is Islamic State ’secondary priority' for Saudi Arabia?

Is Islamic State 'secondary priority' for Saudi Arabia?

Al-Qaeda benefits from Yemen conflict

SummaryPrint Riyadh is preoccupied with the military campaign in Yemen; Velayati tells Lebanese officials there will be no deal on Assad; the Turkish opposition party is under attack ahead of June 7 elections.
Author Week in Review Posted May 24, 2015

Last week the Islamic State (IS) seized control of both Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria while taking credit for a suicide bombing at a Shiite mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, which killed at least 21, forcing the Obama administration to rethink its strategy toward the terrorist group.

Despite the terrorist attack on Saudi soil, Bruce Riedel is not convinced there is a comparable effort at rethinking in Riyadh, writing that IS is a “secondary priority” for the kingdom relative to its military campaign against Houthi insurgents in Yemen.

The United Nations human rights office on May 22 noted the “massive destruction of civilian infrastructure” as a result of the civil war and Saudi airstrikes, observing that more than 1,000 civilians have died in the conflict since March.

In addition to airstrikes, Saudi efforts to build a Yemen military force to defeat the Houthi insurgents is lagging and, Riedel notes, “even if this approach gains momentum, it will only lead to a brutal civil war in Yemen much like Libya, Syria and Iraq in which al-Qaeda and its offshoots will be the main beneficiaries.” 

There is an analogy in the kind of mistake between on the one hand what the Saudis are doing when they make IS their distant priority and instead focus primarily on defeating the Houthis nearby and the Assad government from a distance, and on the other hand, the similar approach early in the Syrian war when Assad focused his war on the Free Syrian Army and its partners while ignoring gains made at the time in Syria and on the Turkish and Iraqi borders by extremist groups later to be called IS.

Riedel writes that there are “mutterings around the Gulf states now that the Saudi leadership is impulsive and rash. The Saudis have traditionally been very conservative and risk-averse. From Faisal to Abdullah, Saudi kings were cautious and careful. Now there is hushed talk of a team out of its depth with no plan for an endgame. No one wants to say openly that Riyadh is in a quagmire, but Oman's decision to opt out of the war is increasingly seen as a smart decision.”

Riedel observes that “Saudi rhetoric is also getting more extreme. While Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef and the king's son were at Camp David filling in for the king, the king was meeting with ultra-conservative members of the Wahhabi clerical establishment who have proclaimed the war a holy mission. After snubbing US President Barack Obama, the king spent his time with clerics who back slavery, object to modern astronomy and regard Shiites as unbelievers.”

It is worth noting that the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Joint Statement “underscored the imperative of collective efforts to counter al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and emphasized the need to rapidly shift from military operations to a political process,” a perhaps not-so-indirect reference to the disastrous consequences of the conflict for regional counterterrorism efforts and the Yemeni people.

Riedel warns that the Saudi campaign is an eventual loser for Washington: “Without US help, the Saudis simply could not sustain the air campaign. The Saudis depend on US and British corporate support to maintain their aircraft, they need intelligence to find their targets and they need resupply to replace munitions. So Washington is dragged steadily deeper into a war it did not seek.”

Velayati: No deal on Assad

Ali Akbar Velayati, president of the Iranian Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research and a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly told Lebanese leaders in private meetings in Beirut on May 18 that while Iran may conclude a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 countries, there will be no changes or concessions in Iran’s regional policies.

Jean Aziz reports that according to sources, Velayati stressed two points about a possible nuclear deal: “First, the time needed to ratify the Iranian-US agreement could be relatively long, and may take more than a matter of weeks. Second, this agreement will not include any Iranian concessions on regional issues that concern Tehran.”

Aziz adds that Velayati reportedly conveyed a sense of optimism and momentum about Iran’s regional policies with Lebanese officials, stressing “that any talk about a potential deal entered into by Tehran at the expense of its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus was untrue. ... Meanwhile, other victories will be made in Iraq and the counter-axis will face setbacks in Yemen, according to the source.”

Erdogan plays Egypt card

Turkey holds elections for its Grand National Assembly, or parliament, on June 7, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) campaigning as both firewall and victim, despite Recep Tayyip Erdogan serving as prime minister or president for the past 13 years.

Mustafa Akyol writes that Erdogan has championed the cause of former Egyptian President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, who was sentenced to death May 16, as a means to define the AKP as a bulwark against the “conspiracies” that toppled Morsi and threaten Turkey and the region.

“Like most of the Tamarod folks, Gezi Park protesters were liberal or secular people whose stance against the Islamists received some sympathy in Western media,” Akyol writes. “This was enough for the AKP to link these two separate events, and to imagine a Western (and Israeli) conspiracy behind them to topple the elected Islamists in both Egypt and Turkey.”

Akyol continues, “That is why today the typical AKP supporter believes that his political line is the one that is attacked and the oppressed. Although Erdogan has been in power for 13 years, and has accumulated power unprecedented since the time of Ataturk, the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt provides him and his supporters a strong sense of victimhood. As a result, they completely disregard opposition views that the AKP is the real oppressor and that the opposition is the truly oppressed.”

Cengiz Candar and Fehim Tastekin report that the pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP) has faced harassment and attacks heading into the election, as Turkey’s Kurds, which once supported the AKP in substantial numbers, are now shifting to the HDP.

“At the end of last week, social media reported that 122 attacks had targeted HDP election offices and bureaus in 60 of Turkey's 81 provinces, or three-fourths of the country,” Candar writes.

Sibel Hurtas writes that Armenian youths took to the streets to protest the demolition of an Armenian orphanage camp complex, a possible sign of increasing political activism among Turkey’s Armenian citizens.

The plight of Syrian refugees is also polarizing Turkish citizens. Syrian refugees in Turkey are becoming targets of social and economic grievances, according to Semih Idiz.

“Public anger is not only being stirred by Syrian beggars becoming permanent features on the streets of cities and towns, but also because the refugees are undercutting already low wages and forcing up rents in mainly lower-income districts because of the increased demand for housing they create,” Idiz writes.

Idiz reports on a recent poll that showed that “more than 70% believe that the Syrians will create lasting problems for the country, while nearly 50% think the government’s management of the refugee crisis has not been satisfactory. These figures appear to suggest that most of those who believe it is right to help the Syrians also feel the refugees should be sent home as soon as conditions in Syria permit. What is clear is that if Ankara continues to maintain an open-door policy toward the Syrians without introducing concrete measures to counter the policy’s adverse social and economic effects, tensions between locals and refugees will continue to boil over, resulting in ugly scenes across the country like those of the past few weeks.”