The leading world think tanks have already offered views on the way a possible Syria - Turkey clash may develop and implications to ensue. The new changes of balance in the larger Middle East make it expedient to consider another scenario involving different participants. The Syrian opposition forces are joined by militants coming from other Arab states (like mercenaries paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, for instance). On the other hand the Iranians and Hezbollah fighters side with the forces loyal to President Assad. The involvement of other actors may lead to confrontation between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states.
The Arab countries of Persian Gulf (specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) is shedding its image as a somnolent, oil-rich cartel and propelling itself forward in the role of hands-on military campaigner in the uprisings that are reshaping the region. The member states have emerged as active regional actors willing to intervene in the politics of not only neighboring Arab states but of the larger Middle East and North African region. The 9/11/2001 events, the subsequent US invasion of Iraq and general increase in militant activity in the Arabian peninsula spurred the internationalization of the GCC policies. In the last dozen of years the Gulf states have significantly boosted their military potential and now seem to be intent to use it. The Gulf countries are spending billions of dollars on defense procurement amid increasing tensions with Iran over its nuclear program. Saudi Arabia alone has bought a cache of weapons from the United States. Last year the Obama administration announced it sealed a $29.4 billion deal to sell advanced F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, the biggest record-breaking single U.S. arms sale yet. The ongoing build-up of Saudi Arabia justified by the Iranian threat is projected to total as much as $60 billion over 10 to 15 years, including the F-15s, three types of helicopters and advanced missiles, bombs and other hardware and services. On June 17 the world media reported that Saudi Arabia wanted to buy 600 to 800 Leopard battle tanks from Germany, a very impressive boost of military offensive capabilities. The UAE has joined Saudi Arabia as a major international arms purchaser. In 2011 it signed a $3.5 billion sale of advanced theater missile defense THAAD system followed by Saudi Arabia concluding a $1.7 billion direct commercial contract with the USA to upgrade its Patriot air defense systems and the this year’s sale of 209 advanced Patriot missiles to Kuwait, valued at roughly $900 million.
The March 2011 intervention with armored vehicles and troops in Bahrain’s civil unrest by Saudi and UAE troops is perhaps the best recent example of interventionism within the GCC. The action was justified by threat coming from Iran, though there was little hard evidence that the Iranian regime had direct involvement with the largely Shia uprising. The conflict in Syria is the example of active intervention with the Saudis and Qataris offering weapons and financial support of the Syrian opposition to the Assad government. The flare up in Syria may be a tipping point in Middle East diplomacy and intervention among Arab states. As the GCC members economic and military power grows, so does their ability to engage larger crises in the Middle East and North Africa. The new willingness to intervene militarily and to spend resources to guide the development of new, post-changes states in the region could have grave, far - reaching consequences in the shape of new governments and the ability of these neighboring states to recover economically and find their new place in the ever changing world. Iran is standing in the way of the process with clear ambitions to make the events turn its way. It’s enough to remember an extremely sharp escalation of tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran in 2011 after Iran was accused by the U.S. government of planning to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador. Back then Saudi Arabia said Iran was “to pay the price”.
The GCC runs the Peninsula Shield, a joint-defense force (of 40000 troops) whose purpose is to protect GCC member countries. By the end of April GCC joint military forces conducted air, ground and naval exercises “The Peninsula Shield Force” to repel an alleged Iranian aggression The unprecedented show of force boosted pan-Arab pride, brought strong praise from Western allies and reinforced a bulwark against ever expanding Iranian influence. But in terms of what the experts consider the greatest potential conflict in the region — the rivalry between the Gulf states and Tehran — the GCC's gloves really came off at the following meeting of foreign ministers in Riyadh. The GCC blasted Iran's "flagrant interference" in the region and blamed Iran for actively destabilizing and "violating the sovereignty" of their countries. The meeting came after the Iranian government's foreign-affairs and security committee said that Saudi Arabia, the GCC's most populous member, "should know it's better not to play with fire in the sensitive region of the Persian Gulf." That only slightly veiled threat was not taken lightly by the GCC, now fresh off two recent military maneuvers and possibly banking on long-standing military ties with the U.S. The training event was followed by UAE and Qatari armed forces exercises dubbed “Peace Shield 1/2012” held in May this year. As one can see the ability of GCC to intervene is being intensively tested on the field.
Balance of Forces
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have limited manpower capabilities due to small native population and unlimited financial resources for weapons acquisition. Jointly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman possess 1100 modern main battle tanks, including 533 US-produced Abrams (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, about 40 British Challengers, about 400 French Leclerc. Kuwait has 150 M84s (the Yugoslav versions of Soviet T-72). They have around a thousand obsolete vehicles like АМХ-30, М-60, OF-40 and 100 British light tanks Scorpions destined to operate as reconnaissance vehicles too. The infantry fighting vehicles (IFV) inventory includes 400 modern US-produced Bradley M2 (Saudi Arabia), over 250 British Warriors, around 550 Soviet BMP-3 and rather obsolete French АМХ-10Р. The number of armored personnel carriers is near 6500, the armies have around 2 thousand artillery pieces, including over 40 multiple launch rocket systems (9 US MLRS and over 30 Russian Smerch models), over 250 American-made M109 and 100 South African self-propelled howitzers.
The air power and air defense capability is really something to count with. The Saudis have a strong fighter force including F-15C, 20 – F-15D and 72 – F-15S ( F-15I version) with 84 more advanced F-15 SA on order to be delivered in 2015, plus over 20 Eurofighter Typhoons (the number is to grow to 72). Kuwait has a modern fleet of 39 American-made modern F-18s (C and D models). Qatar and UAE’ joint inventory includes 78 French-made Mirage-2000s, Bahrain, Oman and UAE jointly contribute over 100 US-made F-16s. It brings the overall number of modern fourth-generation aircraft to 400. The F-16 E/Fs of the UAE are the latest modifications of the aircraft that have not even joined the US Air Force inventory as yet. Besides Saudi Arabia has a formidable fleet of over 100 British Tornado fighters. It also has around 40 rather obsolete US-made F-5 together with Bahrain. Oman possesses 24 British Jaguar attack planes. The Saudi’s early warning capability (5 E-3A AWACS aircraft) is a very important advantage adding to the GCC air power’s technological edge.
The Saudi Arabia and UAE army aviation jointly numbers 42 advanced AH-64 Apache attack helicopters significantly boosting the army units firepower plus around 50 rather obsolete Gazelles and Cobras. Saudi Arabian US-made Patriots and Russia-made new up-to-date short to medium range air defense Pantsir systems of the UAE army are the most modern air defence assets of the Persian Gulf states. There are also comparatively obsolete air defence systems like US-made Advanced Hawk and some others. As mentioned before the UAE will be the first to buy the US newest THAAD with missile strike capability, a long-range, land-based theater defense weapon.
The Gulf states navies jointly include 10 modern frigates, 10 guided missile corvettes, 42 fast missile boats and up to 50 amphibious ships and landing craft. The anti-ship missiles are Harpoons and Exocet. The mine warfare capability is insignificant and there is no submarine fleet – an obvious weak point.
Iran’s army numbers (the Revolutionary Guards Corps included) around 1700 battle tanks, 700 infantry vehicles, 600 armored personnel carries, 2400 artillery pieces, 5000 mortars, 900 multiple launch rocket systems and 1000 anti-tank missiles, over 2000 anti-aircraft guns and 200 helicopters. About 500 Russian T-72s and 200 British Chieftains is the most combat ready armor strike component. Over 400 Soviet BMP-2, around 200 US-made M-109 self-propelled artillery pieces, 15 Chinese 155mm towed Type-88 towed guns, 100 Soviet BM-21 Grad and 700 Chinese 107- mm Type-63 multiple rocket systems, 100 Shilka ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft guns are all the weapons too obsolete to really meet modern combat requirements. The army aviation inventory includes around 50 American-made Cobra AH-1 strike helicopters that joined the US army aviation in 1967 and long ago substituted by much more modern Apache-64s. The backbone of the nation’s Air Force is around 30 Russia SU-24 tactical bombers, over 30 Russian MIG-29s, 44 US-made F-14 Tomcats. This is the most capable air force strike component. There is also an obsolete and extremely diverse fleet of obsolete and much less agile US-made F-4s and F-5s, Chinese J-7 (a Soviet MIG-21 version), Soviet SU-20/22, SU-25, MIG- 23 and French Mirage-F1. Of all this rag-tag force only 13 Russian SU-25 attack aircraft are agile enough to provide real fighting capability. As reported Iran possesses about 30 home-produced Saegheh fighters reported to be a version of obsolete US-made F-5. The air defense assets are 30 UK-made Rapier and 15 Tigercat, Russian 50 S-75 / SA-2 Guideline, S-200 SA-5 Gammon, 29 TOR and 150 US-made Advanced Hawk systems. The TOR is the only most up-to-date highly capable weapon to efficiently strike at small range. All other systems are too old to be a force to reckon with. The lack of spare parts is reported to be an acute problem downgrading the nation’s air defence capability. The Iranian official sources reported significant upgrade of S-200s. Also in 2011 Teheran announced it developed its own version of the Russian S-300 air defense system. Military officials stated that the Mersad missile ("Ambush" in Persian) was developed and produced by Iranian engineers and is designed to trail and hit any enemy aircraft at a distance of 70 to 150 kilometers. The characteristics and efficiency of the systems upgraded by Iran have not been confirmed by other than official sources.
Iran’s navy has three Russia bought 877 class conventional submarines, around 20 mini-subs, four frigates, three corvettes, 7 mine warfare ships, around 20 amphibious ships and landing craft, 24 fast attack and a few hundred small patrol boats. The main anti-ship weapon is S-802 Chin-made Silkworm missile (the Iran - made updated copy is Noor). There are also Chinese obsolete small S-701anti-ship missiles. Anti-tank and multiple rocket systems are also used for anti-ship warfare. The S-802 (Noor) systems defend the Iranian coastline to repel an enemy’s landing operation.
Iran has a clear advantage in submarines. It also has a clear edge in ballistic missile capability. It boasts around 40 medium range ballistic missiles and hundreds tactical missiles of all kinds constituting a formidable force of great firepower. The efficiency against combat forces is limited due to lack of precision, but makes it a real threat to economic infrastructure and populated areas. The Arab states potential to retaliate is limited by around 40 DongFeng-3 (CSS-2) intermediate-range ballistic missiles supplied by China to Saudi Arabia and by and large the same number of US-produced tactical ATACMS in the Bahrain’s inventory.
Iran enjoys a prevailing lead in manpower. The Iranians preserve conscription while the GCC switched over to volunteer forces long ago, so Iran boasts a considerable mobilization reserve capability, something the GCC states lack in case the conflict goes into a protracted phase.
The Arabs have a clear advantage in modern warfare capability, they are likely to gain dominance in air. The both sides match each other in the level of personnel training that is not high by any estimates.
A war between Saudi Arabia and Iran would likely stoke sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East since the war would represent a war between Sunni (Saudi Arabia) and Shia (Iran). The Shiites in Arab countries pose a serious potential threat. The Shiites make up to 20% of the population in Saudi Arabia located mainly in the north-eastern part of the territory near the Iranian border. They are a dominating 75% majority in Bahrain that has already been quelled by Saudi troops after street protests. Yemen, Lebanon, and Kuwait also could see unrest as they each have a sizable Shia population.
Like any Middle East scenario the probability of other actors intervention is high. Syrian army may join the Iran’s armed forces to greatly boost the combat capability. The Shiites in Iraq may not want to turn a blind eye on the events, while the Iraqi Sunni Muslims may join the GCC splitting the Iraqi army. The Arab monarchies would probably get a substantial support from outside.
Oil and liquefied gas supplies will diminish hiking the prices, a factor to determine other actor’s policies. It’ll be a heavy blow for crisis-stricken Europe and China with signs of recession already in sight. The shock could lead to a severe global recession or even a global depression if prices remain elevated for an extended period of time. The downfall of consumer demand in Europe will hit China hard. The same way it will strike India. None of these actors may influence the events in anyway. It could stoke increased political volatility worldwide since the state of the economy often drives people’s dissatisfaction with the leaders in power that would translate to a strong anti-incumbent vote.
It’s a win-win situation for Israel. Turkey will certainly use the events to its advantage. The clash will inevitably raise its clout in the Muslim world. Being neutral is an option while intervention under the guise of peacekeeping will also boost its image and influence. The other option is waiting till Iran is exhausted, its forces tied up in the South, to strike it from North-West moving straight to Teheran. Militarily Turkey is no doubt strong enough to win in case Iran is the adversary.
It’s a long time the USA doesn’t depend much on Persian Gulf supplies making up only 15% of its overall oil import. The petrol prices in America are much lower in comparison with Europe. In case of conflict the gap will widen. The damage to Europe and China will benefit the USA. The US arms sales will go up during the period of combat actions going much higher in the long run after the clash is over in case the Arab states win. The conflict will boost US influence on debilitated GCC members that presently are instigating the going-on turmoil in the Arab world. The long ago started exasperating headache caused by the Iranian nuclear problem will be gone at last. It’s much easier to eliminate nuclear assets with impunity while Iran is exhausted by war. Under the circumstances there will be no running the risk of raising anti-US sentiments in the Muslim world, quite to the contrary the USA would look like someone lending a helping hand in hard times.
The belligerents will be the main losers. Iran will stop being a global factor to count with, its ambitions becoming a thing of the past. The Arabs will suffer great damage and become weakened, it’s freedom of actions diminished to insignificance due to much grown American influence making the United States stay on top.
A war between the GCC and Iran would be a major event that would have a lot of adverse consequences worldwide. It would likely lead to aggravating the Middle East disarray, severe global economic turmoil, and increased political volatility worldwide. It’s not that the actors strive for the scenario to become a reality but it could be sparked against their will by the events in Syria or the dexterity of US policy.