Saudi prince blasts Israeli occupation at Bahrain summit

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A prominent Saudi prince harshly criticized Israel on December 6 at a Bahrain security summit that was remotely attended by Israel’s foreign minister, showing the challenges any further deals between Arab states and Israel face in the absence of an independent Palestinian state. The fiery remarks by Prince Turki al-Faisal at the Manama Dialogue appeared to catch Israel’s foreign minister off guard, particularly as Israelis receive warm welcomes from officials in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates following agreements to normalize ties.

Left unresolved by those deals, however, is the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians view those pacts as a stab in the back from their fellow Arabs and a betrayal of their cause.

Prince Turki opened his remarks by contrasting what he described as Israel’s perception of being “peace-loving upholders of high moral principles” versus what he described as a far-darker Palestinian reality of living under a “Western colonizing” power.

Israel has “incarcerated (Palestinians) in concentration camps under the flimsiest of security accusations — young and old, women and men, who are rotting there without recourse to justice,” Prince Turki said. “They are demolishing homes as they wish and they assassinate whomever they want.”

The prince also criticized Israel’s undeclared arsenal of nuclear weapons and Israeli governments “unleashing their political minions and their media outlets from other countries to denigrate and demonize Saudi Arabia.”

The prince reiterated the kingdom’s official position that the solution lies in implementing the Arab Peace Initiative, a 2002 Saudi-sponsored deal that offers Israel full ties with all Arab states in return for Palestinian statehood on territory Israel captured in 1967.

– edited from Associated Press, December 6, 2020
PeaceMeal, January/February 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Why the Middle East is more combustible than ever

Robert Malley

The war that now looms largest is a war nobody apparently wants. During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump railed against the United States’ entanglement in Middle Eastern wars and, since assuming office, he has not changed his tune. Iran has no interest in a wide-ranging conflict that it knows it could not win. Israel is satisfied with calibrated operations in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza but fears a larger confrontation that could expose it to thousands of rockets. Saudi Arabia is determined to push back against Iran, but without confronting it militarily. Yet the conditions for an all-out war in the Middle East are riper than at any other time in recent memory.

A conflict could break out in any one of a number of places for any one of a number of reasons. Consider the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities. It could theoretically have been perpetrated by the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group, as part of their war with the kingdom; by Iran, as a response to debilitating U.S. sanctions; or by an Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Iraq. If Washington decided to take military action against Tehran, this could in turn prompt Iranian retaliation against the United States’ Gulf allies, an attack by Hezbollah on Israel, or a Shiite militia operation against U.S. personnel in Iraq. Likewise, Israeli operations against Iranian allies anywhere in the Middle East could trigger a region-wide chain reaction. Because any development anywhere in the region can have ripple effects everywhere, narrowly containing a crisis is fast becoming an exercise in futility.

The Middle East has become the world’s most polarized region and, paradoxically, its most integrated. That combination — along with weak state structures, powerful non-state actors, and multiple transitions occurring almost simultaneously — also makes the Middle East the world’s most volatile region. It further means that, as long as its regional posture remains as it is, the United States will be just one poorly timed or dangerously aimed Houthi drone strike, or one particularly effective Israeli operation against a Shiite militia, away from its next costly regional entanglement.

Ultimately, the question is not whether the United States should disengage from the region. It is how it should choose to engage: diplomatically or militarily, by exacerbating divides or mitigating them, and by aligning itself fully with one side or seeking to achieve a sort of balance.

Today, the three most important rifts — between Israel and its foes, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between competing Sunni blocs — intersect in dangerous and potentially explosive ways. Israel’s current adversaries are chiefly represented by the so-called axis of resistance: Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and, although presently otherwise occupied, Syria. The struggle is playing out in the traditional arenas of the West Bank and Gaza but also in Syria, where Israel routinely strikes Iranian forces and Iranian-affiliated groups; in cyberspace; in Lebanon, where Israel faces the heavily armed, Iranian-backed Hezbollah; and even in Iraq, where Israel has reportedly begun to target Iranian allies. The absence of most Arab states from this frontline makes it less prominent but no less dangerous.

For those Arab states, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been nudged to the sidelines by the two other battles. Saudi Arabia prioritizes its rivalry with Iran. Both countries exploit the Shiite-Sunni rift to mobilize their respective constituencies but are in reality moved by power politics, a tug of war for regional influence unfolding in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and the Gulf states.

Finally, there is the Sunni-Sunni rift, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE vying with Qatar and Turkey. This is the more momentous, if least covered, of the divides, with both supremacy over the Sunni world and the role of political Islam at stake. Whether in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia or as far afield as Sudan, this competition will largely define the region’s future.

With these fault lines intersecting in complex ways, various groupings at times join forces and at other times compete. Accordingly, local struggles quickly take on regional significance — and thus attract weapons, money and political support from the outside. The Houthis may view their fight as being primarily about Yemen, Hezbollah may be focused on power and politics in Lebanon, Hamas may be a Palestinian movement advancing a Palestinian cause, and Syria’s various opposition groups may be pursuing national goals. But in a region that is both polarized and integrated, those local drivers inevitably become subsumed by larger forces.

Along with the Middle East’s polarization and integration, its dysfunctional state structures present another risk factor. Weak states cohabiting with powerful non-state actors creates the ideal circumstances for external interference. It’s a two-way street — foreign states exploit armed groups to advance their interests, and armed groups turn to foreign states to promote their own causes.

The fact that non-state actors operate as both proxies and independent players makes it hard to establish accountability for violence or deter it in the first place. Iran might wrongly assume that it will not be held responsible for a Houthi drone attack on Saudi Arabia, a Palestinian Islamic Jihad attack on Israel, or an Iraqi Shiite militia strike on a U.S. target. Saudi Arabia might misguidedly blame Iran for every Houthi attack, just as Iran might blame Saudi Arabia for any violent incident on its soil perpetrated by internal dissident groups. The United States might be convinced that every Shiite militia is an Iranian proxy doing Tehran’s bidding. Israel might deem Hamas accountable for every attack emanating from Gaza, Iran for every attack emanating from Syria, the Lebanese state for every attack launched by Hezbollah. In each of these instances, the price of misattribution could be high.

This is no mere thought exercise. After the attack on Saudi oil facilities in September, the Houthis immediately claimed responsibility, possibly in the hope of enhancing their stature. Iran, likely seeking to avoid U.S. retaliation, denied any involvement. Who conducted the operation and who, if anyone, is punished could have wide-ranging implications.

A series of global, regional, and local transitions has made these dynamics even more uncertain. The global transitions include a newly present China, a resurgent Russia, and a United States in relative decline. There are also the aftershocks of the recent Arab uprisings, notably the dismantling of the regional order and the propagation of failed states. These are exacerbated by domestic political changes: a new, unusually assertive leadership in Saudi Arabia and a new, unusual leadership in the United States. All these developments fuel the sense of a region in which everything is up for grabs and in which opportunities not grabbed quickly will be lost for good.

The United States’ key regional allies are simultaneously worried about the country’s staying power, both heartened by the policies of the Trump administration and anxious about them. President Trump made it a priority to repair relations with Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, all of which had frayed under his predecessor. But Trump’s reluctance to use force has been equally clear, as has his willingness to betray long-standing allies in other parts of the world.

President Barack Obama’s largely fruitless attempt to confine U.S. involvement in the region reveals something about the unavoidable linkages that bind various Middle Eastern conflicts together. It also reveals something about the choices now facing the United States. Obama (in whose administration I served) had in mind the United States’ extrication from what he considered the broader Middle Eastern quagmire. He withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq, tried to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressed sympathy for Arab popular uprisings and for a time distanced himself from autocratic leaders, shunned direct military intervention in Syria, and pursued a deal with Iran to prevent its nuclear program from becoming a trigger for war. Libya doesn’t fit this pattern, although even there he apparently labored under the belief that the 2011 NATO-led intervention could be tightly limited. That this assumption proved wrong only reinforced his initial desire to keep his distance from regional conflicts. His ultimate goal was to help the region find a more stable balance of power that would make it less dependent on direct U.S. interference or protection. Much to the Saudis’ consternation, he spoke of Tehran and Riyadh needing to find a way to “share” the region.

Trump has opted for a very different course. Instead of striving for some kind of balance, Trump has tilted entirely to one side: doubling down on support for Israel; wholly aligning himself with Prince Salman, Sisi, and other leaders who felt spurned by Obama; withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and zealously joining up with the region’s anti-Iranian axis. Indeed, seeking to weaken Iran, Washington has chosen to confront it on all fronts across much of the region: in the nuclear and economic realms; in Syria, where U.S. officials have explicitly tied the continued U.S. presence to countering Iran; in Iraq, where the United States wants a fragile government that is now dependent on close ties to Tehran to cut those ties; in Yemen, where the administration, flouting Congress’ will, has increased support for the Saudi-led coalition; and in Lebanon, where it has added to sanctions on Hezbollah.

Iran has also chosen to treat the region as its canvas. Besides chipping away at its own compliance with the nuclear deal, it has seized tankers in the Gulf; shot down a U.S. drone; and, if U.S. claims are to be believed, used Shiite militias to threaten Americans in Iraq, attacked commercial vessels in the Strait of Hormuz, and struck Saudi oil fields. In June of this year, when the drone came down and Trump contemplated military retaliation, Iran was quick to warn Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE that they would be fair game if they played any role in enabling a U.S. attack. And in Yemen, the Houthis have intensified their attacks on Saudi targets, which may or may not be at Iran’s instigation — although, at a minimum, it is almost certainly not over Tehran’s objections. Houthi leaders with whom I recently spoke in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, denied acting at Iran’s behest yet added that they would undoubtedly join forces with Iran in a war against Saudi Arabia if their own conflict with the kingdom were still ongoing. In short, the Trump administration’s policies, which Washington claimed would moderate Iran’s behavior and achieve a more stringent nuclear deal, have prompted Tehran to intensify its regional activities and ignore some of the existing nuclear deal’s restraints. This gets to the contradiction at the heart of Trump’s Middle East policies: they make likelier the very military confrontation he is determined to avoid.

A regional conflagration is far from inevitable; none of the parties wants one, and so far, all have for the most part shown the ability to calibrate their actions so as to avoid an escalation. But even finely tuned action can have unintentional, outsize repercussions given the regional dynamics. Another Iranian attack in the Gulf. An Israeli strike in Iraq or Syria that crosses an unclear Iranian redline. A Houthi missile that kills too many Saudis or an American, and a reply that, this time, aims at the assumed Iranian source. A Shiite militia that kills an American soldier in Iraq. An Iranian nuclear program that, now unshackled from the nuclear deal’s constraints, exceeds Israel’s or the United States’ unidentified tolerance level. One can readily imagine how any of these incidents could spread across boundaries, each party searching for the arena in which its comparative advantage is greatest.

With such ongoing risks, the debate about the extent to which the United States should distance itself from the region and reduce its military footprint is important but somewhat beside the point. Should any of these scenarios unfold, the United States would almost certainly find itself dragged in, whether or not it had made the strategic choice of withdrawing from the Middle East.

The more consequential question, therefore, is what kind of Middle East the United States will remain engaged in or disengaged from. A polarized region with intersecting rifts, where local disputes invariably take on broader significance, will remain at constant risk of combusting and therefore of implicating the United States in ways that will prove wasteful and debilitating. De-escalating tensions is not something the country can do on its own. Yet at a minimum, it can stop aggravating those tensions and, without abandoning or shunning them, avoid giving its partners carte blanche or enabling their more bellicose actions.

 That would mean ending its support for the war in Yemen and pressing its allies to bring the conflict to an end. It would mean shelving its efforts to wreck Iran’s economy, rejoining the nuclear deal, and then negotiating a more comprehensive agreement. It would mean halting its punishing campaign against the Palestinians and considering new ways to end the Israeli occupation. In the case of Iraq, it would mean no longer forcing Baghdad to pick a side between Tehran and Washington. And as far as the Iranian-Saudi rivalry is concerned, the United States could encourage the two parties to work on modest confidence-building measures — on maritime security, environmental protection, nuclear safety, and transparency around military exercises — before moving on to the more ambitious task of establishing a new, inclusive regional architecture that would begin to address both countries’ security concerns.

An administration intent on pursuing this course won’t be starting from scratch. Recently, some Gulf states — the UAE chief among them — have taken tentative steps to reach out to Iran in an effort to reduce tensions. They saw the growing risks of the regional crisis spinning out of control and recognized its potential costs. Washington should do the same, before it’s too late.

Robert Malley is President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. During the Obama administration, he served as Special Assistant to the President, White House Middle East Coordinator, and Senior Adviser on countering the Islamic State. His article is edited from Foreign Affairs, November/December 2019, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, November/December 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

How the U.S. shattered the Middle East

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Truthdig, September 4, 2019

Maj. Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yemen is a nightmare, a catastrophe, a mess—and the United States is highly complicit in the whole disaster. Refueling Saudi aircraft in-flight, providing targeting intelligence to the kingdom and selling the requisite bombs that have been dropped for years now on Yemeni civilians places the 100,000-plus deaths, millions of refugees, and still starving children squarely on the American conscience. If, that is, Washington can still claim to have a conscience.

The back story in Yemen, already the Arab world’s poorest country, is relevant. Briefly, the cataclysm went something like this: Protests against the U.S.-backed dictator during the Arab Spring broke out in 2011. After a bit, an indecisive and hesitant President Obama called for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down. A Saudi-backed transitional government took over but governed poorly. Then, from 2014 to 2015, a vaguely Shiite militia from Yemen’s north swarmed southward and seized the capital, along with half the country. At that point, rather than broker a peace, the U.S. quietly went along with, and militarily supported, a Saudi terror-bombing campaign, starvation blockade and mercenary invasion that mainly affected Yemeni civilians. At that point, Yemen had broken in two.

Now, as the Saudi campaign has clearly faltered — despite killing tens of thousands of civilians and starving at least 85,000 children to death along the way — stalemate reigns. Until August, that is, when southern separatists (there was once, before 1990, a South and North Yemen) seized Aden, the major port city of Yemen, backed by the Saudis’ ostensible partners in crime, the United Arab Emirates. So it was that there were then three Yemens, and ever more fracture.

Like Humpty-Dumpty in the nursery rhyme, it’s far from clear that Yemen can ever be put back together again. Add to that the fact that al-Qaida-linked militants have used the chaos of war to carve out some autonomy in the ungoverned southeast of the country and one might plausibly argue that the outcome of U.S.-backed Saudi intervention has been no less than four Yemens.

What makes the situation in the Arabian Peninsula’s south particularly disturbing is that supposed foreign policy “experts” in D.C. have long been hysterically asserting that the top risk to America’s safety are Islamist-occupied “safe havens” or ungoverned spaces. I’m far from convinced that the safe-haven myth carries much water; after all, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Germany and the U.S. as much as in, supposedly, the caves of Afghanistan. Still, for argument’s sake, let’s take the inter- ventionist experts’ assumption at face value. In that case, isn’t it ironic that in Yemen — and (as I’ll demonstrate) countless other countries — U.S. military action has repeatedly created the very state fracture and ungoverned spaces the policymakers and pundits so fear?

Let us take an ever-so-brief tour of Washington’s two-decade history of utterly rupturing Greater Mideast nation-states and splintering an already fractious region. Here goes, from West to East, in an admittedly noncomprehensive list.

U.S. airstrikes and regime change policy in Libya has unleashed an ongoing civil war, divided the country between at least two warlords, and enabled arms and militiamen to cross the southern border and destabilize West Africa. Which means that Niger, Libya, Cameroon, Mali, Chad and Nigeria have seen their shared territory around Lake Chad become a disputed region, contested by a newly empowered array of Islamists. That, of course, led the U.S. military to plop a few thousand troops in these countries. That deployment is unlikely to end well.

In Israel/Palestine, decades of reflexive U.S. support for Israel and Donald Trump’s doubling down on that policy — by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and turning a blind eye to Israeli plans to annex much of the West Bank— have ensured, once and for all, that there can be no viable Palestinian state. Which means that the area is divided into at least three noncontiguous entities: Gaza, Israel and the West Bank.

In Syria, American meddling in the civil war, self-destructive support for various Islamists groups there and military intervention on behalf of the Kurds have broken Syria into a mostly jihadi, rebel-held northwest, Assad-regime center and U.S.-backed Kurdish east.

Just over the border in Iraq stands the gold standard of counterproductive U.S. fracture. There, an ill-fated, illegal U.S. invasion in 2003 seems to have forever broken into an autonomous Kurdish north, Shiite-held east and south and Sunni-controlled west. It is in that contested western region that Sunni jihadism has long flourished and where al-Qaida in Iraq, and its more extreme stepchild, Islamic State, metastasized and then unleashed massive bloodletting on both sides of the border.

Finally, in Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion and occupation — as well as any impending peace deal — ensured that this Central Asian basket case of a country will divide, for the foreseeable future, into Taliban-dominated Pashtun south and east and tenuous Tajik/Uzbek/Hazara minorities held north and west.

The point is that the U.S. has irreparably fractured a broad swath of the globe from West Africa to Central Asia. Interventionist pundits in both parties and countless think tanks insist that the U.S. military must remain in place across the region to police dangerous “ungoverned spaces,” yet recent history demonstrates irrefutably that it is the very intervention of Washington and presence of its troops that fragments once relatively stable nation-states and empowers separatists and Islamists.

The whole absurd mess boils down to a treacherous math problem of sorts. By my simple accounting, a region from Nigeria to Afghanistan that once counted about 22 state entities has — since the onset of the U.S. “terror wars” — broken into some 37 autonomous, sometimes hardly governed, zones. According to the “experts,” that should mean total disaster and increased danger to the homeland. Yet it’s largely U.S. military policy and intervention itself that’s caused this fracture. So isn’t it high time to quit the American combat missions? Not according to the mainstream policymakers and pundits. For them, the war must go on (forever)! Counterproductivity seems the essence of U.S. military policy in Uncle Sam’s never-ending, post-9/11 wars. Call me crazy, or wildly conspiratorial, but after serving in two hopelessly absurd wars and studying the full scope of American military action, it seems that maybe that was the idea all along.

– PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Bad Middle Eastern policies create terrible consequences

Mark Mansperger
Tri-City Herald, May 16, 2019

America has helped to build a better world with virtuous policies but has also laid waste (both at home and abroad) with others. Increased American naval and air forces are now deployed in the Middle East to threaten Iran. It behooves us to truly understand this situation.

The entire catastrophe of the 9/11 era could have been prevented with humane, informed Middle Eastern policies. Shooting down an Iranian airliner in 1988 and invading Iraq did not help our standing there, but other policy failures involve our interactions with the Saudis and Israelis.

For decades, American leaders have cozied up to the Saudi royal family (House of Saud), allowing them to run roughshod over human rights in exchange for their oil.

The main power of the House of Saud now seems to be Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last fall. Our hypocritical acceptance of Saudi abuses has led to widespread resentment toward the United States.

As for Israel, in the early 20th century, only about 10 percent of the population in that area was Jewish. Great Britain, as the local colonial governor, issued the Balfour Declaration in 1917 proclaiming that much of the land was to be a homeland for the Jews, but Palestinian rights were also to be guaranteed. Jewish immigration into Palestine ensued, which intensified after World War II. The State of Israel was born in 1948 after the United Nations agreed to partition the land, without Palestinian consent, into Jewish and Palestinian sections.

The Palestinians have since seen more of their land taken away. Today, the Israelis occupy vastly more territory than America, Britain or the U.N. ever agreed to. All of the West Bank, Gaza, and parts of Jerusalem are legally and morally supposed to form a Palestinian state.

Israel is actually one of the few countries in the world actively engaged in a military occupation of another country. Always the Israeli military is there to protect Israeli squatters in Palestine, and always the United States backs up Israel and prevents the world from taking punitive action through the United Nations. This makes us complicit in the crime.

The current Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently even spearheaded a movement to take away full citizenship from the Arab-Israeli population, who comprise about 20 percent of the overall population in the actual country of Israel. Netanyahu declared, “Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and it alone.”

Netanyahu would love to have the U.S. attack Iran because he sees Iran as a threat to Israel. Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud would enjoy seeing us attack Iran because the Saudis are Sunni and the Iranians Shia — frequently bitter enemies. And for his part, Donald Trump reneged on the Iran Nuclear Agreement, which was working, because it was an accomplishment of Barack Obama and because he wants an enemy to rally his base against.

Three tyrannical-minded individuals, linked in thought, are threatening to start killing people in pursuit of their political agendas. Middle and low income Americans can ultimately foot the bill in blood and taxes, as their government plays the stooge of the Saudis and Israelis.

There are problems with the Iranian government, true enough, but we are the ones in violation of a carefully crafted international agreement to which the Iranians were compliant, and now we’re strangling Iran with economic sanctions.

Instead of going down the road of uninformed belligerence, foreign meddling in our decisions, and political expediency, again, the path of humane, even-handed respect for the life and property of all peoples of the Middle East would be a much better course.

Mark Mansperger is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Washington State University Tri-Cities. His op-ed was reprinted in PeaceMeal, May/June 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)