The state department spokesperson in Washington Victoria Nuland stated on Tuesday that the United States does not plan to use military force in Syria. This came in the nature of the Barack Obama administration’s reaction to Moscow’s warning earlier in the day against any western military intervention in Syria in any form including the creation of a buffer zone or no-fly zone.
Nuland said, “I think we’ve made clear what we’re looking at in terms of US support for the [Syrian] opposition. We’re talking about nonlethal support. We’re talking about training. We’re talking about trying to help those in Syria who are trying to manage and provide for people in parts of Syria that have now been liberated from regime dominance.”
On the face of it, Nuland reiterated the US position but the fine print is what matters in such statements. For one thing, she spoke even as the Syrian government forces beat back yet another rebel assault on Aleppo masterminded from outside and inflicted a serious blow to the armed opposition inserted from Turkey. Meanwhile, the US statement also comes amidst reports that Turkey and Qatar have given an ultimatum to the Syrian rebels that unless the disparate groups united, they wouldn’t arm them further. Again, Egypt is pressing ahead with a regional initiative to solve the Syrian crisis and it is showing signs of gaining traction in a near future, as evidenced by the UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s meaningful decision to work out of Cairo in his mediatory mission.
But what stands out above all this is that Nuland’s statement comes after the tragedy in Benghazi where the Islamist progenies of the Libyan revolution murdered the American ambassador recently. This last point is important since in the opinion of many US experts, a reappraisal has since been going on within the US administration as to where the Arab Spring is heading. The well-known academic and author John Mearsheimer said in an interview on Monday, “The US has begun to pull back in noticeable ways. The Americans have learned that social engineering in any country is never easy, especially in the Middle East. So they have backed off.”
He was talking specifically with reference to Syria where, he said, the US estimations that a regime change was imminent have gone haywire and Washington has belatedly come to realize that any involvement would only land the US in another quagmire like Iraq. But a point of great interest Mearsheimer made was about the imperative need of course correction in the US policies.
He said, “A good number of people in the [US] government have reservations about the Arab Spring now. When the Arab Spring first started, the Americans had unrealistic views of what was going to happen. But state-building and nation-building is always going to be a messy process, and now it has been proven to be messy.”
Indeed, the happenings later this week on Monday is going to deepen the pall of “reservations” in Washington about the Arab Spring. The Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan has called for massive public demonstrations in Amman on Friday calling for political reforms. A situation like in Egypt could develop, and the regime in yet another key ally of the US in the region could fall into oblivion.
The Brotherhood in Jordan gave notice to King Abdullah II that he had time till October to accede to their demand to transform the Hashemite Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. That deadline has passed and the negotiations between the government and the Brotherhood have failed, with Abdullah unwilling to concede the Brotherhood’s demands and the Islamists in turn announcing a boycott of the new elections he has promised.
Road from Damascus
In essence, the Brotherhood is rejecting the King’s formula for a parliament, which would bear the look of a representative body, but where effectively he will continue to call the shots. Like in Egypt, a variety of other groups are also voicing the Brotherhood’s demand for reform. Arguably, the situation in Jordan is not acute as it was in Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt since it is a small country, relatively stable under a monarchy that is not brutal and may even be judged as “popular” monarchy. But the fact of the matter is that the winds of change are blowing in the region and so far they seemed to have bypassed Jordan, but no more. The Brotherhood no doubt feels exhilarated that in Egypt, their kinsmen are in power.
Trouble has been brewing in Jordan for the past year and more but a critical mass was not yet forming. That may change with Friday’s planned mass rally in Amman (“Save the Homeland”), which is already being anticipated as the biggest-ever public protest the Hashemites ever faced. Around 80 other reform groups and local organizations are teaming up with the Brotherhood, including the leftist Wihda and the opposition Nahda Party. The Brotherhood has put forward seven demands, which effectively seek that the people will be “at the source of authority” instead of the royalty and that in immediate terms the King allowed the formation of a “national salvation” government.
Clearly, the attempt is to create the dynamics of the Tahrir Square in Cairo. To be sure, Jordan is on the crossroads. Debkafile, the Israeli journal with links to the country’s intelligence, estimates that Abdullah has three options: bow to the Brotherhood’s demands and transfer executive power; crack down on the opposition; or, negotiate a compromise. It says a crackdown will be risky, given the fragmentation of the Jordanian society, especially with the Bedouin tribes whose allegiance to the Hashemites remains doubtful and, secondly, the Palestinians who form 60-70% of Jordan’s population.
An advisory on Wednesday by the American embassy in Amman warned the US citizens that there is “a possibility of violence” during the Save the Homeland Rally on Friday. The Debkafile says, “ Israeli and Saudi intelligence watchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the approaching climax of the conflict in Amman between Islamists and the throne… Most observers believe that he [Abdullah] has left it too late and by now the Muslim Brotherhood has got the bit between its teeth.”
Enter Obama. A Middle Eastern crisis is once again tiptoeing toward the doorsteps of the Oval Office. The predicament is acute: to stand by a loyal ally and friend of the US in his hour of supreme distress, or, to be on the “right side of history.” The dilemma couldn’t be more acute since the Obama administration has hardly recovered from the fateful decision it took to dump Mubarak overnight and to move on with life by endeavoring to build bridges with Egypt’s Brothers. But to the US’ dismay, Brothers in power in Cairo turn out to be something lese than what they appeared to be in a priori history, especially in the vital spheres affecting Israel and the US’ regional strategies on the whole. Israel complains that Obama misread the tea leaves and have been taken for a ride by Egypt’s Brothers who posed as “moderate” Islamists. The Saudis also feel the same way as Israel does.
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are “stakeholders”, so to speak, in the outcome of the confrontation building up in Jordan. From the Israeli viewpoint, a Brotherhood victory in Amman completes an Islamist arc stretching from Libya and Egypt to Lebanon and potentially Syria. Furthermore, the overwhelming Palestinian population of Jordan dramatically changes the alchemy of the resistance that Israel encounters. Over and above, Abdullah was a rare Arab leader who wore his friendship with Israel on his sleeve. Simply put, he is irreplaceable.
As for Saudi Arabia, the stakes are even higher. All sorts of Manichean fears will be racing through the Saudi mind this week. If the Brothers on the march in Jordan succeed in overthrowing the regime, it could well be Saudi Arabia’s turn next. There is some evidence that the Saudi regime is in panic. No Saudi official showed up for the foreign minister level meeting that Egypt called in New York on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session to discuss Cairo’s initiative on Syria, which was attended by Turkey and Iran It is the second time this is happening. The Saudis gave the pass to an earlier meeting of the foreign ministers in Cairo ten days ago. After the meeting in New York, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel kept a straight face saying, “We inform Saudi Arabia about everything going on.” Many explanations have been offered for the Saudi absence – Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal’s ill health; Riyadh’s wariness over Egypt’s Brothers; Saudi antipathy toward Iran, etc. But Debkafile has yet another explanation.
It wrote that the Saudi rulers have belatedly woken up to the peril of the Arab Spring and are in panic realizing that “their preoccupation with helping Syrian rebels overthrow Bashar Assad misdirected their attention from the enemies lurking at their door. Thousands of articles in the Arab press in the past year have predicted that after the Muslim Brotherhood seizes power in Damascus, Amman would be next in its sights, followed by Riyadh.”
A Pandora’s box
It is not only Arab commentators but also American specialists on the region who fear that after the departure of the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and Pahalavis – and now the Hashemites – the turn may be finally coming for the House of Saud. The noted area specialist at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy in Washington, Bruce Riedel wrote last week:
“Perhaps the greatest international challenge the next U.S. president could face is a revolution in Saudi Arabia if the royal family’s time runs out… Since the start of the revolutions in the Arab world in early 2011 the most important question has been will they spread to the Kingdom? The stakes are huge, since one in four barrels of oil sold in the world are Saudi produced.
“Today the United States needs Saudi Arabia more than ever. Our oil imports are up from the kingdom. The alliance with Egypt is in doubt. Iraq is tilting toward Iran. The Saudis are our critical partner in the war against al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere… Saudi support is important to containing Iran. Yet the kingdom is also a source of anxiety. European intelligence sources say the kingdom’s rich are still the No. 1 source of finances for extremist Islamic groups including the Afghan Taliban and Pakistan’s Lashkar-e Tayyiba. And the kingdom has all but annexed its small neighbor Bahrain to squash a democratic revolution on the island that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
“The Saud-Wahhab alliance remains crucial to the Kingdom’s stability today. Since the Kingdom is also home to Islam’s two holiest cities, that partnership has global implications… Saudi state will soon face an unprecedented succession challenge… The House of Saud will enter a new world then, without the legitimacy its leaders have enjoyed for a century. History is not encouraging; the second Saudi state fell apart over succession problems in the late 19th century.
“Revolution in Saudi Arabia is no longer unthinkable. Ironically, the more successfully the revolutions in other Arab states develop, the more likely Saudis will also want a government that is modern, accountable and chosen by the people. But revolution in the Kingdom may come from angry extremists outraged by the Kingdom’s alliance with America… There are several possible directions for the future. Absolute monarchies are not usually capable of reform… The downfall of the shah 35 years ago proved to be the defining crisis of the Carter administration. Will the next president face a similar crisis across the Persian Gulf?”
A sense of imminent danger has gripped the US strategic community. Indeed, the time is fast approaching for the US to shed its ambivalence and take a definitive stance on Islamism. Any prevarication over Saudi Arabia will be catastrophic. This is one thing. Again, the revolution in Saudi Arabia is bound to come into the hands of angry Islamists who are a strong force and kept under the surface so far through brute force masquerading as “counter-terrorism” effort (with American help and expertise). On the other hand, the US cannot have any misconceptions, either, that Saudi Arabia is “seething with internal tensions and anger”, as Riedel put it, and that in such explosive situations, swimming against the tide of history can have dire consequences, which was the lesson to emerge from the Carter administration’s disastrous decision to support the Shah right till the flood gates of the Islamic revolution of 1979 opened.
The point is, Saudi Arabia is a shockingly young country with 60% of the population below the age of 20 and with dismal job prospects ahead for the bulk of them. Forty percent are below poverty line; seventy percent cannot afford to own home. And yet, 25000 princes and princesses live it up. Meanwhile, regional imbalances, gender discrimination, Shi’ite empowerment – name it and it is all there. It is a veritable Pandora’s box. And to cap it all, the lid of strict Wahhabism, which is imposed from the Nejd central district, is stifling the Hejazis in the West and Shi’ites in the East, and they can’t take it anymore.
In a manner of speaking, therefore, it all comes back to Syria at the moment, where the uprising which was instigated, aiming at regime change, is becoming radicalized with homegrown Muslim jihadists and “foreign fighters” from the al-Qaeda surging into prominence and asserting their prerogative to opinionate on the directions of the “resistance”. They could as well be doing the trial run for the “forces of history” in Saudi Arabia under the black banner of the Prophet Muhammad, pushing an agenda based on jihad, rooted in the staunch belief that they have a divine mandate to fight – and to rule.
Mearsheimer could be right. Nuland might have articulated a sobering thought in Washington – to take a deep breath and survey what happened in Benghazi, is happening in Aleppo and can happen in Amman. This is going to be a momentous Friday when the muezzin calls the faithful to the noon prayer at the Al-Husseini Mosque in Amman.