The more we hear of the fight against IS as a war for the hearts and minds of Muslims throughout the Middle East, the more some rather conspicuous absentees in the war becomes apparent. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel asks some very uncomfortable questions at Al-Monitor:
In the wake of the Islamic State’s (IS) attacks in the Sinai Peninsula, Beirut and Paris, there is an urgent need to mobilize resources to deal with the threat, especially resources in the Arab world. Instead, Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are devoting their resources and efforts to a floundering and expensive military campaign in Yemen.
When the air campaign against IS began more than a year ago, the Royal Saudi Air Force was an early participant. But it has not flown a mission against IS targets since September, according to The New York Times. Bahrain last flew a mission against IS in February. The United Arab Emirates stopped in March — even Jordan stopped in August.
There has been no formal or public announcement of the stand-down. The Arab governments all reiterate their strong opposition to IS. This week, Riyadh’s skyscrapers were lit in the French colors to express solidarity with Paris. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud told President Barack Obama in Ankara that Saudi Arabia will play a major role in Syria. But in practice, American military officials report the war in Yemen has drained Arab air power away from the fight with the terrorists in Syria and Iraq. Yemen is the priority even if some token operations occasionally are taken to strike IS targets.
The absence of Arab air forces creates a political — not military — void, even though Russia, France and America are fully capable of waging an air war against IS. The coalition is missing the Muslim answer to the self-proclaimed “Caliph Ibrahim.” This is a waste of symbolically important resources.
Yeah, you could see how people might get confused. As Riedel notes, hundreds of Saudis are fighting in Syria and Iraq, and they’re not fighting against IS. Like Al Qaeda before them, the IS leadership can easily take the position that the Princes are playing a double game with the West, and either secretly support IS’s vindication of Saudi Arabia’s official Wahhabi sect (it’s a good guess some members of the Royal Family are hedging bets) or are just too corrupted by oil contracts to do the right thing.
Worse than the inaction against IS, the “moderate” Gulf States are demanding a big new infusion of arms assistance for their morally calamitous war against Yemen, which is very much a war on Shi’a and their patrons the meta-enemy of IS in Tehran. There’s even an al Qaeda angle:
But Riyadh’s attention and resources are focused on Yemen as the war there has come to a stalemate. After some successes over the summer, the Saudi-led coalition had promised to capture Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, this fall. That looks unlikely today. The war is also a humanitarian catastrophe for 25 million Yemenis, as the blockade prevents the supply of food and medicine.
Even worse is that the major beneficiaries of the war so far are al-Qaeda and Iran. Al-Qaeda has seized control of large parts of southeastern Yemen since the war began. Its black flags fly in Aden, the temporary capital of the pro-Saudi government. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has grown stronger in the months since it attacked Paris in January, not weaker. That is a disturbing portent for those now promising to defeat IS.
Iran is fighting to the last Houthi, laughing at the Saudis and Emiratis as they spend resources in what Tehran hopes will be an endless quagmire. Iran gains in Iraq and Syria from the Sunni forces’ diversion to Yemen.
Washington and Paris have both indulged Riyadh’s Yemen mission, as both have hosted Saudi Defense Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman — the 30-year-old architect of the Yemen war — and have done far too little to bring an end to this disaster. They have the leverage, along with London, since they control the pipeline of military resupply to the RSAF and its allies, but their half-hearted attempts to start a political process need much greater urgency. Both sides have accepted UN mediation and the UN Security Council resolution for a cease-fire, but the conflict drags on without pause.
So we’re backing their extremely dubious war in the hope they will engage in ours, which they’ve shown no real inclination to do. What a mess.