Great empires are not maintained by timidity
November 12, 2017 5:13 AM   Subscribe

A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East.
Volatility is rising across the Middle East as local, regional and international conflicts increasingly intertwine and amplify each other. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of the new risks of overlapping conflicts that involve Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and Israel.

Via Martin Chulov: Tension mounts in Lebanon as Saudi Arabia escalates power struggle with Iran.
Hussein Ibish: Iran's long-cherished Tehran to Beirut 'land-bridge' moves closer to reality
The map of the Middle East is being redrawn.
posted by adamvasco (32 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Worked in the region 2009-13 and traveled extensively through Jordan, across Syria by land, and into both northern and southern Lebanon. I don't have much positive to say about the linked articles. I tend to flag language such as:
  • ...haunted the nightmares of many Arab states and Israel, as well as insightful and well-informed Turks and Americans.

  • ...even the great Persian empires of the past have scarcely dreamt of it.

  • ...the efficacy of which very much remains to be determined.

  • The coincidence of a missile intercepted north of Riyadh and over an airport at the same time airports were shuttered to prevent any accused royalists from departure is uncanny, to be decorous. Saad Hiriri's dual citizenship and privileged pedigree could never be anything other than problematic and the sudden resignation (imo) more greatly indicates fatigue (political leadership in 2005) than imminent danger.

    The instant I'm tempted to write "proxy" war, I'm hesitant because articulation and explanation of generational conflict predicated by cultural and religious schism isn't amenable to block text on a forum, so instead I'll reference this and this [navigate to links]
    posted by lazycomputerkids at 6:40 AM on November 12 [11 favorites]

    It seems that there's an alignment of interest here between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Has that been reflected in any official acknowledgement, or are they still rhetorical enemies and/or officially at war?
    posted by clawsoon at 7:10 AM on November 12

    This is a prize of such enormity that even the great Persian empires of the past have scarcely dreamt of it.

    You know, except for the Achaemenids, or during the 7th century, when the Sasanians captured a continuous band of territory from Armenia down through the Near East, and over to Egypt.
    posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:42 AM on November 12 [16 favorites]

    They mentioned on the news this morning that the cholera outbreak in Yemen, as a result of the war, is now the worst in modern history. Almost 1 million cases in a population of 27 million.

    I went looking for maps of the land bridge to the Mediterranean which Iran has achieved. The New Yorker projected these possible routes in the summer, and The Guardian projected these routes in the spring. So far I'm not finding anything that's right up to date.
    posted by clawsoon at 7:47 AM on November 12 [4 favorites]


    Linking primarily for the comments. That was more of a breaking-wtf post while this one is much more in-depth.
    posted by glonous keming at 8:03 AM on November 12 [1 favorite]

    > Has that been reflected in any official acknowledgement,...

    Official acknowledgement has no precedent that I know of... Entering KSA with an Israeli stamp in your passport is forbidden (with rumored workarounds). KSA opens its air space to Israel when Iran makes moves. Assad's position is not (imo) buoyed by the passing of time, but I would not have predicted in 2010 the duration of this tactical stalemate.

    Speculations in the vein of Risk quickly wear thin, but are typical currency of youthful embassy personnel ;) I tend to focus on trade and had a lot of hope for Obama's last efforts with Iran and equal dismay with his drone policy in Yemen. Lebanon's many examples of coexistence threaten all sides. Its economic stagnation has robbed its appearance of the Paris of the Middle East, but not a heart. The plus million exodus from Syria is a tragedy of historic proportion.
    posted by lazycomputerkids at 8:03 AM on November 12 [6 favorites]

    It seems that there's an alignment of interest here between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Has that been reflected in any official acknowledgement, or are they still rhetorical enemies and/or officially at war?

    There is a leaked cable (either intentionally or unintentionally leaked) from the Israeli foreign ministry that backs Hariri's resignation and the Saudi's war in Yemen. Saudi state media is backing Israel as a foe of Iran.
    posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:15 AM on November 12 [1 favorite]

    Also, Hariri will be interviewed tonight in Riyadh. The Lebanese president has just claimed that Hariri is a guest of the KSA in the same way that James Bond was a guest of Dr. No.
    posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:30 AM on November 12 [3 favorites]

    RobotVoodooPower: Saudi state media is backing Israel as a foe of Iran.

    How will that go over in the rest of the Arab and Islamic worlds? (I'm reminded of the scandal in Christendom which resulted from the alliance that Francis I made with Suleiman I. Saudi Arabia is obviously feeling nervous about its power if it's quietly reaching a hand out to Israel.)
    posted by clawsoon at 8:55 AM on November 12

    You know, except for the Achaemenids, or during the 7th century, when the Sasanians captured a continuous band of territory from Armenia down through the Near East, and over to Egypt.

    Also the Seleucids, although I suppose they weren’t actually Persian.
    posted by leotrotsky at 8:59 AM on November 12

    Long-form counterfactual: Lebanon: the Republic of Resignations
    posted by marycatherine at 9:40 AM on November 12 [1 favorite]

    Saudi Arabia and Israel have common enemies, Hezbollah and Hamas and Iran. My impression Is that there is a fair amount of pragmatic cooperation between them.
    posted by Bee'sWing at 9:41 AM on November 12

    Saudi Arabia is obviously feeling nervous about its power if it's quietly reaching a hand out to Israel.

    I'm no kind of expert, but that read doesn't seem to jibe with the rest of the moves the Crown Prince is making. He and his father now have complete control over the reins of power, and he's making bold moves left and right --- Yemen, Lebanon, making noises about modernisation and defying conservative clerics, and last but not least, trying to take Aramco public. If I had to add that all up, it seems to me that your man thinks that if Saudi Arabia can be brought into the 21st century, it could become the dominant power in the region, and if they play their cards right vis-a-vis Iran, unify Sunni Islam behind them in the process. An empire in all but name.

    It has never before occurred to me how lucky the West was never to have had a Saudi king who actually wanted to use all that oil money for something.
    posted by Diablevert at 10:19 AM on November 12 [14 favorites]

    Great Empire, one of the original oxymorons.
    posted by Oyéah at 11:23 AM on November 12 [1 favorite]

    No need to worry, Jared Kushner has a cunning plan.
    posted by Kattullus at 12:13 PM on November 12 [2 favorites]

    A prescient article from a year ago : - The Iranian Empire Is Almost Complete.
    Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq are nearly fully under Iran’s control. It is the culmination of a decades-long plan.
    posted by adamvasco at 1:47 PM on November 12 [1 favorite]

    Diablevert: I wouldn't worry about MBS managing to build an empire centered on Saudi Arabia. So far his foreign policy accomplishments are famine and cholera in Yemen, Qatar telling him to fuck off and aligning itself with Iran and Turkey, and provoking a crisis in Lebanon so cack-handedly even Tillerson had to make disapproving noises.

    This is before we get into what privatization is actually going to look like on the ground in Saudi Arabia. The results of large scale privatization have ranged from paying more for a slow degradation of service and infrastructure in the anglosphere to so socially and politically catastrophic Vladimir Putin still seems like a good idea in Russia. Maybe the Saudis will pull it off. Maybe they'll engineer the largest sale of state assets in history and all of the touted benefits of privatization will occur for them. And maybe there's going to be a lot of pissed off unemployed Saudis and a lot of pissed of Wahhabi clerics.

    Finally and more broadly, a general theme of the past 10 - 15 years in the region is that the people who make the big bold moves with visions of redrawing the map see things go pretty badly wrong for them in pretty short order. Russia and Iran have been winning pretty consistently by having limited objectives that they pursue vigorously, and managing to not have too many fuck ups.

    adamvasco: Case in point. Syria was co-operating with the US prior to the second Iraq war. They had sent troops to the first Iraq war, and after 9/11 they were torturing suspects for US intelligence. The Second gulf war created distance, then the decision to fund and arm people who's motto was "Christians to Beirut; Alawites to the grave" meant that the enmity was permanent. Iran stepped into the gap.

    Likewise, Iraq was firmly under the control of Saddam, who was no friend of Iran until the US invaded, toppled him, and put the Shi'ites in control. What we are seeing is not some sinister Iranian master plan. What we're seeing is the US fucking up repeatedly, and Iran capitalizing on the fuckups.
    posted by Grimgrin at 2:14 PM on November 12 [17 favorites]

    What we're seeing is the US fucking up repeatedly, and Iran capitalizing on the fuckups.

    At some point you have to wonder if it's fuckups or policy.

    Suppose US policy was driven by a pragmatic desire to keep competing powers weak and divided. After the oil crisis of the 70s, if not before, it became clear that OPEC was effectively a competing power that had to be weakened. Consequently, the US begins supporting anti-regime forces in Iran by publishing information on abuses of human rights by the Pahlavi regime. This is more successful than anticipated and Iran actually undergoes an Islamic revolution. Because the new regime is no weaker, and actually more anti-US than its predecessor, the US then exploits tension between Iran and Iraq to drive them into war.

    The Iran-Iraq war and its regional consequences weakens OPEC for a while, but eventually the war comes to an end and the other OPEC states have been mostly unaffected. Iraq is impoverished from its expenditure on the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam floats the idea of invading Kuwait. He gets US permission to go ahead, or at least thinks he does, and it's much more successful than the attack on Iran. Saudi Arabia fears it will be next so it begs for US assistance, which is granted, making it a US client state.

    This is where the US fatally over-reaches: it thinks it can grab Iraq itself and become suzerain of the Middle East. When that proves too expensive it installs a pro-Iranian regime that will be at odds with Saudi Arabia, in line with its policy of promoting regional counterweights. That works for a while, but the US doesn't actually want Iran to control Iraq. It therefore promotes a young warlord it had earlier imprisoned (allegedly without ever, e.g., photographing him or even learning his real name) and makes sure he can "capture" weapons that the US-supplied Iraqi forces abandon while "retreating". ISIS is remarkably successful, although it needs constant support via Saudi funds and serendipitous captures of US-supplied materiel. The chaos spils into Syria, a Russian ally, which the US considers to be a useful bonus.

    Unfortunately, Iran has been a constant and coordinated opponent that has the advantage of being able to operate directly. It has a long-term goal of creating a Shi'ite Crescent reaching from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, and every alliance is made with that in mind. The chaos in Syria let it offer a deal to Russia: support its objectives and Russia gets to keep its Mediterranean bases and share Iran's new territorial advantages. For its part, Iran gets both symbolic and actual Russian military support, which makes US-sponsored attacks far more difficult and expensive.

    So basically, the US program worked until it didn't: it sponsored chaos until another powerful entity stepped in. Now Iran is the dominant regional power and the US allies are revealed as effete and impotent potentates. There are no regional powers left that can challenge it, and the US can't operate openly because it doesn't want to risk war with Russia. Checkmate.
    posted by Joe in Australia at 3:08 PM on November 12 [7 favorites]

    the only reason iran and saudi arabia are vying to be the regional power right now is that turkey has not been all out trying to make their power felt

    maybe they won't - or maybe they'll look back and realize that at one time much of this was THEIR empire

    our country needs to step away from this mess, quickly - there's no telling what the sides are going to be except that political entities are bound to fracture further than they already have, and it's probably going to be awful and nasty
    posted by pyramid termite at 3:48 PM on November 12 [2 favorites]

    > the only reason iran and saudi arabia are vying to be the regional power right now is that turkey has not been all out trying to make their power felt

    Under Gül, Turkey's economy was largely unaffected by the 2008-10 global crises, but Erdo?an hasn't been progressive at all. Which is in no way an endorsement of one over the other. Erdo?an engages all sorts of petty theater one might qualify as all out, such as his May 16, 2017, meeting with Trump and ensuing brawl.

    Historical insights, their confirmation, are easy, but at the risk of being dismissed as twee-- Why is history always his story, and heresy hers? There's much compelling to discover in Riwaya's sustained witness linked above and despite any tedious, geopolitical frame, on the ground it's jobs and holidays and shopping and construction and schools and hospitals. I agree with grimgrin's attention to privatization and know Diablevert's cursory conclusion to be flawed because I witnessed and participated in 20 year plans to coordinate hospitals and universities. The smallest and richest Gulf states have, and do, waste much capital on resorts and luxury and stipends for mere citizenship, but KSA and Iran are vast by comparison and are possessed by a middle-class.

    Westerners ubiquitously dismiss KSA largely by two means: Women's rights and Wahhabi fundamentalism. And I've been to al Qassim and listened to women equally eschew and embrace western perspectives. Only remotely for me, Egypt's struggles, its women, its fundamentalist sects, much the same, down to the Sudan, across to Morocco.

    It's not what policy is, it's how it does it, and to "step away" isn't an option nor should it be.
    posted by lazycomputerkids at 5:37 PM on November 12 [2 favorites]

    There's been an earthquake near the Iran/Iraq border. 330 people are reported killed, and 1700 injured.
    posted by Joe in Australia at 2:12 AM on November 13

    I wouldn't worry about MBS managing to build an empire centered on Saudi Arabia

    To be clear, what I said was about trying to think about what the Crown Prince is trying to do, not about whether he'll succeed. And there is obviously a huge gap between those. Nearly everything he's done has created enemies which will have to be defeated in order for the manuever to succeed. If privatisation goes badly, if the populace resents his social liberalisation, if other royals still have loyal followers in the security services, if the Kingdom goes to war and doesn't win, quickly and clearly...on any of those vectors could a counterweight arise that would threaten his rule and perhaps his life, possibly throw the country into chaos. Chaos is probably far more likely than success.
    posted by Diablevert at 3:39 AM on November 13 [1 favorite]

    Prior to 1979, Israel and Iran were pretty close, with a significant Iranian-Jewish population now living in Israel. The siding with Saudi is a bit icky to me, this enemy of my enemy BS thinking from Netanyahu (no doubt encouraged by Kushner and the Trump White House) is probably going to end in tears.
    posted by PenDevil at 11:24 PM on November 13

    Iran literally writes "death to Israel" on its missiles. It is also the director and sponsor of Hezbollah, an organisation that goes around killing Jews and Israelis when it's not working on its main program: preparing for an attack on Israel. Oh, and a few months ago Iran unveiled a giant clock counting down the number of days before Israel is destroyed.

    What I'm saying is, the 1979 relationship is a bit rocky.

    I don't imagine Netanyahu is going to do more than make polite noises at the Saudi leadership, but there's still a very real risk that Israel will be at open war with Iranian forces in Syria or Lebanon in the near future. Iran has been working towards that since 1979 and it looks as though its plans are nearly complete.
    posted by Joe in Australia at 12:01 AM on November 14

    How cynical can you get. Passing a non-binding resolution in this context is like giving Monopoly money to a beggar. Congress is literally the source of the authority for US involvement in this war, so they're saying that while they think it's illegal, they're not going to make it so.
    posted by Joe in Australia at 12:02 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]

    Adam Johnson in FAIR: Guardian, NYT Paint Power-Grabbing Saudi Dictator as Roguish, Visionary ‘Reformer’
    While the text of the Times articles was far more skeptical about Mohammed’s motives, the Guardian’s (11/5/17) initial coverage of the bloody purge—not just the headlines—was written in breathless press release tones:
    Saudi Arabia’s leadership has pulled off its boldest move yet to consolidate power around its young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, arresting 11 senior princes, one of the country’s richest men and scores of former ministers in what it billed as a corruption purge.

    The move sidelined at least 20 senior figures, among them outspoken billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, sending shockwaves through the ranks of the kingdom’s elites, who had long viewed senior royals as immune.
    Lot of glowing prose to unpack here. Longtime Mideast correspondent Martin Chulov began by referring to “Saudi Arabia’s leadership,” which is a nice, sterile way of referencing the country’s unelected hereditary king and crown prince. Then he pivoted into marketing pablum about “bold moves” and “consolidating power,” before unironically framing the purge as an “anti-corruption” gesture designed to stick it to the “kingdom’s elites.” One could come away from reading this lead with the impression that the billionaire aristocrat was a populist folk hero in the vein of Robin Hood or John Dillinger.
    posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:55 PM on November 17 [2 favorites]

    MBS a la Trump: “Making Saudi Arabia Great Again”!
    I stood in front of a mosque in the city of Qatif, Saudi Arabia, interviewing people for a story. Suddenly, two city police cars pulled up. Several minutes later plain clothes officers from the secret police began questioning me.
    posted by adamvasco at 4:56 AM on November 20

    Alex Emmons in The Intercept: "In Yemen's '60 Minutes' Moment, No Mention That the U.S. Is Fueling the Conflict"
    Coverage on such a high-profile program is frequently enough to get politicians to pay attention to an issue, and the “60 Minutes” feature comes amid a growing debate about the U.S. role in the war. Just last week, the House of Representatives voted to say that Congress has not authorized American military support for the Saudi-led coalition.

    Still, the program did not once mention that Saudi Arabia is a U.S. ally, and that U.S. support is essential for the Saudi campaign to continue.

    For two-and-a-half years, the U.S. government has backed Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen every step of the way. The United States has dispatched warships to reinforce the blockade. It has refueled Saudi planes, sent the Saudi military targeting intelligence, and resupplied them with tens of billions of dollars worth of bombs.

    The U.S. has had the power to pull the plug on the intervention since the beginning. Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a 30-year veteran of the CIA, explained last year that “if the United States and the United Kingdom, tonight, told King Salman [of Saudi Arabia], ‘This war has to end,’ it would end tomorrow. The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support.”
    posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:20 PM on November 20

    haha remember when Thomas Friedman said the Iraq War would be good because sometimes you have to beat up a pissant little country just to show everyone who's boss

    guess what his opinion of Mohammad bin Salman's purge is
    posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:32 AM on November 25 [1 favorite]

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