Arab al­lies to use U.S. weapons, not lead­ers

Bil­lions in arms aid pre­pared for war

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCARBOROUGH

The U.S. has shipped bil­lions of dol­lars worth of its best weapons to the Mid­dle East in re­cent years, and to­day Arab na­tions are tap­ping that un­prece­dented arms buildup for the first time to wage war on mul­ti­ple fronts, some­times with­out Amer­i­can lead­er­ship.

The Persian Gulf states have joined a U.S.-led coali­tion to fight the Is­lamic State ter­ror­ist army that con­trols north­ern and west­ern Iraq and parts of Syria. The level of Arab par­tic­i­pa­tion re­sem­bles, but is much more ro­bust than, that of the 1991 Desert Storm con­flict, in which Saudi Ara­bia, Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates joined Euro­pean and Amer­i­can op­er­a­tions to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.

Out­side that al­liance, some of those same na­tions are go­ing to war and not wait­ing for the U.S. to lead.

Saudi Ara­bia last week quickly formed an Arab coali­tion for Op­er­a­tion De­ci­sive Storm, es­sen­tially to de­fend the Sunni king­dom against Iran at its doorstep on the south­ern bor­der. Se­cu­rity an­a­lysts say Iran’s Quds Force helped rebel Houthi Shi­ites in Ye­men oust a Saudi and U.S. ally, Pres­i­dent Abed Rabbo Man­sour Hadi. The Houthis also sent Amer­i­can troops re­treat­ing from the U.S. Em­bassy and from a coun­tert­er­ror­ism base.

“Iran has pro­vided sup­port to the Houthis for years, and their as­cen­dancy is in­creas­ing Iran’s in­flu­ence,” James R. Clap­per, the top U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, told Congress last month.

The Saudis and the United Arab Emi­rates are con­duct­ing airstrikes on Houthi tar­gets with the help of U.S. in­tel­li­gence. On Sun­day, news ser­vices re­ported that ground move­ments by Saudi forces sig­nal an im­mi­nent in­va­sion of Ye­men — a strate­gi­cally lo­cated coun­try where U.S. war­ships tran­sit the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.

Egypt said it is propos­ing an Arab army, mean­ing all-out war be­tween Arab Sunni states and a Shi­ite Iran proxy, for con­trol of Ye­men.

It is not the first time Arab al­lies have acted with­out the U.S.

In Au­gust, Egyptian and UAE jet fighters launched from an Egyptian air­field to attack Is­lamist ter­ror­ist tar­gets in Libya. The U.S. has de­clined to di­rectly con­front var­i­ous al Qaeda-linked groups in Libya with mil­i­tary mus­cle. Af­ter­ward, the State Depart­ment and Pen­tagon con­demned such at­tacks.

Michael Ru­bin, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, said the Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil was cre­ated in 1981 to stand up to the Is­lamic Repub­lic of Iran. The coun­cil has strug­gled over unity, un­til now, and the al­liance could mean a down­grade in U.S. in­flu­ence.

“How ironic it is, then, that it took the col­lapse of U.S. lead­er­ship to in­ject unity and ac­tion into much of the GCC and the broader Arab world,” Mr. Ru­bin said. “Once the United States is cast aside, how­ever, it will never re­store the in­flu­ence it once had. Suc­ces­sive pres­i­dents had Riyadh on speed dial when a cri­sis came, but no longer will the Saudi kings an­swer that 3 a.m. phone call. Ditto Cairo. Same with Abu Dhabi.”

A host of U.S. weapons

The U.S. has pro­vided tools for the Gulf’s mil­i­tary in­de­pen­dence.

First the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and now Pres­i­dent Obama have ap­proved a record level of arms sales to Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil na­tions, par­tic­u­larly F-15 and F-16 ad­vanced strike air­craft. The strat­egy: With the U.S. mil­i­tary shrink­ing and at times pre­oc­cu­pied in other re­gions, the Gulf states can take on more of their own de­fenses.

In the war in Ye­men, Saudi Ara­bia and the United Arab Emi­rates have turned to those state-of-the-art strike fighters and smart weapons not for de­ter­rence, but for of­fen­sive mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions.

Both na­tions are un­easy about what ap­pears to be Mr. Obama’s tilt to­ward Iran, which Sunni Mus­lim Gulf states have long viewed as their No. 1 threat.

“The Arab lead­ers have awak­ened to Obama’s pol­icy shift in the Mid­dle East,” said Robert Magin­nis, a re­tired Army of­fi­cer and an­a­lyst on in­ter­na­tional arms sales.

The year 2011 per­haps best il­lus­trated the Gulf arms buildup: Of $56 bil­lion in to­tal over­seas sales from the U.S., $33 bil­lion were the re­sult of deals with the Saudi king­dom, ac­cord­ing to the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice.

The Saudi shop­ping list in­cludes thou­sands of smart bomb sys­tems, air-to-ground mis­siles, anti-ship mis­siles and, to un­leash them, F-15SA attack fighters.

Lock­heed Martin Corp. has been sell­ing the United Arab Emi­rates an ad­vanced ver­sion of the F-16 dubbed the “Desert Fal­con.” The jet fea­tures ex­tended range, new radars and the ca­pa­bil­ity to drop U.S.-made satel­lite-guided bombs.

‘In­ter­est­ing shift’

Saudi King Sal­man bin Ab­du­laziz quickly put to­gether a coali­tion last week to raid Ye­men by air and po­si­tion forces for an in­cur­sion by land. The regime has told West­ern pow­ers that it sim­ply will not tol­er­ate an Ira­nian pup­pet state on its bor­der.

The oil-rich na­tion sees it­self be­ing sur­rounded: Iran is mov­ing into Ye­men, dom­i­nat­ing south­ern Iraq; keep­ing Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad in power; and pulling strings in Le­banon via its ter­ror­ist army Hezbol­lah.

“Of course it is a very in­ter­est­ing shift that now Arab regimes like the one in Saudi Ara­bia are no longer ask­ing the U.S. to pro­tect them from re­gional un­rest such as in Ye­men,” Mr. Magin­nis said. “They rec­og­nize that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is un­will­ing to rush to help Arab na­tions floun­der­ing in yet an­other cri­sis.”

James Rus­sell, a for­mer Pen­tagon of­fi­cial who was in­volved in for­eign arms sales, said that af­ter the U.S. ousted Iraqi strongman Sad­dam Hus­sein in 2003, the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion em­barked on a Gulf arms buildup, along with more joint train­ing, to help those Arab na­tions be­come more self-suf­fi­cient.

A decade later, it all has come to fruition, as Iran and the Is­lamic State have emerged as di­rect threats in a mud­dled Mid­dle Eastern and North African se­cu­rity sit­u­a­tion.

“The Ye­men op­er­a­tion is in­ter­est­ing on many lev­els,” said Mr. Rus­sell, an in­struc­tor at the Naval Post­grad­u­ate School in Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia. “We’ve sold the Saudis tens of bil­lions of dol­lars of arms over the last quar­ter-cen­tury, and they have never seemed par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing in learn­ing how to ac­tu­ally use the weapons.”

“Their armed forces are be­ing thrust into a role for which they are not pre­pared, and it’ll be in­ter­est­ing to see how they do,” he said. “Their pi­lots are prob­a­bly rea­son­ably com­pe­tent, but the rub­ber will meet the road when and if the army en­ters the fray and they have to ac­tu­ally co­or­di­nate op­er­a­tions at the tac­ti­cal level. The risks of the Saudi Ara­bian Armed Forces and the regime are sub­stan­tial.”

If the Saudi coali­tion and their Amer­i­can weapons fail, Iran gains and the U.S. loses, he said.

Mr. Magin­nis said: “They are afraid that with­out a se­ri­ous ef­fort to push back at Tehran the Shia cres­cent, once a Persian public dream, could very well be­come a re­gional fix­ture se­ri­ously un­der­min­ing the Sunni states’ sta­bil­ity.”

“How ironic it is, then, that it took the col­lapse of U.S. lead­er­ship to in­ject unity and ac­tion into much of the [Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil] and the broader Arab world.”

— Michael Ru­bin, a Mid­dle East an­a­lyst at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Lock­heed Martin Corp. has been sell­ing the United Arab Emi­rates an ad­vanced ver­sion of the F-16 dubbed the “Desert Fal­con.” The jet fea­tures ex­tended range, new radars and the ca­pa­bil­ity to drop U.S.-made satel­lite-guided bombs.

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