The U.S. has shipped billions of dollars worth of its best weapons to the Middle East in recent years, and today Arab nations are tapping that unprecedented arms buildup for the first time to wage war on multiple fronts, sometimes without American leadership.
The Persian Gulf states have joined a U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State terrorist army that controls northern and western Iraq and parts of Syria. The level of Arab participation resembles, but is much more robust than, that of the 1991 Desert Storm conflict, in which Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates joined European and American operations to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
Outside that alliance, some of those same nations are going to war and not waiting for the U.S. to lead.
Saudi Arabia last week quickly formed an Arab coalition for Operation Decisive Storm, essentially to defend the Sunni kingdom against Iran at its doorstep on the southern border. Security analysts say Iran’s Quds Force helped rebel Houthi Shiites in Yemen oust a Saudi and U.S. ally, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The Houthis also sent American troops retreating from the U.S. Embassy and from a counterterrorism base.
“Iran has provided support to the Houthis for years, and their ascendancy is increasing Iran’s influence,” James R. Clapper, the top U.S. intelligence official, told Congress last month.
The Saudis and the United Arab Emirates are conducting airstrikes on Houthi targets with the help of U.S. intelligence. On Sunday, news services reported that ground movements by Saudi forces signal an imminent invasion of Yemen — a strategically located country where U.S. warships transit the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Egypt said it is proposing an Arab army, meaning all-out war between Arab Sunni states and a Shiite Iran proxy, for control of Yemen.
It is not the first time Arab allies have acted without the U.S.
In August, Egyptian and UAE jet fighters launched from an Egyptian airfield to attack Islamist terrorist targets in Libya. The U.S. has declined to directly confront various al Qaeda-linked groups in Libya with military muscle. Afterward, the State Department and Pentagon condemned such attacks.
Michael Rubin, a Middle East analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said the Gulf Cooperation Council was created in 1981 to stand up to the Islamic Republic of Iran. The council has struggled over unity, until now, and the alliance could mean a downgrade in U.S. influence.
“How ironic it is, then, that it took the collapse of U.S. leadership to inject unity and action into much of the GCC and the broader Arab world,” Mr. Rubin said. “Once the United States is cast aside, however, it will never restore the influence it once had. Successive presidents had Riyadh on speed dial when a crisis came, but no longer will the Saudi kings answer that 3 a.m. phone call. Ditto Cairo. Same with Abu Dhabi.”
A host of U.S. weapons
The U.S. has provided tools for the Gulf’s military independence.
First the George W. Bush administration and now President Obama have approved a record level of arms sales to Gulf Cooperation Council nations, particularly F-15 and F-16 advanced strike aircraft. The strategy: With the U.S. military shrinking and at times preoccupied in other regions, the Gulf states can take on more of their own defenses.
In the war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have turned to those state-of-the-art strike fighters and smart weapons not for deterrence, but for offensive military operations.
Both nations are uneasy about what appears to be Mr. Obama’s tilt toward Iran, which Sunni Muslim Gulf states have long viewed as their No. 1 threat.
“The Arab leaders have awakened to Obama’s policy shift in the Middle East,” said Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and analyst on international arms sales.
The year 2011 perhaps best illustrated the Gulf arms buildup: Of $56 billion in total overseas sales from the U.S., $33 billion were the result of deals with the Saudi kingdom, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The Saudi shopping list includes thousands of smart bomb systems, air-to-ground missiles, anti-ship missiles and, to unleash them, F-15SA attack fighters.
Lockheed Martin Corp. has been selling the United Arab Emirates an advanced version of the F-16 dubbed the “Desert Falcon.” The jet features extended range, new radars and the capability to drop U.S.-made satellite-guided bombs.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz quickly put together a coalition last week to raid Yemen by air and position forces for an incursion by land. The regime has told Western powers that it simply will not tolerate an Iranian puppet state on its border.
The oil-rich nation sees itself being surrounded: Iran is moving into Yemen, dominating southern Iraq; keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power; and pulling strings in Lebanon via its terrorist army Hezbollah.
“Of course it is a very interesting shift that now Arab regimes like the one in Saudi Arabia are no longer asking the U.S. to protect them from regional unrest such as in Yemen,” Mr. Maginnis said. “They recognize that the Obama administration is unwilling to rush to help Arab nations floundering in yet another crisis.”
James Russell, a former Pentagon official who was involved in foreign arms sales, said that after the U.S. ousted Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Bush administration embarked on a Gulf arms buildup, along with more joint training, to help those Arab nations become more self-sufficient.
A decade later, it all has come to fruition, as Iran and the Islamic State have emerged as direct threats in a muddled Middle Eastern and North African security situation.
“The Yemen operation is interesting on many levels,” said Mr. Russell, an instructor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. “We’ve sold the Saudis tens of billions of dollars of arms over the last quarter-century, and they have never seemed particularly interesting in learning how to actually use the weapons.”
“Their armed forces are being thrust into a role for which they are not prepared, and it’ll be interesting to see how they do,” he said. “Their pilots are probably reasonably competent, but the rubber will meet the road when and if the army enters the fray and they have to actually coordinate operations at the tactical level. The risks of the Saudi Arabian Armed Forces and the regime are substantial.”
If the Saudi coalition and their American weapons fail, Iran gains and the U.S. loses, he said.
Mr. Maginnis said: “They are afraid that without a serious effort to push back at Tehran the Shia crescent, once a Persian public dream, could very well become a regional fixture seriously undermining the Sunni states’ stability.”