Who lost Saudi Arabia?

Diplomatic historians[1] commonly try to examine both sides of any international relationship, whether of conflict or co-operation. The United States has long had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia. There are signs that the relationship is beginning to fray. The Obama administration’s effort to straddle the divide in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war has alarmed the Saudis. The administration’s (laudable) desire to avoid a major new war in the Middle East over the Iranian nuclear weapons program particularly alarmed the Saudis. When the United States suspended aid to Egypt after the coup that overthrew the Morsi government, Saudi Arabia more than made up the lost money. Saudi Arabia has refused to provide ground troops to oppose ISIS in neighboring Shi’ite ruled Iraq. Then Russia’s desire to reassert itself as a factor in the Middle East offered the Saudis an opportunity. In early Summer 2015, Saudi Arabia signed deals with France and Russia to build 16 nuclear reactors by 2032. Like the nuclear program of Iran, these reactors in an oil-rich nation are intended only for peaceful purposes.[2] Right.

After the dramatic expansion of the “caliphate” in Summer 2014, ISIS appears to have slammed up against its limits on territorial expansion. It has not been able to capture additional ground in the predominantly Shi’ite areas of Iraq; it has not invaded Jordan or Saudi Arabia, or Turkey; and itr has lost 40 percent of the ground it once controlled.

This raises several important questions. First, is ISIS molting under pressure from an insurgent army into a conventional terrorist force?[3] Recently, the suicide bombing of a political rally in Ankara, Turkey, the bombing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai peninsula in Egypt, the suicide bombings in a Shi’ite quarter of Beirut; and the terrorist attacks in Paris all appear to be ISIS-directed attacks.[4] Some people[5] are inclined to believe that the terrorist attacks are acts of propaganda. According to this view, the various slaughters are intended to sow division in other societies by pitting secular and Christian Westerners against Muslims, Shi’ites against Sunnis. This view seems far-fetched.

Second, if ISIS is now contained as a conventional force, how is it to be defeated? Who is going to do it? Both in the West and in the Sunni Middle East there is an assumption that the job falls to the United States, possibly backed by other Western states. One Saudi Arabian columnist recently complained that only “boots on the ground,” and not merely air strikes. can defeat ISIS. If the Western countries are afraid to suffer casualties in a ground war, then ISIS will survive. No mention was made of sending Saudi Arabian troops into a country on its own border. Yet Saudi Arabia has the third largest defense budget in the world and is waging war on a Shi’ite group in Yemen.

Occasionally, some people can escape the general Sunni refusal to face responsibilities. One columnist has argued that “Only moderate Sunni forces can defeat radical Sunni extremists.” Will Saudis Arabia send troops to fight ISIS? It seems unlikely. Will Turkey send troops to fight ISIS? It seems unlikely. Will Iran or Russia send troops to fight ISIS? It seems unlikely. Soooo…. Either the US sends troops or we let ISIS exist inside its cauldron.

[1] Except historians of American foreign policy.

[2] “How they see us: Saudis lean toward nukes, Russia,” The Week, 10 July 2015, p. 15.

[3] “Middle East: How to stop ISIS?” The Week, 27 November 2015, p. 15.

[4] In contrast, the January 2015 attack in Paris; the murders at a Tunisian beach resort, at a mosque in Kuwait, and at a French chemical plant in Summer 2015; and the terrorist attack in San Bernardino in December 2015 appear to be ISIS “inspired” attacks. If you accept my distinction. Not everoner will.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1wg1DNHbNU

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