The rivalries tearing the Middle East apart

ON A single day in late March, the U.S. began a new bombing campaign in its air war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), targeting ISIS positions in the Iraqi city of Tikrit–while 1,500 miles away, Saudi Arabia launched its first air strikes in Yemen in a bid to halt the advance of Houthi rebels.

The latest military escalations by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia threaten to further destabilize a Middle East in which open hostilities and humanitarian disasters have multiplied, from Libya to Yemen, and Syria to Iraq.

Both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are anxious to portray their military operations as fully justified and even noble–but the bloody record of these two allies’ accomplishments gives the lie to such claims. In fact, just beneath the surface lurks the real reason for the escalation of violence: a sharpening rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The bombing campaign in Yemen is striking Houthi rebel forces in the capital of Sanaa, which the Houthis conquered in September, forcing President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to the southern port city of Aden. When Houthi forces seemed about to take Aden, too, the Saudi regime made its move.

The regime’s fear is that Houthi control of Yemen would create a pro-Iranian outpost on Saudi Arabia’s southern flank. The Houthis are members of the Zaidi current of Shia Islam, but historically have been closer in orientation to Sunni Islam.

Nevertheless, the air strikes–and the further threat of Saudi or even Egyptian troops participating in a ground invasion–could backfire in spectacular fashion.

The bombings have already claimed the lives of dozens of civilians and wounded many more, burying entire families under flattened houses, according to eyewitnesses. By alienating even Yemenis critical of the Houthi advance, the Saudi intervention could bring about the result it was supposed to forestall.

According to Nussaibah Younis of the Project for Middle East Democracy, writing in theGuardian newspaper:

The Houthi movement has been able to advance across Yemen largely because of its alliance with the ancien régime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because of its ability to tap into disillusionment with the poor performance of the Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi government. 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…[B]ombing the country is not ‘standing up to Iran’; it is plunging the country further into violence and chaos.

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YEMEN IS the poorest country in the Middle East. In 2011, amid the other Arab Spring rebellions across the region, a pro-democracy movement bloomed, threatening the rule of U.S.-backed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. The U.S. and other powers stepped in to manage a transfer of power to Hadi, one of Saleh’s former deputies, in early 2012.

But in the years since, Yemen has been pulled apart by an array of counterrevolutionary forces–ranging from the U.S. military, to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), to ISIS, to the Houthi movement, which has aligned itself with the former dictator Saleh.

The Houthi advance also represents a humiliating setback for the U.S., which had hoped to claim Yemen as a base for the new and virulent strain of American militarism: drone warfare. Instead, the rebel offensive compelled U.S. forces to evacuate their bases in Yemen–torching all of their gear for fear that it might fall into enemy hands.

The record of drone warfare shows it is far from the surgically precise way to get the “bad guys,” as military apologists for the countless numbers of civilians killed try to claim. As antiwar author Tom Engelhardt explains:

More than a decade of intense experience with drones teaches us at least one salient lesson: our robot warriors make war in the usual sense of the term, but in another way as well. In places that are not officially American war zones, their operations also regularly generate war. They are, that is, not a military solution to a problem, but a significant part of that problem.

Despite all this, after a two-day summit of 22 Arab nations in late March, Saudi Arabia looks ready to forge ahead. The conference ended with a pledge to continue the air strikes for six months and to assemble a joint military force to address “unprecedented unrest and threats endured by the Arab world.” The full-throated support for the operation from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry no doubt further strengthened Saudi resolve.

Yet the bombing and intervention may lead, months down the road, to stepped-up recruitment by AQAP and ISIS. In the words of Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, “Foreign states that go to war in Yemen usually come to regret it.”

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MEANWHILE, IN Iraq, the U.S. says its bombing of ISIS in Tikrit is at the behest of the Iraqi government. While this may be true in a technical sense, the Obama administration tends not to point out that the Iraqi government was practically chosen by U.S. officials after they pushed for the ouster of their previously handpicked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Even the New York Times editorial board, which typically supports the Obama administration’s foreign policy endeavors, was critical of the air offensive in Tikrit.

On March 26, the day after operations began, the paper ran an editorial that reads in part:

The strikes are part of a campaign that from the outset has been waged without the authorization from Congress required by the Constitution…[Obama’s] reliance on two Bush-era war authorizations, for Afghanistan and Iraq, is insufficient to embroil the nation in the war against ISIS, which has been underway for eight months and could continue for years.

These strikes could further destabilize Iraq if the United States is seen to be siding with Shiite militias–which make up the bulk of the ground forces battling ISIS in Tikrit–over Iraq’s minority Sunnis. Yet in a sign of just how unpredictable the dynamics of the region are, some of the militias see the United States as the greater evil and are so angered by the air strikes that they have already announced they are pulling out of the fight.

Like in Yemen, Iraqi government forces are outmatched by a combination of sectarian militias and foreign powers. But the irony is that in this context, the U.S. and Iran are on the same side–they both regard ISIS as the key strategic threat in Iraq and Syria.

But because Iraqi military and security forces are weak–even after years and billions of U.S. dollars spent on training and equipment–the U.S. has been heavily dependent on Iraq’s Shia militias that are aligned with the Iranian government.

Some 20,000 Shia fighters have been battling ISIS in Tikrit, alongside a few thousand regular Iraqi troops. Iraqi officials claim to be able to muster some 48,000 troops in all of Iraq, but this is almost certainly an exaggeration. By contrast, the Shia militias number roughly 120,000, and they are far more capable and determined as a fighting force.

But these militias are a mirror image of the ISIS fighters they oppose–carrying out sectarian assaults on Iraq’s Sunni population in the territory they retake, while ISIS wages war on the Shia. This explains why the journal Foreign Policy ran a recent article under the headline, “The U.S. Is Providing Air Cover for Ethnic Cleansing in Iraq.”

According to a report by the United Nations Human Rights Council:

Throughout the summer of 2014, [the Shiite] militia moved from their southern heartlands towards [Islamic State]-controlled areas in central and northern Iraq. While their military campaign against the group gained ground, the militias seem to operate with total impunity, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.

The battle for Tikrit hasn’t gone well for the Shiite militias. In nearly four weeks–and at a heavy cost in terms of casualties–they only reached the outskirts of Tikrit before bogging down in the face of sniper fire, booby-trapped buildings and the inherent difficulties of close urban fighting.

This provided an opening to the U.S. that Washington quickly exploited with the late March air strikes–no doubt in the hopes of proving to Iraqi government officials as well as Tehran that U.S. military power remains decisive in the war against ISIS. The U.S. pressed its advantage and demanded that the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps step aside, not wanting to appear to be directly aiding a paramilitary group that Washington designates to be a foreign terrorist entity.

U.S. officials must be relieved that Iran’s troops and Shia militias aligned with them didn’t sweep through Tikrit–their momentum might have carried them all the way to Mosul, a major Iraqi city conquered by ISIS last summer, with higher strategic importance and a massive oilfield beneath it.

But the U.S. still faces the same problems with its war on ISIS. Without deploying ground troops, the U.S. will almost certainly be pressed into an alliance with Iran again, if and when the battle for Mosul takes shape. So even if Washington has regained the upper hand for the moment, this is only one round in an ongoing play for power in the region.

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THE TURN to stepped-up military intervention in both Yemen and Iraq has commentators and foreign policy experts wondering aloud about a new U.S. strategy or a deepening of the intractable contradiction in U.S. policy toward Iran.

With negotiators working through a self-imposed deadline to conclude an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, it is too early to say for certain.

More hawkish foreign policy figures–and certainly all the Obama haters–claim that the U.S. is being too deferential to Iran, which has been the main beneficiary of the many blunders by the U.S. in the Middle East, beginning with the Bush administration’s disastrous 2003 invasion and occupation.

In late March, David Rothkopf, editor of Foreign Policy, wrote:

The administration’s good first-term toughness toward Iran on nuclear sanctions was followed by a second-term hunger for a nuclear deal that was so great that everyone from Tehran to Toledo, Ohio, now believes that the United States wants the deal more than the Iranians do and has lost negotiating leverage as a result.

That’s one possibility. But there’s another possible outcome that all the bickering between Obama and the Republicans–not to mention Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–has opened up: That John Kerry can credibly say to Iranian negotiators that they better accept the deal he’s offering, or they will end up having to deal with hard-liners who are just waiting to carry out air strikes on Tehran.

However the nuclear negotiations end up, it’s not too early to say this: The U.S. and Iran are both allies and rivals, and in these unprecedented times, every player appears prepared to place big bets–despite the risks–in the hopes of a quick victory, but they are more likely to produce violence and humanitarian disaster on a horrific scale.

What’s more, with the relative decline of U.S. military and diplomatic influence in the region–the consequence of earlier imperialist failures and the unpredictable currents unleashed by the Arab revolutions–the region is passing into a more unstable war of all against all, as every power tries to position itself to fill whatever parts of the vacuum it can.

With revolutionary forces on the defensive, the dominant logic–at least so far–of the conflict is a terrifying spiral of sectarian violence and the specter of a Sunni-Shia civil war that could upend the entire region. It has already created millions of refugees, and there could be millions more before it’s over.

[This article was first published at]