The Saudi king has just begun his two-week visit to the US but the first important achievement was seen even before the top-level talks kicked off on March 20. He and President Trump agreed to assemble a Supreme Committee to counter Iran. The UAE is the third member of this action team. Their activities will be coordinated by their national security advisers, with final decisions to be made by the heads of state. The forum will convene monthly to discuss issues of special importance.
This move is widely seen as a sign that President Trump is soon going to recertify the Iran nuclear deal, even if such a decision will mean defying some of his top military leaders. The deadline for recertification is mid-May but the president may make an announcement much earlier.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has been nominated to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, favors a tough approach to Iran. The nominee is the right man to improve cooperation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE aimed at forcing a rollback of Iran. Once he takes over the US is expected to move further into Saudi Arabia’s corner.
Congress has approved $54 billion in arms sales to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) over the past nine months. Multibillion-dollar commercial deals are being discussed as part of Crown Prince Mohammed’s US visit. On March 20, the Senate supported President Trump and rejected a measure aimed at ending support for Saudi Arabia's war in Yemen.
The idea of an alliance of Muslim countries against Iran is not anything new, but until now nothing had ever come to fruition. Riyadh officially heads the alliance established in December 2015. But today that project seems to have been forgotten. A previous attempt to form an anti-Iran alliance on the basis of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was frustrated when Qatar and Oman refused to follow the policy dictated by Riyadh. The KSA-UAE alliance was set up last December. Now the US has joined to expand it.
The two Arab nations are increasing a foothold in the region. The KSA is building a military base in Djibouti. A military agreement between the two countries was signed in November 2017. In April, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland allowed the UAE to build a military base in Berbera. Abu Dhabi uses the Eritrean port of Assab to support its war effort in Yemen. Last May, it signed a new defense agreement with Washington allowing the US to expand its military presence in the country. Bahrain is likely to join the bloc. Egypt and Jordan are also being considered as potential members.
The newly formed alliance views Syria as a bulwark against Iran. According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump asked Saudi Arabia for up to $4 billion to rebuild and stabilize the eastern part of Syria in order to keep Iran and Russia at bay. This means the US will be there for the long haul to promote the establishment of a separate entity that already has local councils being formed. This will jeopardize Syria’s territorial integrity. No doubt Israel will unofficially support the plan.
The US may not be leaving Syria now but it cannot stay forever. Sending Saudi forces into Syria is one option. The soldiers from that kingdom may enjoy broader support from Syria’s Sunni population. After all, the Kurds are also Sunni Muslims. Religion may be a unifying factor. The main goal is to prevent Iran’s geopolitical expansion through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to reach the Mediterranean Sea.
This is an alliance that was created for joint operations, but that does not mean immediate war with Iran. In Syria this action team may become part of a broader diplomatic effort to find a settlement without the leading actors plunging into a large-scale conflict. Syria, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Kurds, and the US-led SDF don’t see eye to eye on many issues and pursue different goals, but conflict has been avoided mainly due to the Russian-brokered Astana peace process and the coordination of efforts to implement the concept of the de-escalation zones. Moscow is the only actor that is in communication with all the parties involved. It has a superb relationship with the KSA and the UAE. After all, when President Trump congratulated President Putin on his election victory, he definitely was not seeking a confrontation with Russia in Syria or elsewhere. The Saudi king was looking for cooperation when he visited Russia last October. The UAE crown prince and the Russian leader held a friendly meeting just a few days ago.
The newly created coalition can play a role in Syria with Russia acting as a mediator. In this scenario, its leaders will need a lot of patience in order to hang in there through some long hard talks to find a compromise. The alternative would be confrontation with Iran with an uncertain outcome. If the choice is made to try to talk it over instead, then Russia could make a contribution to finding a settlement to end the war in Yemen, which the US-backed alliance of Saudi Arabia and the UAE is evidently losing. Moscow could help that partnership save face when confronted by an impending defeat.