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Looming Over US-Gulf Allies Talks: A Choice of ‘Poison Pills’

President Barack Obama, center, with Arab Gulf leaders at Camp David, May 14, 2015.
President Barack Obama, center, with Arab Gulf leaders at Camp David, May 14, 2015.

More than two weeks before Saudi Arabia sent two of its princes to meet with President Barack Obama at Thursday's Camp David summit, the kingdom announced the arrests of 93 people, all suspected of belonging to the terror group known as the Islamic State.

Current and former U.S. officials agreed the arrests were a sign the Saudis had taken a more active role in combating the Islamic State group. What was far less certain was whether Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the Gulf saw the militant organization as the primary existential threat.

“It’s the dilemma of two poison pills for those in the region: the hegemonic ambitions of Iran and the rise of extremism,” said former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Wallace, now CEO of the Countering Extremism Project.

Based on the Saudi campaign in Yemen against the Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthis, a decision on which pill to swallow may have already been made.

Wallace says there are already some indications that Saudi Arabia is trying to engage tribes along the Yemeni border regardless of whether they have ties to extremist groups like the Islamic State or al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

“I think you’re seeing on that border some compromises being made,” he said.

Iran in Syria

But Yemen is just one example that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries see Iran as the primary threat.

“You have a proxy war going on between the Sunni states and Iran in many places in the region," said former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy. “The most pronounced or acute case right now is inside Yemen, but you’ve seen this play out in places like Bahrain, in places like Lebanon, and aspects of what’s going on in Iraq right now.”

CIA Director John Brennan admitted in March that Iran has “brought to bear a number of capabilities” in Iraq, sending advisers to work with the country’s Shi’ite militias, most notably as part of the Iraqi effort to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State.

Iran’s support, much of it through Hezbollah, has also been pivotal in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad has managed to cling to power despite attempts by the Islamic State to carve out an ever larger area for its self-declared caliphate and constant attacks by a variety of rebel groups.

“The [Syrian] regime’s allies have previously surged support to help avoid the Assad government’s collapse, and their interest in maintaining the viability of a long-term ally leaves little doubt they would do so again,” a U.S. intelligence official told VOA on condition of anonymity. “Iran, and Syria’s other allies, will be hard-pressed to find a successor regime that will play the same role that Assad does on Iran’s behalf.”

Iran undeterred

Jennifer Cafarella at the Institute for the Study of War says even recent setbacks for regime forces are unlikely to deter Iran.

“Things like having Qassem Suleimani, the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps] general himself, show up in Syria and seem to direct some of the pro-regime military offenses is a powerful form of support and is something the Iranians are likely to continue and could possibly increase in coming months,” she said.

As in Yemen, a coalition of Sunni nations is responding to counter Iran, with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey putting aside differences to back a grouping in Syria known as Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest.

With the help of a more centralized approach and an influx of weapons, Jaish al-Fatah has made inroads against the regime, notably in Syria’s Idlib province.

“The anti-Assad forces haven’t yet turned the tide of the war itself, but they have been able to make notable gains on some of the margins where pro-Assad forces are in some ways limited by the lack of deployment by some of these irregular supporting elements,” Cafarella said.

Support for anti-Assad forces?

While the U.S. has long said publicly that the way forward in Syria cannot include Assad, the developments have given officials reason to worry. Jaish al-Fatah is more than a coalition of anti-regime forces. It consists of a variety of mostly jihadist and Islamist groups, headlined by the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.

U.S. intelligence officials have been wary of attributing the gains of anti-regime forces to more than the experience of years of fighting that has “hardened the various armed opposition groups and extremist elements involved in the Syrian conflict.”

But some analysts say the taste of success could lead Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to increase their support for extremists, even if it means eventually partnering with a group that is committed to its ultimate destruction.

“Saudi Arabia is inextricably tied to the Wahhabi doctrine; the royal family is inextricably tied to the Wahhabi religion’s establishment,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, referring to the Saudi-based puritanical movement that he says has "fueled Islamic extremism of the Sunni side throughout the region."

"As this clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia intensifies, I think it’s going to be pretty unavoidable that the Saudis are going to support the Islamic State or support militant groups that are under the Islamic State's umbrella,” he said.