Proxy War in Yemen

17 May 2015

Sunday


yemen on the map

When we hear “proxy war” we think of the Cold War, but the idea of a proxy war can be extrapolated beyond the particular circumstances of the Cold War to apply to any war fought between two or more nation-states that is not fought on the territory of the nation-states in question. Yemen has become a battleground, a proxy war, within the larger de facto war taking place within Islamic civilization (which I have touched upon in The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization and The Problem of Islamic Terrorism). Yemen is, one might say (with a certain ruefulness), the “perfect” venue for a proxy war in the region. On the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, directly bordering on Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government is not strong enough to enforce an internal security regime, and is routinely referred to as a “failed state” (cf. Yemen and Warfare in Failed States).

Yemen-map-jpg

In a couple of posts on the developments in Yemen during the events following the Arab SpringDefinitive Ambiguity in Yemen and Saleh gives the Saudis the Slip — I discussed the murkiness of Yemeni politics. As we now see, the definitive ambiguity in Yemen has given way to civil war and proxy war. The situation in Yemen has calmed down for the moment, but it is the nature of proxy wars to pass through cycles of relative calm punctuated by flareups of spectacular violence. We should expect to see further such flareups.

Yemen has long been a primarily tribal society, and as such it has been an easy mark for outside powers, who can usually find a willing client among the many tribes. The country was split in two during the Cold War between North Yemen and South Yemen in an earlier proxy war. In more recent events, after the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the installation of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels, Shia backed by Iran, established control over a considerable portion of the country, sending Hadi packing, and Saudi Arabia responded by bombing Yemen to push back against Houthi gains. Interestingly, former president Saleh has sided with the Houthis (cf. Eyeing return, Yemen’s ousted Saleh aids Houthis).

Yemen_Topography

There is a backstory to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s proclamation of support for the Houthi rebels making progress in Yemen. During the Arab Spring (seems like a long time ago now, right?), when autocrats who expected (and attempted to enforce) a life tenure in office were falling left and right, the Saudis pressured Saleh into giving up power. Saleh, apparently a wily character, tried his best to hang on, and even slipped out of Saudi Arabia after receiving medical treatment in the Kingdom. One suspects that this current ploy is (among other things) an opportunity for Saleh to poke Saudi Arabia in the eye with a stick after they were instrumental in his ouster from power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

So Yemen finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with Iran backing proxies and Saudi Arabia bombing the country. Iran, the contemporary representative of an ancient civilization derived from the west Asia cluster, Persia, possesses a dimension of prestige that extends to before the the advent of Islamic civilization. This might seem a bit recondite to enter into contemporary geopolitical hardball, but it is not far below the surface. The Financial Times quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, as saying, “Yemen is an independent country with an old civilisation, much older than Saudi Arabia.” The subtext of this message is that Iran is an independent country with an old civilzation, much older than Saudi Arabia.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

It has been argued that the conflicts among Islamic nation-states are not religious conflicts per se, assimilating conflict within Islamic civilization to conflict within the nation-state paradigm, and doing so where that paradigm is at its weakest, even as groups like ISIS seek to score ideological points by flaunting conventions of the nation-state, as in their pointed abrogation of territorial boundaries (cf. ISIS and Sykes-Picot).

It has also been argued that Iran and groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been for decades contesting for the title of vanguard of revolutionary Islam, with the idea being whichever can prove itself the more radical and ruthless will win the acclaim of the Islamic masses, and that this rivalry transcends the split between Sunni and Shia because it pits the Ummah against Dar al-Harb, and presumably unifies the Islamic masses against a common enemy. (One then wonders why ISIS, most recent representative of radical Islam, makes a point of mass executions of those they regard as infidels, most of whom are fellow Muslims, although not sharing the exact beliefs of ISIS.)

If both of these arguments are taken seriously, then we could safely ignore the Sunni/Shia split in Islamic civilization and proceed to predict the actions of agents in current regional conflicts in purely secular terms, without reference to Islam. At this point, we realize that this is a familiar argument and that we have seen it before. This is exactly the sort of thing that Sam Harris has criticized in his many books on the role of religion in public life: the moderate views of the many come to facilitate the radical views of the few, as the radicals are dismissed as not “really” representing the religious views of the community, therefore they can safely be ignored and treated as criminals, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever. All the while, unquestioned moderate religious beliefs are the backdrop that gives plausibility and prestige to radical views disclaimed by moderates. (In Hearts and Minds and Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind I called this the principle of facilitating moderation.) The Sunni/Shia split is embedded in the moderate representatives of Islam, and cannot be disentangled from regional diplomacy without falsifying events on the ground.

The illusion of a secular conflict in MENA, in so far as this illusion is perpetuated, will turn diplomacy into a sideshow unrelated to the reality on the ground, and ineffectual for that reason. The most recent message from Al-Khalifah Ibrahim, Ameer Al-Mu’mineen, Al-Sheikh Al-Mujaahid Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi, “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy,” takes pains to disavow any secular interpretation of the actions of ISIS:

O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war until Allah is worshiped alone. He (peace be upon him) said to the polytheists of his people, “I came to you with slaughter.” He fought both the Arabs and non-Arabs in all their various colors. He himself left to fight and took part in dozens of battles. He never for a day grew tired of war.

In the public discourse of the US, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran was primarily about delaying the eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to ameliorate the perception of an existential threat to Israel. Here in the west we have our own problems with mainstream religious moderates making excuses for religious extremists, who use their extremist credentials to establish their bona fides with the Christian masses. Thus the Israeli-Iran conflict plays well in the US press, and is uncontroversial because all political parties in the US support Israel. But the recent U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David (cf. More than Keeping Up the Facade: The U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David by Anthony H. Cordesman) reveals that there is much more going on in the deal with Iran than is part of the public discourse of ensuring Israeli security.

The US has long-standing security relationships with Sunni Arab states, and especially with Saudi Arabia (which spends six times more on its military than does Iran). The Gulf Sunni Arab states are worried that a US-Iranian rapprochement will mean that long-frozen Iranian assets will be made available to Iran, and, with the reintegration of Iran in the global financial community, Iran will have even more money to back its regional proxies, which have long been Iran’s most effective foreign policy tool. This is a legitimate concern on the part of the Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia itself knows all too well the soft power it buys with the money is spreads around; Iran does the same thing with far less money, but with hard power assets thrown into the deal), but this is not a concern that plays well in the US press, and no Saudi prince is going to receive an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, especially over White House objections. Moreover, there is an ideological overlap between the Salafist extremism actively supported by Saudi Arabia and the extremism of ISIS (an overlap that goes beyond their common Sunni beliefs), and, if this were to be widely discussed in the US press, Iran would look good by comparison.

The nuclear deal with Iran is as relevant, if not more relevant, to Saudi Arabia than it is to Israel. It is widely understood that Saudi Arabia partially funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the understanding that, if Saudi Arabia wants nuclear weapons, then they will be made available. Thus Saudi Arabia has access to nuclear weapons without having to host the industrial infrastructure of the nuclear fuel cycle on its own soil — a triumph of plausible deniability. The Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, while primarily about regime survivability, must also be seen in the light of Saudi Arabia’s deniable nuclear capability (which can be understood as an instance of nuclear ambiguity).

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Grand Strategy Annex

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The Mess in Mesopotamia

28 February 2015

Saturday


Islamic state territory

Introduction: A Failed Region

What do you get when you cluster several failed nation-states together in a single geographical region? You get a failed region, and what we see today in Mesopotamia and the Levant is a failed region catastrophically failing. This is regionalism gone horribly wrong. Even by the self-serving standards of the international nation-state system, the several regimes of the region are not only failing to provide basic services for their respective peoples, but are manifestly making life much worse and more difficult for the unfortunates resident in the region.

My previous post on Islamic State, The Philosophical Basis of Islamic State, was purely analysis; I made no recommendations or policy prescriptions. Here I am going to shift gears and consider how the present violence in the region will ultimately be reduced through some settlement to the ongoing conflict. The level of violence in the region is not now compatible with civil society, and the longer this level of violence continues, the greater the breakdown of institutions on the ground. The sooner the violence is reduced, institutions still in existence may recover. If violence persists, all functioning institutions may disappear and new institutions will have to be established in their place, even if they are former institutions resurrected.

Violence is destabilizing; insurgencies and political movements know this (this knowledge is a major source of revolutionary violence), and so they foment violence as a tactic to destabilize the established order so that they can insert themselves in addition to or in place of that order. But implicit in this tactic is that, once a new political accommodation is found, violence will subside and civil society will be able to return to some semblance of normality, perhaps on a different basis (presumably the basis preferred by those who instigated the violence). Islamic State is no exception to this time-honored political calculation, despite its apocalyptic pretensions. They seek to eliminate the nation-states of the region and to assert the control of the Islamic State caliphate in place of these nation-states. Once the work of replacement is completed (if it is completed), civil society will proceed under principles of Islamic law as recognized by Islamic State. The point here is simply that, one way or another, the unsustainable levels of violence will recede, and the only question is the mechanism by which the reduction in violence takes place, and whether it leaves in its wake a stable civil society or an unstable civil society that will give way to further violence.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

This fantasy map for a future Islamic State resembles of fantasy maps of Akhand Bharat and Gazwa-e-Hind I have previously discussed; it also reveals something of the secular ambitions of Islamic State sympathizers, apart from their eschatological expectations.

The Options for Islamic State

After I wrote ISIS and Sykes-Picot I must admit that I was quite surprised that Islamic State declared the reestablishment of the caliphate. The stakes are high. If ISIS proclaims itself to be the caliphate and then fails ignominiously, this compromises any future attempt to reestablish the caliphate (i.e., another subsequent caliphate wouldn’t be taken seriously, and the caliphate is an institution that must command respect or it is better off defunct). If, however, ISIS can secure enough territory to keep its caliphate intact for some period of time, the longer it endures the greater legitimacy it will have.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Islamic State has been called the best funded terrorist organization ever in existence. This may be overstating the case — organized insurgencies in the Golden Triangle that took control of the opium trade, and non-state groups in Andean South America that monopolized cocaine trafficking, both commanded serious financial resources — but even to be among the most well-funded of non-state entities is a significant accomplishment. If ISIS can continue the flow of money and find ways to increase its funding as it increases its de facto territory, this will go a long way toward securing a longer term future for the group.

On the surface, it would seem that the prospects of ISIS are grim, and that the group must almost certainly be destroyed, root and branch, as long as their horrific tactics alienate world opinion so that major powers (like the US) have the political cover to intervene with the support of regional powers. If a nation-state with the resources of the US decides that your group should be destroyed, then you really don’t have much of a chance. Under conditions of strong motive and weak constraints, the US can act with impunity at any place on the planet. However, ideal conditions of motive and constraint rarely obtain in the messy reality of politics and diplomacy.

ISIS is in the classic position of an insurgency, except that it has ambitions to rule territory distinct from any contemporary nation-state. Therefore it cannot simply replace the leadership of some extant nation-state; in order to achieve success on its own terms it must establish control over some territory that can with some credibility be called a caliphate, to which sympathetic Muslims can travel to join the cause. Situated as they are at present, they are in a geographical position to easily draw off the disaffected youth of six neighboring states, and the truly determined will find a way to join the cause regardless of geographical obstacles (individuals from all over the world have already, in fact, made their way to Islamic State). As long as this flow of fighters into Islamic State continues, the group can expand its ability to project power.

Inflows of money and fighters have made ISIS what it is today. Can it maintain or expanded its successes to date? What strategy could ISIS pursue in order to continue in existence as a viable political entity and thereby the gain credibility for the caliphate it has declared? There seems to be only a single viable course of action, and that would be to so divide regional powers so as to paralyze any coalition action against ISIS. If local powers are sufficiently paralyzed, larger powers would be hesitant to commit sufficient forces, or to unilaterally seek the destruction of ISIS. This paralysis is already one of the factors that has allowed ISIS to seize and to hold territory.

As it turns out, it is not terribly difficult to divide opinion and to politically paralyze those regional nation-states that a power like the US would require as cover for offensive action necessary for the attainment of decisive objectives. It has been pointed out by many commentators that the global Islamic community (i.e., the Ummah) is quick to jump on perceived slights to their faith from non-Muslims, but when it comes to atrocities perpetrated by Muslims (as those being committed now by Islamic State as I write this) there is a preternatural silence. And even when the occasional Islamic nation-state makes an official condemnation of ISIS and their like, there still is no broad groundswell of outrage from the Ummah. There are theological reasons for this.

Islam has never had a top-down institutional organization of the kind that is commonplace in Christianity. As a result there has always been a tension in issues of governance of the Ummah. This is particularly apparent when it comes to declaring anything unislamic (takfir). If you wrongly denounce another Muslim as being non-Muslim in beliefs or practices, you are yourself non-Muslim. To be non-Muslim fallen from the true faith is to be an apostate, and the punishment for apostasy is death. Thus an outcry against Islamic State and its brutality would risk the standing of those protesting the beliefs and practices of Islamic State. As Islamic State appears to have a literal reading of the relevant texts on its side, few are ready to meet them in theological debate.

As neighboring regimes are kept off-balance by internal conflict, and no great power is willing to intervene regionally for this reason, ISIS can continue to expand its influence into the vacuum of destabilized and paralyzed regimes, making good on its commitment of offensive jihad.

peshmerga

The Options for Dar al-Harb

The appeal of ISIS is powerful, but also limited. If it demonstrated a resounding series of successes, it would expand its appeal and draw in more who want to believe its message but don’t quite dare to believe it yet. If ISIS can be contained, however, it will not be seen as moving from one success to another, the inflow of excited would-be jihadis will slow to a small trickle, and to the extent that the legitimacy of ISIS is predicated upon expansion through offensive jihad, its legitimacy would be called into question.

If ISIS is to be contained, and its prophetic mission thereby called into question as it accepts de facto borders between itself and surrounding nation-states, it must be contained by local forces with an ongoing interest in policing these borders. Anything achieved by outsiders who will eventually pull out and go home will necessarily be ephemeral, and ISIS can resume offensive Jihad after any pull out, legitimizing any pause in operations as a temporary truce (the latter acceptable according to the prophetic methodology). Thus the containment of ISIS must not be by the US, or NATO, or Europe, or even Russian or Chinese assistance to any one of the warring parties; containment must be effected by those who live in the region and who will remain in the region.

There is a way to do this, but this way is closed to the western powers for political reasons. The one coherent, workable strategy for Mesopotamia and the Levant that would have any chance of success — and by “success” I mean a long term reduction in violence and the establishment of a regional order that will allow the majority of individuals to live out their lives in relative safety and security — is, unfortunately, politically impossible… impossible, at least, for the US, and only nearly impossible for the rest of the world — and cannot be implemented for political reasons. There are, of course, many other strategies as well, but these other strategies are either incoherent, unworkable, or unlikely to issue in success (as defined above).

Because the US and its allies are not going to throw their resources behind Assad in order to resurrect Syria as an Alawite-minority-dominated, Sunni majority dictatorship, and because the other forces that have fought against Assad have proved themselves to be far less capable than ISIS, a workable strategy would need to employ proxies in the region that are militarily capable. And there are militarily capable forces in the regions: the Kurds and Iran and Iranian proxies. If support and materiel were funneled to the Kurds and to Iranian proxies, it would be possible not only to defeat ISIS on the ground, but also to change the political conditions in the region that allowed for the rise of ISIS.

There are problems with this, of course, The Kurds want their own nation-state, and a well armed, supplied and financed Kurdish Peshmerga would take for itself a nation-state carved out of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, and in so doing to incur the hatred of all of these nation-states, who are jealous of their territory and who are not about to give up any of it for a homeland for the Kurds. Nevertheless, the Kurds have proved that they can fight and they can organize under adverse conditions.

Another problem is that Iran and Iranian proxies, which have also, like the Kurds, proved their mettle, are supporters of Assad. While this support for Assad has a long history, it is primarily a function of Syria’s ruling clique being Alawite, which is a small offshoot of Shia Islam, and I suspect that a deal could be struck that removed Assad from power while leaving the ruling clique of some rump Syria (dominated by Iran) in the hands of the Alawites. Such a deal would actually be facilitated by the credibility that Iran and its proxies would have in dealing with Assad and his supporters.

Once again I must assure the reader that I am under no illusion that the above scenario will take place, I only say that it is coherent and could be formulated into clear military objectives. There is already a certain measure of support being shown for the Kurds, and despite the apparent political impossibility, there is an article on Foreign Policy’s website, Washington’s Uneasy Partnership With Tehran Now Extends to Yemen by Seán D. Naylor, that discusses de facto US-Iranian cooperation, so, far from being unimaginable, such cooperation is already a fait accompli, and stunts like the IRGC blowing up a mock-up of a US aircraft carrier in the Strait of Hormuz is merely a matter of placating domestic opinion so that no one thinks the regime has gone soft on the Great Satan.

These efforts, however, are much too small to contain what Islamic State has already become. A strategy that had a hope of success would have to be robust; instead of debating whether only non-lethal aid would be sent to the Kurds, the Kurds should receive massive support, and no complaints should be made when they assert territorial control over an independent Kurdistan with the assistance they were given. The geopolitical obsession with retaining current borders — itself an ideological outgrowth of the ossified international system of nation-states — prevents this kind of support from practical realization.

Since we can predict with confidence that the one chance for a sane stability in the region (not stability deriving from a xenophobic and genocidal regime imposing a Pax Islamica) will not be pursued, there is the question of the second best strategy. The second best strategy would be a decapitation strike against the apex leadership of Islamic State, and especially Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. I understand that there have been airstrikes that have killed several prominent leaders of IS; these efforts to date have been as ineffectual as support for anti-ISIS forces in the region. by a decapitation strike I don’t mean a rain of cruise missiles, which is the nation-state equivalent of “spray and pray.” I mean two dozen or more stealth helicopters with special forces commandos coming down on top of the apex leadership of ISIS and capturing or killing that leadership. Knowing the ISIS obsession with Dabiq as the location for an apocalyptic battle, it would be no great difficulty to convincingly feint in the direction of Dabiq long enough to draw fighters away from other duties and so to leave the leadership relatively exposed.

Given the commando resources available to the US, it would be entirely within the capacity of US special forces to capture or to kill al-Baghdadi even in the midst of Islamic State territory. The mission would have to be quite large — much larger than the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden — and it would entail casualties. Such an operation would likely result in dozens of US casualties and perhaps hundreds of IS casualties, but successfully executed the apex leadership of IS could be captured or killed, and this might be a sufficient blow against the nascent regime to scatter those who remain behind. (Follow-on strikes could continue the dispersion of remaining leaders and prevent them from regrouping.) It would also be the occasion for much hand-wringing on the part of the international community and protests by nation-states who feel they have a stake in the conflict. It would, however, be a decisive strike and a coherent strategy.

This second option is not much more likely than the first, though it can at least be said that it is not politically impossible. At same time, its greater political feasibility is balanced against its absence of an endgame that would allow the region to transition toward a sustainable and less violent order in the near future. The elimination of ISIS is a mere tactic to stabilize the region; regional stability requires a regional strategy, and not a single operation.

dar al harb dar al islam

Dar al-Islam vs. Dar al-Harb

Perhaps it is a universal truth that all civil wars produce civil atrocities on an unprecedented scale. The civil war within Islam, i.e., the civil war of the Ummah, like the civil war within Christendom in the 17th century, will be no exception. Whatever side in this conflict receives support from western nation-states, will eventually be implicated in atrocities and war crimes, and, when these atrocities and war crimes come to light, all popular will to continue any support will vanish, and political will to continue support will vanish soon after.

As I have argued elsewhere (The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization), Islam is a civilization in the midst of neurotic misery, and the only therapy that will deliver them over into ordinary human unhappiness is philosophy taught by examples, that is to say, history.

There is a detailed article on The Atlantic’s website, What ISIS Really Wants by Graeme Wood that takes ISIS at its word in regard to the group’s “prophetic methodology,” which is the particular conception of history now entertained by the leadership of ISIS. Wood makes the valid point that ISIS is to a certain extent hamstrung by its Koranic literalness, and that this is a valuable guide in predicting the actions of the group. This is one of the few potentially valuable ways of understanding ISIS that can be of material benefit to any action taken against it.

Another point that Graeme Wood makes is that the west has, up to now, drawn a number of false analogies by putting all jihadist organizations into the same basket. This has indeed been part of the problem, but it is just as much of a problem to treat ISIS an the monolith it aspires to be. The success of ISIS to date has not only been the result of a brutal fidelity to “prophetic methodology,” but also a not inconsiderable rationality and organizational mettle. While there are no doubt a great many within ISIS who see their struggle as a cosmic war, there are probably also many who see ISIS in another, and much more pragmatic, light. Even if ISIS is successfully contained, and its claim to being in the vanguard of cosmic war called into question by any such containment, there will still be a struggle within ISIS between ideological purists and pragmatists who would be content with establishing a new state along the lines of Islamic State but shorn of its ideological pretensions.

A chastened but still violent and combat-effective ISIS could continue to destabilize the region for decades to come, if not centuries, during which time many strategies on both sides of the divide would be tested. If we test the optimal strategy for ISIS against the likely strategy of any anti-ISIS coalition (viz. the US and its European allies making feeble and half-hearted attempts to support the “good” side in this conflict), the prospects for the continued survival of ISIS are quite high, even if it is a mere shadow of its prophetic aspirations.

If a quasi-pragmatic leadership emerges from a less-than-triumphant ISIS, this leadership will have to arrive at some modus vivendi with its neighbors in the region. ISIS would then have to become a nation-state among nation-states, which is apostasy from the purely eschatological point of view, but also a human, all-too-human compromise that should be expected at some point in time.

In this case, the boundaries of existing nation-states — the status quo ante — would be re-established as far as possible given the events that have transpired to date, as part of the process of resurrecting institutions of civil society mentioned above in the Introduction. We recall that the European powers fought their religious wars for almost a century before they finally negotiated the Treaty of Westphalia (which came nearly to affirming borders that existed prior to the conflict), which settled on the principle cuius regio, eius religio, which I previously discussed in The Stalin Doctrine.

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Tuesday


In the northern hemisphere we are beginning to see the first signs of spring. A week ago I saw snowdrops in bloom, and I suspect that primroses are blooming in quite a few places, although I haven’t seen any yet. That is my experience of early spring in the wet, temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. Elsewhere in the world, the Second Annual Arab Spring is getting underway. The remarkable events of 2011 have now receded far enough in history that one year anniversaries are being celebrated (or suppressed), and in some cases these one year anniversaries are the occasion for new protests (as in the case of Bahrain: Bahrain restricts protests on uprising anniversary), and possibly the gathering of renewed momentum for change in regions long without substantive political change.

On at least a couple of occasions I have been scolded by a reader for the amount of commentary I have devoted to Libya and Syria while neglecting the situation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Obviously, I feel that Libya and Syria are important and worthy of attention. Of course, the events in Bahrain and the non-events in Saudi Arabia are also important, but I haven’t had much to say about the Kingdom of Saud, and I don’t think that I’ve written anything about Bahrain. Partly this is a function of the difficulty for a Westerner of obtaining anything like candid reports of life within these nation-states. They are largely quiescent on the surface, but it is to be expected the subterranean forces are moving below the surface, and these forces could probably only be discerned by an expert in these societies.

It is often implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, that Arab nation-states that remained largely quiescent throughout the Arab Spring of 2011, like Saudi Arabia, and those that decisively put down their protests, like Bahrain, are able to remain quiet or engage in successful repression due to their close relationship with the US. Here is an example of an explicit statement of this thesis:

“If you live in an Arab country whose dictator is a client of the Americans, the US will do everything in its power to suppress your revolt, and if you succeed despite US efforts, the US will sponsor the counter-revolution against you directly and indirectly through its local allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, but now also Qatar. This of course applies to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and in Saudi Arabia itself. If you happen to live in a country whose dictator, though friendly to the West, maintains an independent line on foreign policy or at least a line that cannot always be guaranteed to serve Western interests — and this applies to Syria and Iran (and lest we forget their services to the West, both countries helped actively the US effort to unseat Saddam, and the Syrian regime helped with US efforts in supporting rightwing forces in Lebanon against the Lebanese left and the PLO in the 1970s) and less so Libya, then the US will help sponsor your revolt against your dictator to bring about a more pliant dictator to serve its interests without equivocation, and it will do so in the name of supporting democracy.”

The struggle for Syria by Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York

I am not going to attempt to parse this piece in detail, as that would take me rather far afield. Most of what Professor Massad writes in this Al-Jazeera opinion piece is utter garbage. (The above quote, which is at least coherent, is not necessarily representative of the whole piece.) It more than strains credulity to identify the Arab League as an instrument of US policy, as the professor explicitly does. I have no doubt however, whatever my opinion of Professor Massad’s conspiratorial ramblings, that he speaks for many, and that his analysis of the Arab region as being divided between US clients who will receive support suppressing rebellion and non-US clients who will be allowed to fail and fall would be endorsed by many. Indeed, this part of the analysis is not entirely wrong, though it is set in a context that casts everything else he writes into question.

The real question is not whether the US presence in the region influences events — it would be impossible for the most powerful nation-state in the world not to influence events wherever it is present — but whether this is the central and determining influence upon regional dynamics. It is not. The regional dynamics are regional. The US presence is felt, even disproportionately, but it is an influence that is exercised upon a regional dynamic that is defined by the peoples and nation-states of the region. And the distinction between peoples and nation-states is crucial, because almost all nation-states in the region are divided to some extent along sectarian lines: two or more peoples in one state structure.

Bahrain is a very small country, only three and half times the size of Washington, DC according to the CIA Factbook (760 sq. km.). Even as a very small nation-state, it still hosts a divided population. The population of 1,214,705 is split between approximately 70 percent Shia and 30 percent Sunni. As in several states in the region, the majority population is Shia, while the ruling class is Sunni. This is widely perceived as a highly problematic demographic, since Iran is presumed to represent the vanguard of Shia Islam in the region, with the implication being that the essentially disenfranchised Shia majority looks to Iran for leadership.

Given these demographic realities, it would be no surprise that the ruling elites of Bahrain would come down very hard on a Shia uprising whether or not the US was present in the country. (They did, and while they have recently expressed some misgivings over the repression — Bahrain admits using ‘excessive force’ during protests — the renewed repression of anniversary protests suggests that there was no deep soul-searching among Bahrain’s elite political class.) In a nation-state in which the majority population is political disenfranchised, a popular revolt is indistinguishable from an ethno-sectarian insurrection.

Although the Saudis have a more homogenous population (The Shia constitute 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s population) but the more profound division in Saudi Arabia is between those who are satisfied with the status quo and those who want radical change, and most especially those who want to violently end the rule of the House of Saud and deliver over the holy places of Islam to rule by a transnational Caliphate. The Saudis have engaged in a predictable two-prong campaign of spreading around a lot of money while seeking to quell dissent. They have been remarkably successful in keeping the country superficially quiet, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that things are simmering under the surface in the Kingdom.

Saudi failures are occasionally highlighted by an interesting story that surfaces, as in Saudi dissidents turn to YouTube to air their frustrations. Like young dissidents elsewhere in the world, some Saudis have turned to social media outlets. Governments can attempt to shut this sort of thing down, but it is a cat-and-mouse game. Everyone knows that sensitive material is likely to be removed, so as soon as it is posted, someone else usually copies it and re-posts it later. In China, despite the Great Firewall, social media has become so pervasive that micro-blogs overwhelm the efforts of censors when there is a big story. This was the case with the high speed train wreck that killed many people. However, just as dissidents are not shut down by a single action, so censors do not cease their efforts when a single story breaks free and a crack appears in the official media facade.

Youtube videos have a particular immediacy, not only because it allows the viewer both to see and to hear the story, but also because interesting stories usually have long, involved, and detailed comments sections in which people bluntly debate the merits of the video being presented. It is the very bluntness — often vulgar, and often profane — that makes people aware that they are seeing something real, unlike the slickly produced “news” stories of official media.

The Youtube videos mentioned in the above McClatchy story particularly highlighted ongoing poverty in Saudi Arabia despite the oil wealth and despite the efforts to spread money around, so we clearly get the sense that, however successful the House of Saud may be in silencing dissent, its attempts to buy off its people with luxuries are not entirely successful. One can easily guess, in a kingdom ruled by an obscenely wealthy extended family, benefits are not distributed among the people on an egalitarian basis, but are much more likely to flow through client-patron networks. If you don’t have a well-connected patron, you probably get little or nothing.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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