The Donald Trump administration’s quiet push for a Saudi-led “Arab NATO,” tentatively known as the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), is emblematic of an increasingly destabilizing and militarized US policy toward the Middle East.
The military alliance, pushed by Saudi Arabia to counter Iran, would include the six Arab Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan, with a summit provisionally scheduled for Washington on October 12-13.
However, this anti-Iran alliance risks plummeting the Middle East into further chaos, just as Iraq and Syria are beginning to recover from the past years of ravage by ISIS and various Salafi-Wahhabi terrorists sponsored by Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states. Moreover, it would further expand ungoverned space in the region for terrorist actors to thrive.
While the US military-industrial complex and its Arab client states would profit from this venture to attack Iran, it would inflict further harm on European stability in the form of a new wave of refugees, as well as threaten Asian economy and security.
Iran, not Saudi Arabia, a natural anti-terror ally
Already, Southeast Asia is reeling from the relocation of ISIS from the Middle East, on the heels of decades of imported terrorism due to the relocation of US/Saudi-sponsored mujahideen (al-Qaeda) from Afghanistan. Thus despite the oft-repeated US mantra that Iran is the “largest state sponsor of terrorism,” this view is not largely shared by Asians.
In Asia, terrorism is of the Wahhabi strand, inadvertently making Iran a natural anti-terror ally.
As the late prime minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew noted, Wahhabi fanaticism is the root cause of terrorism in Asia, and “Americans … make the mistake of seeking a largely military solution.” In 2003 when Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek interviewed Lee regarding al-Qaeda and Islamic extremism in Iraq, he warned, “In killing terrorists, you will only kill the worker bees. The queen bees are the preachers who teach a deviant form of Islam in schools and Islamic centers, who capture and twist the minds of the young.”
As such, the notion of the US backing Riyadh, which has spent US$100 billion exporting Wahhabism, and helping to build a more militarily capable Saudi Wahhabi-led alliance, would likely be disconcerting for countries in Europe and Asia.
The perennial problem with US decision-makers is the inability to see things from other actors’ perspective. In denying agency to regional actors and failing to account for their interests and preferences, Washington’s misguided policies end up harming US long-term interests.
For example, in the Levant, Iran is actually thriving thanks to US sectarian policy of backing Salafi jihadists to overthrow governments. As Fabrice Balanche, visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, wrote in a December 2017 article titled “Iran thrives in the Levant on weakened states threatened by Sunni radicalism,” paradoxically, “theocratic Iran became the protector of non-Sunnis and even secular Sunnis against jihadism.”
Balanche argued that the failure of the Arab nationalist development model and the emergence of Saudi Arabia as a geopolitical power led to a re-Islamization of Middle Eastern societies, “for which the Islamic State is arguably the supreme stage.” Thus for the minorities, the secular Syrian regime was a guarantee of protection of minorities and even secular Sunnis, so the Syrian population’s stronger support for President Bashar al-Assad became the unintended consequence of US policy to back the jihadi opposition.
Likewise, in Lebanon Balanche noted that “Syrian Islamist rebels pushed most of the Christians, however anti-Syrian, to Hezbollah’s side” and contributed to the election of Michel Aoun as Lebanese president in 2016, and likely also to the gains by Hezbollah and its allies in the parliamentary election this May. A Maronite Christian, Aoun saw a role for Hezbollah to defend Lebanon and protect minorities from radical Islam.
Balanche observed that the Syrian crisis “pushed into the Iranian camp those social categories that were pro-Western but have felt abandoned,” and as such the more the US/Saudi axis fuels sectarianism and anti-Iran fanaticism, the more they may provoke non-aligned countries in Asia to side with Iran.
China for one will support the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Russia camp in Syria, given the grave security threat it faces from the Chinese al-Qaeda that is based in Idlib and intermingled with Western-backed armed opposition, many of whom are from Asia.
India also sees a role for Iran to counter Saudi Wahhabism that is spreading domestically, and Asia Times contributor M K Bhadrakumar argues that Indian ties with Iran are a sovereign prerogative to support energy security rather than “America First.” The European Union and Japan are similarly pushing back on US imposition of Iran sanctions that harm their economy and scrambling to save the Iran nuclear deal.
With Imran Khan as the new prime minister of Pakistan, this may finally open a new chapter for improved India-Pakistan ties, and allow for a comprehensive regional strategy for peace and economic development in Afghanistan and South Asia.
Thus the US preference for military solutions in foreign policy and its push for a Saudi-led “Arab NATO” seem ill-fated, and may have the unintended consequence of galvanizing regional actors to coalesce against further war and destruction. The concept itself is already problematic, as Arab Gulf states are plagued with internal rivalry between Doha and Riyadh, and with Egypt and Jordan reaching out to reconcile with Syria in order to protect their own economies and domestic stability.
If the Trump administration truly wants to extricate the US from Mideast quagmires, plunging the region into further war and chaos is probably not the way forward. Training and equipping an Arab NATO to conduct regime change in Iran would likely meet the same failure as US efforts to train and equip “rebels” to conduct regime change in Syria.
Instead, as former White House official Professor Charles Kupchan has exhorted, “America First” means Washington should support dialogue and political settlements in the region, transitioning its role from the world’s policeman to one of an arbiter of great-power peace. And as Syria expert Joshua Landis has said, current US policy of keeping Syrians and Iranians poor in the hopes they will demand regime change will only usher in more wars, bitterness and extremism to the region.
Instead of blocking reconstruction aid to Syria and conducting “democracy by bombing” to contain Iran, the US should recognize a new security architecture in the northern Middle East and let the region stabilize and rebuild on its own.
Failing that, regional actors will conduct countermeasures to protect their legitimate security interests. For the first time, China, Russia, India and Pakistan will join four Central Asian republics to conduct war games under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The mission is counterterrorism, and should Washington and Riyadh proceed with the anti-Iran “Arab NATO,” they may find themselves confronting not just Iran, but a coalition of four nuclear powers in Eurasia.