Obama takes timeout from the Salman doctrine

Saudi King Salman brought his own gold furniture with him to the grand DC hotel known as Four Seasons. Everything turned gold in Four Seasons last Friday, according to a regular in the hotel who spied on the deliveries — “gold mirrors, gold end tables, gold lamps, even gold hat racks.”

US-Saudi-Flags-Twitter

However, none of that opulence apparently impressed President Barack Obama. Three ominous tidings from the Middle East ultimately defined Salman’s talks in the White House on Friday.

To be sure, the heart-rending image of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, pictured facedown in red T-shirt and shorts, washed ashore on a Turkish beach, would certainly have shaken up the humanist and intellectual in Obama about the strange company the US has kept in Syria.

Aylan has scarred the West’s conscience. Germany and Austria have overnight opened the doors to Syrian refugees. Obama knows there is a political message. The Russian President Vladimir Putin was explicit at a press conference Thursday:

“United States does not have to deal with such a flow of migrants, while Europe, after blindly following instructions from America, is now bearing the brunt of the crisis. I am not saying how smart we [Russians] are and how shortsighted our partners turned out to be, or to bait anyone; we simply need to see what to do next.”

Make no mistake, the US’ European allies will expect Obama to rein in Turkey and Saudi Arabia from exacerbating the Syrian conflict. Aylan didn’t die in vain. His tragic death overnight shifted the locus from ‘regime change’ to political solution to the Syrian conflict.

A consensus is building up that political change is needed in Syria. Putin echoed it: “We [Moscow] understand that political change is also required… There is an overall understanding that joint efforts to combat terrorism should go side by side with certain political processes inside Syria.

“The Syrian President agrees with this too, including, say, holding early parliamentary elections and establishing ties with the so-called ‘healthy opposition’ and involving them in running the country. This is primarily a matter of Syria’s internal development.”

Salman is unlikely to have aired the grievance that the US ought to play a more active role in the politico-military efforts to unseat President Bashar al-Assad. At least, this is what the Obama-Salman joint statement says on Syria:

“Both leaders stressed the importance of reaching a lasting solution to the Syrian conflict based on the principles of Geneva 1 to end the suffering of the Syrian people, maintain continuity of civilian and military government institutions, preserve the unity and integrity of Syria, and ensure the emergence of a peaceful, pluralistic, democratic state free of discrimination or sectarianism. The two leaders reiterated that any meaningful political transition would have to include the departure of Bashar al Asad who has lost legitimacy to lead Syria”.

Clearly, the Saudi thunder and brimstone is lacking. Aylan’s tragic death has rendered the US and Saudi Arabia ineffectual – morally and politically – to play the lead role in Syria, leave alone dictate terms.

Secondly, the news came in just as the Obama’s summit with Salman was getting under way that at least 50 soldiers belonging to the Saudi-led interventionist forces in Yemen – 45 from the United Arab Emirates alone – were killed in central Yemen. Obama didn’t need the reminder, though, that the US is getting entrapped in a risky military adventure where the Saudis do not even have an exit strategy and where a humanitarian tragedy is unfolding.

Interestingly, the operative para on Yemen in the Obama-Salman joint statement stresses the UN’s lead role in facilitating a political solution to the conflict. It calls for the reopening of the Red Sea ports “to be operated under UN supervision” and commits Saudi Arabia “to support and enable the UN-led humanitarian relief efforts”.

The US has so far ‘internalized’ its misgivings (and, probably, objections too) about the six-month-old Saudi war in Yemen. An estimated 4,500 Yemenis have been killed so far. The Saudi blockade of Yemeni ports has aggravated the humanitarian situation, creating severe shortages.

The lack of an exit strategy must be especially galling, because the fiscal cost of the war is rising at a time when Saudi Arabia is running a sizeable budget deficit due to low oil revenues.

However, the really stunning thing is that the joint statement doesn’t say a word about the alleged Iranian interference, which, after all, was the raison d’etre of the Saudi military intervention. Obama had hinted earlier, too, that he didn’t lend credence to the Saudi allegation regarding Iranian support to the Houthis. The joint statement dissociates Washington from the Saudi justification for its six-month-old war on Yemen.

Again, just as Obama was sitting down with Salman in the Oval Office, word came that a plot was just averted against the Abqaiq plant, the largest oil-processing facility in the world which processes the bulk of Saudi oil and run by Aramco. It is a sign post that the restive Shi’ite-dominated eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia where the great oil fields are located are in great turmoil.

Of course, Obama is in no position to advise Salman about how to go about the reform that Saudi Arabia needs. But then, Saudi Arabia’s security and stability is Obama’s concern, too. Obama is not repeating the mistake that Jimmy Carter made in regard of Iran but the analogy isn’t entirely out of place.

For, it appears that new supplies of American weapons for Saudi Arabia have been firmed up. These include two frigates, Patriot missile-defense batteries and guided air-to-ground missiles. It all but seems Saudi Arabia is preparing for a war with Iran. Could it be that Obama seriously worries about a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

No, he can’t be. Unless Saudi Arabia attacks Iran, there cannot be a war between the two countries. Obama himself is on record that Iran spends a pittance on its military in comparison with Saudi Arabia.

In sum, the tidings from Abquaiq should make Obama think hard. The Patriot missiles and the frigates mean good money for the US military-industrial complex, but they do not help Saudi security, which is overwhelmingly facing internal security challenges.

Yet, all that the joint statement says is that Obama and Salman “discussed a new strategic partnership for the 21st century and how to significantly elevate the relationship”.

Salman apparently “briefed” Obama on the Saudi “views regarding the strategic partnership”. And thereafter they agreed that their officials will “explore appropriate ways to move forward in the coming months.”

The awkward wording underscores the impasse in the US-Saudi relationship. Unsurprisingly, the joint statement doesn’t explain what exactly the ‘destabilizing activities’ by Iran in the region it refers to are. The point is, Obama administration is in a fix. Be it in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen or in Lebanon, the US actually needs Iran’s cooperation.

The heart of the matter is that the real, unspoken fear in the Saudi mind about Iran is that if Tehran rehabilitates its status after three-and-a-half decades of hostility with the US, Riyadh loses its role as the Gulf region’s prima donna in economic and political terms. But then, what can Obama do about it?

The maximum he can do is to restrain the US from pressing the pedal on the normalization of relations until it becomes clear that the ‘troika’ has come to prevail in the epochal struggle of power in Tehran – comprising former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif with whom America is confident of doing business.

So there is an agonizing period of waiting until the February elections in Iran to the hugely powerful Experts Assembly (which oversees the functioning of the Supreme Leader and elects the Supreme Leader) and the Majlis. Rafsanjani has declared his candidacy for the Expert Assembly.

From the US perspective, unless the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (which Imam Khomeini was prescient enough to create as the Praetorian Guards of the Islamic regime) are sent back to the barracks, all bets are off.

A tense period of waiting lies ahead. Meanwhile, Obama has done the right thing by taking time out to decide on the trajectory of the US’ partnership with Saudi Arabia. Paradoxically, Iran has the final say on the future trajectory of US-Saudi relationship.

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