The Wall Street Journal ran a fascinating interview with a former Saudi general tasked to test—or at least permitted to investigate—strategic alternatives in the Middle East. This is the same general, Anwar Majed Eshki, who appeared alongside the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Dore Gold, at an event in Washington in early June after a long series of secret meetings.
It can be hard to read the tea leaves in a conversation like this—General Eshki no longer holds any official role in the Saudi government, and continues to insist that the dialogues with Ambassador Gold were a purely private undertaking. But several interesting points stick out in the conversation that are worth unpacking, and could give a careful reader at least a sense of how the notoriously secretive Saudis are strategizing.
1) Israel as a regional ally.
It seems clear that there is a lot of Arab-Israeli diplomacy going on that is not U.S. driven at this point—discussions of truce talks with Hamas just keep popping up. The assumption has to be that both sides are looking for some way of limiting the ability of the Palestinian issue to interfere with cooperation against the perceived major menace of Iran. Arabs need enough movement from Israel so that cooperation against Iran doesn’t totally play into Shi’a propaganda about Iran being the only true center of resistance to the evils of Zionism and the West. Israel’s right wing, pro-settler government is looking for concessions it can make that will satisfy the Arabs without enraging its base.
It is not clear that this will be successful—both sides have a lot of red lines. But a fascinating sign of change in the Middle East — and potentially a historic opportunity; one hopes the Israelis will be ready to think big and think creative.
2. Syria as the strategic focus.
General Eshki doesn’t seem to be thinking about direct action against Iran, at least at this point. Instead, the focus is on Syria, where Eshki seems to have two objectives in mind. One is changing the Assad regime without “changing the system”, suggesting that the Saudis want Assad and figures close to Iran tossed out on their ear, without necessarily dismantling the structures of the Syrian state. As part of the plan to reduce Iran’s influence in Syria, he seems to envision Israeli and possibly Sunni Arab cooperation against Hezbollah. This would also have the consequence of making the Kingdom a much more dominant player in Lebanon, and restoring the power of the Sunni Arabs there.
Eshki seems to be saying that the way to prune Iran back in the first instance is to attack its regional power. But conspicuously not mentioned is Iraq. It looks as if the general thinks that the operative trade here is a Sunni dominated Levant (Syria and Lebanon) in exchange for not challenging Shi’a power in Iraq. This is a reasonable compromise. If U.S. foreign policy were working in the region, this is pretty much what we should be aiming for.
3. Yemen as a Saudi priority.
General Eshki is giving a more hopeful reading of the consequences of Saudi intervention in Yemen than many Western analysts would support. His core point: Iran’s inability to ship weapons and other aid to its Houthi allies has exposed it as a paper tiger. If the idea animating the approach here is that the Saudi goal is to cut Iran out of Yemen and then negotiate some kind of deal among local entities with the Kingdom recognized (if not universally loved) as the most important outside power, then again it’s a reasonable view. It’s not clear if it can be achieved on the ground, or if the Saudis are capable of the self-denial and flexibility this approach will ultimately demand, but it’s hard to think of another approach to Yemen that would work better for them.
4. Russia as a positive force.
There have been lots of signals that the Sunni Arabs, as they come to terms with Washington’s new coldness and unreliability (as they see it), are looking for ways to bring Russia back into the regional equation to balance Iran. And there’s little doubt that Russia would desperately like to get more involved in selling weapons to the Gulf.
Up until now, Russia has been aligned with Iran in the region. This is partly on general anti-American principle and partly because Russia fears Sunni jihad spreading to its own territories, with ISIS and Al Qaeda trained fighters returning to further radicalize Russian Muslims, and bringing arms and funds from the Sunni jihad zone into Russia. Finally, it’s partly because many of the Middle East’s remaining Christians are Orthodox with deep ties (in some cases economic as well as ecclesiastical) to Russia. Assad (like Saddam) for all his faults has protected the Christians in Syria. The Russians have a lot of reasons for wanting to see Christians protected going forward—not least because that would be an assurance that the Syrian government wasn’t becoming jihadi.
If, as many think, Iran and the U.S. might be moving together, Russia will need new friends. There’s a potential grand bargain between the Sunnis and the Russians: Russia flips away from Iran, becomes an ally of the Gulf Arabs against it, and withdraws support from Assad. In exchange, the Gulf states agree to keep ISIS and its bloodied fellow travelers out of power in Syria, cooperate to keep jihad out of the Caucasus and other bits of Russia, and buy lots of Russian stuff.
From the Russian point of view, there’s an additional angle here: the Russians and the Israelis are much closer than most Americans understand. The large Russian emigration to Israel since the fall of the Soviet Union has helped to create strong human and economic links; Putin has pursued a pretty pro-Israel diplomacy even as he’s kept up ties with Iran. Vladimir Putin might well hope to have a major role in the Middle East if he’s got good ties with both the Arabs and the Israelis—expanding Russian influence in one of the country’s historic zones of ambition, and substantially increasing Russia’s role in the world.
This initiative is still more sizzle than steak, in that there are a lot of moving parts. Russian diplomacy, in part because its position is so weak, depends on a lot of razzle dazzle and keeping lots of balls in the air. But the Saudis don’t mind fingering the Russian card and, who knows? Something might eventually come of it.
Interesting times, indeed.