By Hayat Alvi
7 September 2013
The United States is preparing to take the frontline role in cleaning the neighborhood in the Middle East yet again.
No doubt, chemical weapons (CWs) are alarming, shocking, illegal and devastating, but there are many unanswered questions about the “red line” x 3 (since last year) that President Barack Obama has drawn regarding the use of CWs in Syria. Forensic evidence shows clearly that CWs have been used against civilians in Syria. However, who deployed the CWs, and who gave the order to deploy them, remains unclear. It is very likely that the Assad regime was behind the CWs attack, but again, no one can say with 99 percent certainty that the regime was indeed the culprit, although the Obama administration is convinced about Assad’s culpability.
That lack of certainty makes the US campaign for air strikes in Syria all the more risky. Plus, many people doubt that the military campaign would end with just “narrow, surgical, quick” air strikes against the Assad regime. This is just the beginning of a slippery slope, many argue, because it might lead to follow-up strikes, and maybe more after that, and then what?
Words and phrases like “genocide,” “weapons of mass destruction” and “imminent national security threat to the US” are being bounced around. Haven’t we been in similar spots before? Proponents of the campaign against Syria say that we should not compare this case with Iraq or Afghanistan. However, you cannot erase the Iraq war, in particular, from Americans’ memories. Nor can the UK citizens’ memories erase it, as we saw with the votes against the campaign in the UK parliament. One cannot help but see the parallels between the arguments that the George W. Bush administration made about Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and the current Obama administration’s case for CWs in Syria. No matter how hard President Obama tries to get Americans to divorce the two cases, not only the American public, but even the global public, keep pointing back to déjà vu with Iraq.
Now, the more compelling question is this: Why can’t the Arab countries in the region do their own policing? Yes, we know that the US military is the most powerful and capable in the world. However, if ever there was a need to “draw lines in the sand,” it is now with the Gulf Arab states. Western countries can certainly provide non-military assistance to them, but it is time they put on their helmets, uniforms and gear and do something about resolving their own regional problems. More importantly, it is time the Middle Eastern actors realize that none of their problems and security crises can be resolved for the longer term and sustainably through violence and military-based responses. But, that’s been their default reaction to practically all of their problems since the end of colonialism.
I have lived in Damascus, Syria. I know the region well, and my heart breaks for the Syrian people. But I am an American, and I am not alone in feeling sick and tired of having to come to the rescue of the so-called “Arab allies.” We, the Americans, have repeatedly put our heads on the chopping blocks in Middle East quagmires; we have repeatedly expended precious blood and treasure in the region; we have repeatedly sacrificed so much for the sake of regional stability and security; yet, we hardly ever see the regional actors lift a finger to help themselves and to resolve their conflicts, especially with long-term agendas for sustainable security and peace. That involves serious, sincere and determined nonviolent conflict resolution. It seems that the regional actors just don’t get it. Why would they? It’s so easy to push the red button, and the US comes running to their rescue.
If you’re not convinced, consider how Saudi Arabia dangled a lucrative carrot in front of the Russians to adopt the Saudi agenda for Syria. Numerous news media report that “Saudi Arabia has secretly offered Russia a sweeping deal to control the global oil market and safeguard Russia’s gas contracts, if the Kremlin backs away from the Assad regime in Syria.” The Telegraph goes on to say:
“Leaked transcripts of a closed-door meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan shed an extraordinary light on the hard-nosed Realpolitik of the two sides.
“Prince Bandar, head of Saudi intelligence, allegedly confronted the Kremlin with a mix of inducements and threats in a bid to break the deadlock over Syria. ‘Let us examine how to put together a unified Russian-Saudi strategy on the subject of oil. The aim is to agree on the price of oil and production quantities that keep the price stable in global oil markets,’ he said at the four-hour meeting with Mr. Putin. They met at Mr. Putin’s dacha outside Moscow three weeks ago.
“‘We understand Russia’s great interest in the oil and gas in the Mediterranean from Israel to Cyprus. And we understand the importance of the Russian gas pipeline to Europe. We are not interested in competing with that. We can cooperate in this area,’ he said, purporting to speak with the full backing of the US.”
And then, Saudi Prince Bandar drops the verbal grenade on Russia:
“…Prince Bandar pledged to safeguard Russia’s naval base in Syria if the Assad regime is toppled, but he also hinted at Chechen terrorist attacks on Russia’s Winter Olympics in Sochi if there is no accord.
“‘I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year. The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us,’ he allegedly said.
“Prince Bandar went on to say that Chechens operating in Syria were a pressure tool that could be switched on an off. ‘These groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role in Syria’s political future’.”
There it is, in black and white: Saudi support for terrorist organizations, in this case the Chechen groups operating in Russia’s provinces as well as those fighting in Syria against the Assad regime.
This also sheds a spotlight on something the Western powers seem to conveniently ignore: Iran is not the only regime in the region that supports global terrorism. Saudi Arabia is known to do the same, providing financial, ideological and other means of support to various franchises and affiliates of al-Qaeda and Salafi-Jihadi groups. In fact, these groups are proliferating and mutating, while the Western powers wear blinders and myopically focus only on Iran’s mischief. And, many analysts correctly contend that the Saudis’ support for global terrorism has harmed more US interests, allies and troops and citizens than Iran, especially in recent years. More Saudi Jihadis constituted the foreign fighters in Iraq, specifically targeting US troops, than any other foreign Jihadi nationals. If we look at it from that angle, we see that Saudi Arabia is the tail that’s wagging the dog, consistently, over and over again. This has to stop.
It’s about time the US and allied Western powers tell the Saudis and their allies in the region that we will no longer be your police forces. It’s about time the Arab states do their own regional policing.
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.