al­liance of Sunni pow­ers to en­gage in re­gional mil­i­tary ac­tion with or with­out lead­er­ship from the U.S.

An­a­lysts say the de­ci­sion by the Arab League to cre­ate a col­lec­tive fight­ing force that will con­sist ini­tially of some 40,000 elite troops from sev­eral Sunni Arab na­tions backed by fighter jets and war­ships was driven mostly by de­sire from Saudi Ara­bia — the wealth­i­est mem­ber of the al­liance — to con­front more ag­gres­sively a po­ten­tially nu­clear-armed Iran and its prox­ies.

With the an­nounce­ment just days af­ter Riyadh opened a bomb­ing cam­paign against Iran-backed rebels in Ye­men, an­a­lysts say, con­cerns are deep among Saudi and other Sunni na­tions that Tehran’s abil­ity to med­dle in af­fairs across the Mid­dle East is about to be am­pli­fied by a nu­clear agree­ment in­volv­ing Iran, the U.S. and other world pow­ers.

The Sunni pow­ers fear that Tehran will be free to en­gage more deeply from Syria and Le­banon to Ye­men and Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled state with a Shi­ite ma­jor­ity, if Iran re­ceives broad eco­nomic sanc­tions re­lief as part of a deal to re­strict Tehran’s nu­clear pro­gram.

The Arab lead­ers’ res­o­lu­tion was not all about Iran. A key por­tion of it said the joint de­fense force could be used to com­bat ter­ror­ists, in­clud­ing Sunni groups such as the Is­lamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.

“It is an im­por­tant res­o­lu­tion given all the un­prece­dented un­rest and threats en­dured by the Arab world,” Arab League chief Na­bil Elaraby told re­porters. Other of­fi­cials said the force likely will have head­quar­ters in Cairo or Riyadh.

The West has viewed the Arab League for decades as in­ef­fec­tive when it comes to gal­va­niz­ing such mil­i­tary al­liances. But an­a­lysts say an era may be open­ing in which Sunni pow­ers align against Iran and en­gage in un­prece­dented horse-trad­ing in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

“Egypt has promised to send troops into Ye­men, but they would only do that if they were get­ting some­thing in re­turn,” said Joshua Lan­dis, who heads the Cen­ter for Mid­dle East Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Ok­la­homa.

“They would do it be­cause Saudi Ara­bia is cur­rently un­der­writ­ing the Egyptian gov­ern­ment to a tune of at least $10 bil­lion a year, but just as im­por­tantly be­cause Cairo wants to get Riyadh to fi­nance an Egyptian-led force to go in and fight the ji­hadists in Libya,” he said.

Mr. Lan­dis cau­tioned that wider risks as­so­ci­ated with a Saudi-driven mil­i­tary al­liance are grave.

“The con­ser­va­tive forces in the re­gion are try­ing to come up with an an­swer be­cause Amer­ica has re­fused to go and do all their dirty work for them,” he said. “We’ll see if they have any bet­ter re­sults than the U.S. has had.”

Egypt, Jor­dan, Kuwait, Morocco, Su­dan, Al­ge­ria and per­haps other Sun­ni­ma­jor­ity na­tions are band­ing more closely to­gether un­der Saudi Ara­bia’s fear of Iran — the re­gion’s top Shi­ite power.

Lead­ers at the gath­er­ing in Sharm el-Sheikh spoke re­peat­edly of the threat posed to the re­gion’s Arab iden­tity by for­eign or out­side par­ties to stoke sec­tar­ian, eth­nic or re­li­gious ri­val­ries in Arab states — all thinly veiled ref­er­ences to Iran.

But Mr. Elaraby was un­equiv­o­cal in sin­gling out Iran for what he said was its in­ter­ven­tion “in many na­tions.”

Ye­men’s Houthi rebels swept in and cap­tured the na­tion’s cap­i­tal of Sanaa in Septem­ber. Em­bat­tled Ye­meni Pres­i­dent Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi, a close U.S. ally against a pow­er­ful lo­cal al Qaeda af­fil­i­ate, first fled to the south­ern city of Aden be­fore es­cap­ing the coun­try last month as the rebels closed in.

Speak­ing at the Sharm el-Sheikh sum­mit last week, Mr. Hadi ac­cused Iran of be­ing be­hind the Houthi of­fen­sive. Iran and the Houthis deny that Tehran arms the rebel move­ment, though both ac­knowl­edge that the Is­lamic repub­lic is pro­vid­ing hu­man­i­tar­ian and other aid.

A Saudi-led coali­tion be­gan bomb­ing Ye­men in late March, say­ing it was tar­get­ing the Houthis and their al­lies, which in­clude forces loyal to for­mer Ye­meni leader Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh.

Ye­meni mil­i­tary of­fi­cials have said the cam­paign could pave the way for a ground in­va­sion, a devel­op­ment that Egyptian mil­i­tary of­fi­cials say likely would com­mence af­ter the airstrikes sig­nif­i­cantly di­min­ish the mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Houthis and their al­lies.

Iran has con­demned the airstrikes but has not re­sponded with mil­i­tary ac­tion, though diplo­matic and mil­i­tary of­fi­cials said Ira­nian re­tal­i­a­tion could not be ruled out.

Some an­a­lysts say Saudi Ara­bia and the West­ern me­dia are over­stat­ing Iran’s in­flu­ence in Ye­men.

“Talk of a proxy war risks over-es­ti­mat­ing the level of power Saudi Ara­bia and Iran wield, and over­look­ing the lo­cal ac­tors who truly shape the con­flicts in ques­tion,” Nus­saibah You­nis, a se­nior re­search as­so­ciate at the Project on Mid­dle East Democ­racy, wrote in an op-ed pub­lished by The Guardian.

“The Houthi move­ment has been able to ad­vance across Ye­men largely be­cause of its al­liance with the an­cien regime of for­mer pres­i­dent Ali Ab­dul­lah Saleh, and be­cause of its abil­ity to tap into dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the poor per­for­mance of” the Hadi gov­ern­ment, Mrs. You­nis wrote. “Though Iran may have helped to hone the ef­fec­tive­ness of the Houthi move­ment, it is nei­ther the cause of nor a ma­jor player in the emerg­ing Ye­meni civil war.

“That re­al­ity,” she wrote, “is lost on a Saudi Ara­bia that is so fear­ful of Iran’s mount­ing in­flu­ence in the re­gion that it has in­sti­gated air strikes that are more likely to ex­ac­er­bate than to re­solve the con­flict.”

Mr. Lan­dis said Saudi Ara­bia seems to be mov­ing head­long into an un­winnable mil­i­tary cam­paign.

“It’s go­ing to be a quag­mire for Saudi Ara­bia,” he said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “Here they are send­ing their mil­i­tary di­rectly in with­out great plan­ning with the U.S. They’re mov­ing on their own … and they’re go­ing to get sucked into a trap in Ye­men.

“It’s a bro­ken coun­try that’s been on the verge a long time, with some 24 mil­lion peo­ple that are des­per­ately poor and have a me­dian age of about 19 years old,” he said. “They don’t have re­sources and are so young and un­e­d­u­cated. … To think that some­thing good is go­ing to come out of this is im­pos­si­ble.”

This ar­ti­cle is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Arab heads of state meet as King Ha­mad bin Isa Al Khal­ifa of Bahrain, seen on screen, speaks in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Em­bat­tled Ye­meni Pres­i­dent Ab­del Rabbo Man­sour Hadi called Shi­ite rebels who forced him to flee the coun­try “stooges of Iran,” di­rectly blam­ing the Is­lamic repub­lic for the chaos there and de­mand­ing that airstrikes against rebel po­si­tions con­tinue un­til they sur­ren­der. Saudi King Sal­man has vowed that the mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion in Ye­men will not stop un­til the coun­try is sta­ble.

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