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Tony Badran

Whose side is America on?

Saudi King Abdullah and Barack Obama

In President Barack Obama’s inaugural address marking the start of his second term in office, he dedicated little space to foreign policy. While the president made no specific mention of Iran, he did emphasize certain principles that amount to a doubling down on the policy of engagement. “We are heirs to those … who turn sworn enemies into the surest of friends … because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear,” the president declared.
 
While many administration insiders continue to insist that the president’s policy is still to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, Obama’s rhetoric, not to mention his cabinet nominations, who preach engagement without any plan B in the event that fails, raise doubts about Obama’s position.
 
No one feels Obama’s equivocations more acutely than Washington’s Sunni regional allies. There’s a gaping chasm between the priorities of the White House and those of the Sunni states. It’s long been known that these allies fear more than anything the prospect of Iranian influence enhanced by a nuclear weapons program. And yet, as Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey look at US policy they see that it is more aligned with Iranian interests than their own.
 
It may not be the White House’s intention to send such a signal, but persistent ambiguity and lack of strategic clarity only serve to harden this perception. Consider what US policy around the region looks like to Sunni powers.
 
In Iraq, the US continues to stand behind the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, even as he has struck a hostile posture toward all of Washington’s regional allies. Saudi Arabia never believed that Maliki would take Sunni concerns into consideration, or that he could keep Baghdad out of Iran’s orbit. From the Saudis’ perspective, Maliki was bound to bend to Iranian preferences as he moved to consolidate power. Moreover, the Saudis understood that Obama’s disengagement from Iraq would only result in increased Iranian sway over Baghdad.
 
Maliki’s behavior, especially since the US withdrawal, has vindicated the Saudis’ worst fears. And they’re not alone. Maliki’s campaigns against rival Sunni politicians resulted in increased tension with the Turks, who also share the Saudi view that, as one Turkish commentator put it, “the US had served Iraq to Iran on a gold platter.”
 
Turkey’s tensions with Iraq were further exacerbated as Ankara moved closer to Kurdish president Massoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), where it seeks a new energy supply source, bypassing Baghdad’s control. And yet, the US continued to back Maliki.
 
If there was any doubt about which camp Maliki belonged to, it was dispelled when he actively undercut Washington and its allies by standing behind the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in his war against the Sunni-majority opposition. The Iraqi premier was providing not only political support to Assad but was also allowing Iraq to become a transit point for Iranian weapons and other assistance to the Syrian regime. When Saudi Arabia and Turkey looked to the White House for a reaction, all they got was mild protestation and helpless dismay.
 
From the Sunni perspective, US policy in Syria has reinforced their worst beliefs about Washington’s posture toward Iran. The columns of Tariq al-Homayed, the influential Saudi editor of the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, are a useful gauge of the Saudis’ misgivings about the White House’s policies. Over the past year, Homayed has articulated the region’s perception of what could be dubbed an anti-Sunni bias in US policy.
 
In September, for instance, he criticized Washington’s refusal to arm the Syrian rebels even as it agreed to a major arms deal with the Iran-allied Maliki. Homayed further criticized US reluctance to back an opposition transitional government, with the excuse being that it wasn’t inclusive enough of Syrian minorities. “Why is lack of inclusiveness a condition in the Syrian case, but it is looked over in Maliki’s case?” Homayed asked. He had a point. The US was adamant that the Sunnis share power with Syria’s minorities – even as some of them were allied with Tehran and Moscow – but was willing to give the Iran-aligned Maliki a free hand in Iraq.
 
Homayed’s criticism reflects a more general perception among the Sunni regional states, and zeroes in on the message that Washington has been sending about its strategic priorities. Instead of leading the effort to bring down the Assad regime, and thereby deal a major blow to Iran’s alliance network, it appears far more concerned about pressing the Syrian opposition to reach out more to minorities and about preserving so-called regime “institutions.” If the US wanted to eliminate Iranian influence in Syria, then it should be looking to dismantle, not preserve, “institutions” like the security services, which are allied with Iran.
 
Nothing the US has done in Syria has allayed the concerns and suspicions of its Sunni allies. In fact, it has only exacerbated them.
 
Washington needs to be aware of this entrenched view in the region. To be sure, it doesn’t make sense for the US to adopt across the board a consciously pro-Sunni policy – or a pro-Shiite one either. The US does not have a sectarian project in the region, even if, outside of Israel, all of America’s regional allies are Sunni states.  They share interests with the US, even if the administration is not pursuing those interests clearly. By letting down its allies on the priorities they care about – and which the US says are its priorities as well – the administration is doing a poor job at alliance maintenance. Worse still, it is conveying the message that it cares more about lifting the suspicion and fears of its enemies than those of its actual allies.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

The Saudis and other Sunnis in the Middle East are worried about US policy in the region. (AFP photo)

Nothing the US has done in Syria has allayed the concerns and suspicions of its Sunni allies. In fact, it has only exacerbated them.

  • RalphS.

    PS: to answer the question-title of the article America is on America's side!!

    January 28, 2013

  • RalphS.

    This is the first time I don't finish Tony's whole article simply because the refrain is all the same: blame Obama no matter what he does and regardless of the many successful foreign policies he has achieved. Some people refuse to realize that America has changed, the US cares less about a world that has no love for it. Screw the Turks, the Saudis, the Iraqis and all the rest (even Israel)... all they do all day is criticize the US and want to lesson us, the most advanced country in the world, and our President, the most powerful man on earth and most probably the best advised person in the world, on the matters of the world. I'm totaly on Hanibaal and Beiruti's side, stop complaining, stop the wishful thinking based on your narrow interests, the US is not here to make your dreams come true!!!

    January 28, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    When will Arab pundits like Tony Badran and his Saudi and Lebanese acolytes abandon the much treaded road of holding the US responsible for every breath they themselves take? Why should US foreign policy matters so much to Arab people who spend all their time rejecting Western interference in their affairs, and who 70 years after the end of colonialism, continue to blame their own woes on crusaders, colonials, imperialists, Zionists, anti-Islamists, neo-cons, and so on. Just as the previous comment by Beiruti says, the US has a healthy dose of seeking its own interests. Why can't the Sunnis (jn this instance) undertake to protect their own interests REGARDLESS of what the US administration does or does not do? Why the insistence on this dependency on the much heralded US enemy? No one knows? Maybe Saudi and other Arab governments have outgrown the infantilism of Arabi pundits and editorialists like Badran who continue to aim at the easy American target, both to drill further the blame game into their brainwashed readership and to safely secure their livelihoods, instead of directing their attention to the ills of their own governments and socieities and their archaic socio-political structures, just like Joumana Haddad is doing. Please, stop blaming US foreign policy. We, your readers, are sick to the stomach from watching this film since the 1960s and 1970s: Blame the US, republican or democrat administrations, close invader or distant observer, occupier or liberator, with economic and oil imperialism or with democracy-teaching or nation-building intentions... Suspicion of the US as the great instigator and conspirator against the Arab masses is just so stale.

    January 26, 2013

  • Beiruti

    America is on America's side. Surprised? Disappointed? Don't be, this is how big boy governments operate, they look out for their own self interests and none others. What is America's interest? The war in Syria is not a sectarian war. It is dressed up as a sectarian war but actually it is an energy war. Qatar is arming the rebels because it wants to install a friendly government in Syria that will approve a transSyria LNG pipeline from the massive natural gas field north of Qatar to Turkey for sale to Europe. The international boundary between Qatar and Iran dissects the gas field and Iran wants to use Iraqi and Syrian territory as a means of transit to get the LNG to its terminal at Tartous Syria where there is a large Russian Fleet. Russia wants to control the flow of LNG from those fields as does the US. We in the US have discovered massive Natural Gas fields in the continental US through fracking and want to get that LNG to market in Europe too. Better to deal with Russia with whom we have more leverage than with Qatar with whom we have less. So, the US leaves Syria alone and in turmoil as we progress on getting US LNG to market before the gas from the PARS/North Gas Field north of Qatar.

    January 26, 2013