While our eyes are fixed on North Korea, the Middle East threatens to explode. If it does, we’ll be drawn in — and the carnage and cost will make Iraq seem like spring break.
Choose your powder keg, starting with Yemen. Ruptured by civil war, the entire country’s running out of water; famine is biting; and cholera’s spreading like a medieval plague. Yemeni factions fight like rabid dogs let loose in a butcher’s shop, while Islamist fanatics spread through the desolate hinterlands.
Worsening all, Iran has backed the Shia-aligned Houthi rebels to gain a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula. Two-and-a-half years ago, Iran’s involvement drew in the Saudi military. Today, neither side is winning; the dying continues; and the frustrated Saudis have blocked not only trade but relief supplies.
Yemen is dying, the plaything of powerful neighbors, and we can’t even find it on a map. But Yemen may well find us.
Launched from Yemen, an Iranian-supplied missile targeted the Saudi capital this month. A US-built air-defense system brought it down, but the attack signaled that Iran is raising the stakes.
Given their triumphs in Syria and Iraq, Iran’s militants feel invincible. No sentiment is more dangerous.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia is reeling. Riyadh’s struggling to find an effective response to Iran’s empire-building. In its latest — appallingly clumsy — move, the kingdom essentially kidnapped Saad Hariri, the man the Saudis themselves had backed as Lebanon’s prime minister. Riyadh forced the younger Hariri to resign on Saudi soil and continues to hold Hariri under apparent house arrest.
As Lebanon’s senior Sunni political leader, Hariri’s sin was that he failed to stand up to Iran as Lebanon-based Hezbollah provided shock troops to Syria’s Assad regime. But there was little Hariri could do. Hezbollah’s now the strongest force in Lebanon — its veterans far overmatch the Lebanese military. And the Lebanese, recalling their own brutal civil war, don’t want their country torn apart again.
The Saudis simply don’t know what to do. Riyadh had bet that we’d take care of Iran, that Tehran would push us too far and our military would whip Iran’s Quds Force and the region’s Shia militias back into their pens. But we backed down again and again, while the Iranians consistently stepped up.
Long viewed as the keystone Arab power, Saudi Arabia’s now strategically destitute. Despite the hundreds of billions spent on weaponry, the Saudi military performs poorly. The Iranians are willing to fight it out in close combat on the ground. The Saudis want to fight safely from the air. And so the Iranians are respected and feared, while the Saudis are disdained.
Plus, Tehran has been building a web of alliances, while the Saudis have never excelled at attracting friends.
Our principle Middle Eastern ally outside of Israel, Saudi Arabia could, with one grand misstep, provoke a regional war it could not win. And we’d be forced to save the kingdom, a repugnant use of American blood.
Nor is Saudi Arabia tranquil domestically. In recent years, dynastic changes empowered the 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (known to Saudis as “MbS”), who grasps the need for social and economic modernization. His foreign misadventures, though, from the Yemen quagmire to an untimely spat with Qatar and the stumbling interference in Lebanon threaten to derail reform. Popular with younger Saudis, MbS seeks to grant women more rights (beginning with the right to drive); to diversify and revitalize the economy on a vast scale; and to reduce corruption.
That last effort is essential to the Saudi future, but it’s fraught with peril. The recent arrests of over 200 princes, officials and billionaire businessmen has been touted as an anti-corruption sweep, but also appears to be a draconian move to sideline rivals. MbS is gambling at several tables simultaneously. And every other player is a cheat.
We should applaud real reform but always remain alert: Saudi internal modernization in the face of unprecedented external challenges could prove destabilizing. The shah of Iran didn’t fall because of his (much-exaggerated) oppression, but because he sought to change his country faster than it could bear.
With his catastrophic rush to abandon Iraq and subsequent cowardice, President Barack Obama became Iran’s enabler. Now, if the Saudis blunder, President Trump may be forced to act as Tehran’s great disabler. And we may find ourselves in the kind of war even victors lose.
Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst....Read more