Managing the War in Yemen: Diplomatic Opportunities in the Mayhem

Posted June 17th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

TCF Policy Brief

The war unfolding in Yemen has created a humanitarian and political catastrophe.1 Since Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen’s civil war at the end of March, the conflict has spiraled into an open, multiplayer regional war that has killed more than 2,000 people. For long stretches, Yemen’s seaports have been blockaded, threatening the food supply of an estimated half of the population of 24 million. Meanwhile, the number of displaced has lurched upward to 1 million.2

The conflict in Yemen marks yet another unfortunate escalation in the region that will exacerbate security problems and political divisions. This time around, Arab governments and the United States should do everything they can to calm the conflict before it becomes another intractable killing field. Washington already recognized Yemen’s strategic importance and for years has targeted terrorist operatives there with drone strikes. Now, the United States and its allies have the opportunity to learn from recent missteps in the region and take advantage of the halting negotiations that opened recently in Genevabetween the warring parties.3

The next few months offer a narrow window to prioritize diplomacy over military action in a bid to shift worsening dynamics across the Middle East. Regional governments and multilateral organizations ought to take every conceivable diplomatic step available today, even in the face of likely failure or obstruction, to address the Yemen crisis. Otherwise, it could quickly turn into another Syria, an intractable, grinding conflict that destroys one nation, while implicating a raft of others in a conflict that has no good possible outcomes.

This brief will assess the interests of outside powers that are playing a significant role in the Yemeni civil war and try to identify points of entry for diplomacy and de-escalation, with the long-term goal of creating new forums for dialogue between Saudi Arabia, Iran and other governments. The riskier internationalized phase of the war in Yemen is only three months old, and it has dragged in many key players in the region, including the United States. Military action is unlikely to resolve the conflict there, but an effective political process—which depends on international support—might reverse a dangerous escalation.

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A Complex Conflict—and Its Consequences

In Yemen today, two amorphous and loosely allied coalitions are battling each other, with one roughly grouped behind Saudi Arabia and the other behind Iran. The dynamics and identities of these groupings are fluid and malleable. And as with the three other hot wars currently being fought in the Arab world—in Syria, Iraq, and Libya—the Yemen conflict is marked by a considerable degree of external interference. The stakes are high for the foreign interventionists: Saudi Arabia and its allies believe their stance in Yemen denotes a line of departure in a belated, but essential, campaign to check Iran’s influence, while Iran sees Yemen as yet another battleground on which it can pressure its regional rivals while maintaining a plausibly deniable degree of involvement. 4,5 

Foreign support has emboldened militias on both sides of the conflict, and almost all sides are already pursuing military options.6 While Yemen’s competing factions fight, Al Qaeda inthe Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been entirely spared foreign military strikes and is enjoying renewed latitude to operate.7

The Yemen crisis poses many dangers. The most obvious lie in Yemen itself, where starvation could become endemic and an avoidable escalation of civil war could lead to a mass humanitarian tragedy. Security blowback is an equally intense strategic concern. AQAP has been one of the most active groups plotting international terrorist attacks, including against the United States. The disruption of U.S.-allied counterterrorism efforts in Yemen, and now the collapse of any central state authority, directly empower AQAP and increase the threat to the United States.8 The coalition led by the Houthis, a group with a distinct tribal and sectarian identity inside Yemen, which is currently supported by Iran and by deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has grievances mostly rooted in the local sharing of power and resources.9 It is impossible to assess whether Iran views the interests of the Houthi alliance as close to Iran’s core interests, or whether it tactically views the Houthis as another chit to deploy in a region-wide strategy that seeks to maximize Iranian footholds that can be used to project power or can be traded away in negotiations.

The Yemen war also has clear ramifications for its direct neighbors. Rightly or wrongly,Saudi Arabia always has considered Yemen a core national security interest,10 often trying to manage Yemen’s affairs as if it were another Saudi province. The tightly intertwined business elites of the two countries11 and a hard-to-police shared border12 make it hard for Riyadh to ignore developments to the south. Since March of this year, Saudi Arabia, acting out of genuine fear of Iran’s expanding influence, has embarked on a coalition air war that has no discernible end game.13 While Saudi perceptions might be exaggerated, developments in Yemen are indeed linked to Iranian efforts to deepen their partnership with the Houthis. Critics paint the Saudi intervention as impulsive and slipshod and point out that King Salman could not persuade long-time Saudi beneficiaries such as Pakistan and Egypt to contribute troops for a potential ground operation.14 But Saudi Arabia’s concerns are real, and they cannot be wished away by governments that do not share them. Any broader strategic rapprochement in the region will require a clear understanding of the concerns of the Arabian Peninsula monarchies and measures to restore their sense of security and confidence.

Doubtless, the humanitarian emergency in Yemen will strain an already bad security climate. But it also provides an opportunity to engage the full array of problematic and recalcitrant regional governments with an eye toward assuaging their insecurities and creating diplomatic avenues through which they can explore more enduring fixes to regional problems. The current historical moment, while high risk, offers an opportunity for outside powers to deploy diplomatic influence in a concerted and sustained manner. It is worthwhile in its own right to try to limit the war in Yemen and to calm tensions between the complex web of combatants. But equally importantly, any well-designed initiative—even one that fails—could amount to a major accomplishment if it began to fill the void of regional mechanisms through which rival states can directly negotiate.

What would such an initiative look like, and why should there be any hope that it will work any better than the plethora of failed diplomatic initiatives around the Syrian civil war?

Formulating a Response

The cascade of events that escalated the civil war in Yemen signals a repositioning by key regional powers. Indeed the conflict brings into sharp relief some of the perceived and actual interests at stake for key players, including the Sunni Arab monarchies in the Arabian Gulf, the rulers of Iran, and outside guarantors like Russia and the United States. But this volatile and vulnerable period has an upside: by laying bare some of the fears and ambitions of key regional actors, the turmoil invites governments with the potential for good offices to organize several different diplomatic initiatives. At worst, they will amount to a little more talk in a region that does not experience enough, at least between adversaries. At best, multilateral and bilateral diplomatic initiatives can serve as life-saving palliatives for the immediate catastrophe in Yemen and also potentially as vehicles to curtail the conflict and begin a long process (with admittedly long odds) of creating a nonmilitary forum to resolve regional tensions.

Absent a sharp change of direction soon, the war in Yemen risks following the same course as Syria’s: devolving into an unwinnable and destabilizing stalemate, shredding national well-being for Yemen and prestige for outsiders who thought they could determine the conflict’s course.15 Because the regional external stakeholders in the Yemen war are concurrently implicated in Syria’s, it is worth trying to persuade them to change course in Yemen before it is too late. Paradoxically, some of the same players that have been ineffective or malignant in Syria could play a positive role in calming tensions in Yemen, perhaps because their own prestige is not yet on the line. The United States, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Nations are obvious candidates to serve as early diplomatic brokers.

Existing diplomatic outreach has reaped some benefits. The UN appointed a new envoy on April 25 and helped negotiate a humanitarian ceasefire in May.16 The United States government has met with both sides of the conflict inside Yemen, and it has been adept at simultaneously managing multiple aspects of the diplomatic crisis. The talks in Geneva that begin on June 14 hold some basic promise but fail to include all the necessary actors.17 A concerted diplomatic push could be catalyzed by comparatively level-headed players, such as the United Arab Emirates, the United States, and the United Nations, and could make use of problematic but potentially useful forums such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Arab League. The aim would be to begin a diplomatic process that would include, even at a remove, both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and which would have at least a prospect of serving as an avenue to address the bedrock security concerns undermining regional security and driving the Yemen war. Any diplomatic effort to reduce tension between those two nations must take into account their stakes throughout the region.



Iran is enjoying a moment of expanding regional influence, but one that it perceives as under constant threat. It has made headway in negotiating a nuclear framework agreement with the United States and Europe, but it has suffered extensive economic isolation under sanctions.18 Iran has outsized influence over Iraq’s government, but that government has porous control over its own territory and can barely maintain a fiction of national sovereignty over Kurdish and Sunni areas.

The Syrian regime has been a tight client of Iran, but at great cost to Tehran—perhaps as much as $60 billion in financial support and a hard-to-measure, but deep, commitment of military and political resources.19 Iran and its partner, Hezbollah, have kept the Syrian regime afloat, but they have found the Syrian sponsees brittle and unresponsive to the political requests of their paymasters, who have unsuccessfully counseled the regime to experiment with political conciliation to end the civil war. Meanwhile, the ISIS proto-state in Iraq and Syria entails a direct and violent challenge to Iranian designs, interests, and legitimacy in the Arab and Islamic world.

Engaging Iran on the issue of Yemen while all these factors are in play could yield multiple benefits. Internal competition inside Iran between the military-revolutionary guard complex and the clerical-merchant elite raises the possibility of exploitable differences of opinion within the Iranian government. Yemen talks might also be an avenue to gauge whether Iran has changed its position on other issues in the wake of the nuclear framework accord negotiations. It is also possible that Iran does not see Yemen as a core interest and might even desire a de-escalation there, even as it appears to ramp up its military commitment in Syria. All these factors suggest that, while Iran seems ascendant, its concerns and internal dynamics open the possibility for a wider spectrum of diplomatic engagement.20

Yemen talks allow for a narrow focus, but all the players are aware of the wider context. Iran and the United States are on the verge of a major shift as a result of the nuclear negotiations. Arab governments are nervous that Washington will tilt away from them and toward Iran. It is important to manage the exaggerated fears and expectations; any U.S. shift on Iran is likely to be incremental, and a diplomatic process can help calm insecurities that can produce destabilizing violence like the war in Yemen. There is alo an economic component to discussions with Iran that could provide significant leverage to increase security. If and when sanctions on Iran are loosened, the Western sponsors of the nuclear talks could wisely direct a sizable share of their proceeds from the resulting economic boom to the very same Sunni Arab countries most worried about Iran. If Arabian Peninsula economies profit from Iran’s opening—through trade, the funneling of Western investment via Arab entrepôts in the Gulf, or even through direct investments of their own—the long-term prospects for peace and stability increase. 21 

The mechanics of such an economic windfall might be complicated. New private investment in Iran will not be driven by the diplomatic priorities of Western governments. But it is very possible that some of the biggest new, or renewed, foreign economic partnerships with Iran will come from companies that are traditional partners of government policy, like U.S. defense contractors and engineering conglomerates or European chemical and automobile manufacturers.22 The goal for diplomats would be to encourage investors to allow some of the post-sanctions Iran bonanza to pass through the Arab world, perhaps through creative partnerships between Western corporations and financial and technical partners in the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. An imperfect but useful analogy can be found in Iraq’s Kurdish north, where the Kurdistan Regional Government and its predecessors opened the borders to massive, profitable Turkish investments. The Turkish stake (and profits) in Kurdish Iraq have created enduring shared interests and reduced long-running tensions, despite real political disagreements. 23


Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia in March used the Arab League to launch its entrance into the Yemen war, and it has tried to rally pan-Arab support against what it describes as foreign Iranian aggression.24 The rhetoric of the March summit had overtones of Sunni Arab Nationalist grievance against a Shia and Persian-inflected conspiracy.25  There were also overt notes of triumphalist return of the established conservative political order after a period of experimentation ushered in by the period of popular uprisings.

Any sense of a restoration, or a new Pax Arabicus, is premature, however, and will quickly fade. Saudi Arabia already is seeing the difficulty of imposing a clean solution on Yemen and is reportedly considering a partition of the country.26 Riyadh is also well aware of the intractability of the Syria conflict, and it has begun to see the drawbacks of the ally it enlisted by helping install Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Egypt’s ruler.

King Salman is experienced, but he is new in his role as king and is heavily reliant on his approximately thirty-year-old son to shape policy.27 Transition periods allow for flux and also for adaptation. If Salman can be persuaded that it will protect Saudi’s core security interests, he could probably accept some shifts in policy on Yemen, or perhaps even on the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

The new administration in Saudi Arabia is experimenting with a new approach to foreign policy. It is a ripe moment to establish new mechanisms with Saudi Arabia because the kingdom’s top officials, and its policy orientations, are changing. King Salman has openly reconsidered the kingdom’s outright hostility toward the Muslim Brotherhood;28 he has taken a step back from his predecessor’s tight embrace of the dictator Saudi helped install in Egypt;29 he has taken new initiative to invigorate Sunni rebels in Syria;30 and he hassuggested in a range of leaks and public statements that Riyadh is willing to strike out on a policy course independent from Washington.31 However, that last position might be bluster, since Saudi and the United States have close, intertwined policy interests, including limiting the reach of Al Qaeda, maintaining a free flow of oil to global energy markets, and trying to check Iranian regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia depends on the U.S. security umbrella, and the United States depends on Saudi’s willingness to adjust the amount of oil it pumps to maintain world supplies in the face of geopolitical disruptions caused by events like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the embargo on Iranian oil, and the sporadic disruption of Libyan oil supplies since 2011. There is not likely to be a divorce, but Saudi Arabia is looking for supplementary partners and has made clear that it feels the U.S. is inadequately committed to Arab regional security.32 Regional discussions might offer an opportunity for Washington to emphasize its long-term investments in the region and its commitment to stability.


A (Limited) U.S. Role

Somewhat by accident, the United States has found itself in a position where it can negotiate along a complimentary line of diplomatic inducements. And Washington has taken this opportunity with more alacrity than it has at other junctures since the Arab uprisings began.

While finalizing the nuclear framework agreement with Iran, the United States simultaneously signed on to an explicitly anti-Iran war in Yemen33 and withheld military support in Iraq until Iran-backed militias took a backseat in the battle for Tikrit.34 The United States showed that it could keep its eyes on many parts of the map at the same time and that it would play hardball with Iran on other issues, even while making compromises in the interest of limiting its nuclear program.

The United States can do the same with its allies as well. It can assist the Saudi campaign in Yemen in the short-term, while counseling the development of an exit strategy. It can also volunteer to coordinate complementary, if not identical, positions for Egypt, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Riyadh is unlikely to embrace a U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, but it might effectively shelf its opposition in exchange for a symbolic increase in U.S. security guarantees for the Arabian Peninsula.

Creative diplomacy can explore other pathways to reassure allies and convince them to accept otherwise unpalatable tradeoffs. An example of the kind of innovative, small-scale problem solving that could evolve in the framework of regional talks involves nuclear power. Arab states are dissatisfied that they lack nuclear programs while Israel maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal and Iran appears to be on the verge of winning international approval for a robust research program that will leave it only a few steps away from a weapons program. The United States could look for ways to alleviate this dissatisfaction, for example by taking the lead in sponsoring nuclear power plants in the Gulf and its Arab allies, such as Egypt and Jordan. U.S. companies have already been making inroads—Westinghouse is part of the coalition that is currently building nuclear reactors in the United Arab Emirates. Official backing behind such a strategy, however, would also signal commitment and perhaps act as a salve for local energy problems and symbolic compensation for a perceived technology and support gap. Nuclear power is just one example of a secondary area that could be channeled in the Yemen talks to prompt progress on a wider scale.


Enabling Regional Dialogue

At the moment, there is no forum in which Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia regularly sit together to air regional concerns. Nor is there a meaningful forum where the full range of regional actors who actually affect developments on the ground regularly meet. If regional dialogue is to have a place in cooling down Yemen—as well as the other wars in the Arab world at the moment—such a forum would have to include the Arab States, Iran, Turkey, and probably Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations. The path to such a structure is long and would probably have to begin piecemeal, but a genuine Yemen contact group would be a fine place to start.

The crisis in Yemen is in early enough stages to enjoy the potential for amelioration. Furthermore, all the key players have in front of them Libya and Syria, vivid examples of what happens in an entrenched war zone in which the combatants and sponsors refuse to engage in diplomacy. The first step would require the United States and Russia to set an example and show that, even while confronting one another over the crisis in Ukraine, they can agree to support a dialogue, even a tense one, over a second issue, in this case Yemen. The United Nations talks in Geneva could be expanded upon, or even moved to a neutral location closer to the region like Nairobi, Athens, or Istanbul. The first agenda could focus simply on humanitarian relief and access, but all players would have to be invited, including Iran.

Hopes for a diplomatic initiative on Yemen should be muted. The habits of bluster, confrontation, and proxy warfare are deeply engrained, and normalized relations have eluded key Middle East actors for nearly half a century. The United States has contributed to this culture by its support for an often moribund Israel-Palestine negotiating framework and by regularly backing diplomatic initiatives, like the Geneva process on Syria, that are meaningless from the start because they exclude key actors in the conflict.

In the event of a strong push from international and regional diplomats, key actors, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, might respond with recalcitrance or even outright rejectionism. But if the initial agenda focuses on humanitarian matters and battlefield access for neutral parties, and possibly on communications channels for battlefield deconfliction that could prove useful to all parties, it will be easier over time to persuade Tehran and Riyadh to take part.

The key is to attract the full range of players. The initial agenda can revolve around comparatively easy matters, such as opening ports to more regular food deliveries, increasing battlefield access for internationally recognized humanitarian aid workers, and the creation of some kind of emergency communications channel to reduce the risk of an unintentional international escalation of the war. Little is lost if the entire process amounts to a failed diplomatic initiative. Any resulting political embarrassment for supporting governments can be managed. The conflict in Yemen, however, is too important to simply be allowed to unfold at the mercies of regional powers acting in the grip of uncertainty and perceived threat. And a new diplomatic approach carries the possibility, however slim, of creating a useful new forum where adversaries can talk to each other in a conflict-ridden region that sorely lacks one.



1. Stephanie Nebehay, “Yemen faces humanitarian catastrophe without vital supplies: Red Cross,” Reuters, May 27, 2015,
2. See UNOCHA Yemen page for overview of latest statistics on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen: “Yemen,” United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, June 2015,, accessed June 9, 2015.
3. “In Geneva, Ban says international community has ‘obligation to act’ for Yemen peace,” UN News Centre, June 15, 2015,
4. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen and the ‘Saudi-Iranian Cold War,’” Chatham House, February 18, 2015.
5. Mohsen Milani, “Iran’s Game in Yemen: Why Iran Is Not to Blame for the Civil War,” Foreign Affairs, April 19, 2015,
6. Some photographs of the conflict have been collected on The Atlantic website: Alan Taylor, “The Saudi Arabia-Yemen War of 2015,” The Atlantic, May 7, 2015,
7. Hugh Naylor, “Quietly, al-Qaeda offshoots grow in Yemen and Syria,” Washington Post, June 4, 2015,
8. Azmet Khan, “Understanding Yemen’s Al-Qaeda Threat,” PBS NewsHour,
9. Khaled Fattah, “Yemen: Sectarianism and he Politics of Regime Survival,” in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, ed. Lawrence G. Potter (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 223.
10. Ginny Hill and Gerd Nonneman, “Yemen, Saudi Arabic and the Gulf States: Elite Politics, Street Protests and Regional Diplomacy” Chatham House Briefing Paper,
11. Peter Salisbury, “Yemen’s Economy: Oil, Imports and Elites,” Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Paper 2011/02, 9–12.
12. Anthony H, Cordesman, “Saudi Arabia’s Changing Strategic Dynamics” in Saudi Arabic: Security in A Troubled Region (Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2009), 31–32.
13. Bruce Riedel, “Why Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War is Not Producing Victory” Al-Monitor, March 26, 2015,
14. Mark Perry, “US Generals: Saudi Intervention in Yemen a ‘Bad Idea,’” Al Jazeera, April 17, 2015,;Kenneth Pollack, “The Dangers of the Arab Intervention in Yemen,” Markaz: Middle East Politics & Policy, March 26, 2015,; and Frederic Wehrey, “Into the Maelstrom: The Saudi-Led Misadventure in Yemen,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 26, 2015,
15. Peter Salisbury, “Is Yemen Becoming the Next Syria?” Foreign Policy, March 6, 2015,
16. “Secretary-General Appoints Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed of Mauritania as His Special Envoy for Yemen,” UN announcement,
17. Economist editorial offers minimal expectations for the June 14 “consultations”: “No end in sight,” The Economist, June 13, 2015, call for a permanent ceasefire: “Aid agencies: Permanent Yemen ceasefire needed now to save millions,” International Rescue Committee, June 11, 2015,
18. US State Department page on Iran sanctions: “Iran Sanctions,” U.S. Department of State,, accessed June 15, 2015.
19. Eli Lake, “Iran Spends Billions to Prop Up Assad,” Bloomberg View, June 09, 2015.
20. Thomas Juneau, “Iran’s Failed Foreign Policy: Dealing from a Position of Weakness,” Middle East Institute, May 01, 2015.
21. Andrew Torchia, “Billions for Grabs if Nuclear Deal Opens Iran’s Economy,” Reuters, April 05, 2015.
22. Martin Hesse, Susanne Koelbl and Michael Sauga, “An Eye to Iran: European Businesses Prepare for Life after Sanctions,”Der Spiegel, May 18, 2015. and Jeremy Kahn, “Iran Lures Investors Seeing Nuclear Deal Ending Sanctions”, Bloomberg, August 17, 2014.
23. PKK guerilla fighters have never given up their base of operations in Iraqi Kurdistan and have apparently organized attacks inside Turkey from their base in the KRG. But Turkey has exhibited patience and understanding with the KRG, not holding them responsible for the militants on their soil, perhaps because of the thriving economic relationship that the KRG has invited. See Denise Natali, “Turkey’s Kurdish Client-State,” Al-Monitor, November 14, 2014. and Soner Cagaptay, Christina Bache Fidan and Ege Cansu Sacikara, “Turkey and the KRG: An Undeclared Economic Commonwealth,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy Policywatch No. 2387, March 16, 2015
24. James Stavridis, “The Arab NATO,” Foreign Policy, April 09, 2015.
25. Thanassis Cambanis, “Iran Is Winning the War for Dominance of the Middle East,” Foreign Policy, April 14, 2015.
26. David B. Ottaway, “Saudi Arabia’s Yemen War Unravels,” The National Interest, May 11, 2015.
27. David D. Kirkpatrick, “Surprising Saudi Rises as a Prince Among Princes,” New York Times, June 06, 2015.
28. Yaroslav Trofimov, “Saudis Warn to Muslim Brotherhood, Seeking Unity in Yemen”, The Wall Street Journal, April 02, 2015.
29. H.A. Hellyer, “The New Saudi King, Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood”, Al-Monitor, March 24, 2015.
30. Erika Solomon and Simeon Kerr, “Syria’s Rebels Heartened by the Healing of Sunni Arab Rift” Financial Times, April 13, 2015.
31. Ray Takeyh, “The New Saudi Foreign Policy” Council on Foreign Relations Expert Brief, April 17, 2015.
32. Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky, “It’s Time to Stop Holding Saudi Arabia’s Hand” Foreign Policy, February 12, 2015
33. Micah Zenko, “Make No Mistake—the United States is at War in Yemen,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2015.
34. Rod Nordland and Helene Cooper, “US Airstrikes on ISIS in Tikrit Prompt Boycott by Shiite Fighters,” New York Times, March 27, 2015,.


Iran vs. Saudi: Two repressive blocs face off

Posted April 17th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


Photo Credit: Mohammed Huwais / Stringer

[Published in Foreign Policy.]

By Thanassis Cambanis

BEIRUT — The war in Yemen and the breakthrough nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States have sent the already frenzied Middle East analysis machine into meltdown mode. These developments come fast on the heels of almost too many changes to keep track of: the Iraqi government’s capture of the city of Tikrit, rebel gains in northern and southern Syria, and mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sanaa.

This drumbeat of headlines, however, should not distract us from the larger meaning of events in the Middle East. We are witnessing a struggle for regional dominance between two loose and shifting coalitions — one roughly grouped around Saudi Arabia and one around Iran. Despite the sectarian hue of the coalitions, Sunni-Shiite enmity is not the best explanation for today’s regional war. This is a naked struggle for power: Neither of these coalitions has fixed membership or a monolithic ideology, and neither has any commitment whatsoever to the bedrock issues that would promote good governance in the region.

This is, in some ways, an updated version of the vast and bloody struggle for hegemony that shook the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. In that era, a coalition of reactionary monarchs, led by Saudi Arabia, did battle with a coalition of Arab nationalist military dictators, led by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Just like in that past era, every single major player today is opposed to genuine reform and popular sovereignty.

Today’s ascendant regimes are all reactionary survivors — and sworn enemies — of the Arab Spring. The Iranians mercilessly crushed the Green Revolution in 2009, and have invested heavily in authoritarian partners in Iraq and Syria, paramilitary group such as Hezbollah, and non-democratic movements in Bahrain and Yemen. Iran’s leaders are theocrats, but they are savvy and pragmatic geopolitical worker bees: They have backed Sunni Islamists and Christians, while even some of their close Shiite partners — like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, and the Zaidi Houthis in Yemen — belong to heterodox sects and don’t share their views on religious rule.

On the other side of the struggle are the Arab monarchs from the Gulf, run by the same families that brought us the Yemeni war of the 1960s. They have extended their writ through generous payoffs and occasional violence, like the Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain in 2011, which saved the minority Sunni royal family from being overrun by the island kingdom’s disenfranchised Shiite majority.

This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian.

This Saudi-led alliance is Sunni-flavored, but it would be incorrect to see it as monolithically sectarian. Not long ago, in fact, Saudi Arabia underwrote the same Zaydis it is now bombing in Yemen. The current coalition relies for populist credibility on Egypt, whose governing class is dominated by secular, anti-Islamist military officers. It enjoys dalliances in various conflict theaters like Syria and the Palestinian territories with Muslim Brothers and jihadis. It has drawn extensively on help from the United States — and on occasion from its supposedly sworn enemy, Israel.

Perhaps the best glimpse of the Saudi-led alliance’s goals came when Kuwaiti emir Sabah al-Sabah addressed the Arab League at the end of March, in the meeting that inaugurated the war in Yemen.

“A four-year phase of chaos and instability, which some called the Arab Spring, shook our region’s security and eroded our stability,” the emir thundered. The uprisings, he said, encouraged “delusional thinking” about reshaping the region — perhaps a reference to Iran’s ambitions of regional influence, perhaps a reference to the ambitions of Arab reformers to limit the influence of the repressive states propped up by the Gulf monarchies. To the emir, the only outcome of uprisings was “a sharp setback in growth and noticeable delay in our progress and development.”

This is the crux of the regional fight underway: the old order, or a new one that would transform the balance of power — while changing little else about the way the Middle East is governed. The Saudi bloc wants to turn back the clock to the status quo ante that existed before the uprisings. The Iranian bloc wants to permanently alter the region’s balance of power. Both factions are run by opaque, secretive, repressive, and violent leaders. Neither side is interested in popular accountability, better governance, or the rights of citizens.

For all the doubts about Saudi Arabia’s capacity to craft and execute complex policy, the kingdom has cobbled together a formidable coalition. It quickly signed up most of its clients and partners for the air campaign, including Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The United States supported the war, despite its reservations. Of the kingdom’s close allies, only Pakistan has so far resisted pressure to join the fight.

In just the last year, we’ve seen at least two major volte-face. Riyadh helped engineer a regime change in Egypt, ushering President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. After experimenting with quasi-democracy and a Muslim Brotherhood presidency that defied the powerful Gulf monarchies, Cairo is now governed by a military dictator who walks firmly in lockstep with Riyadh — even promising to dispatch ground troops to a war in Yemen of which he would have probably preferred to steer clear. Qatar, the unbelievably rich emirate that has long cultivated an independent foreign policy, also found itself strong-armed by Saudi Arabia and finally caved. Its emir abdicated in favor of his son, a 34-year-old political novice, and today Doha is reading from Saudi Arabia’s song sheet.

Both examples show that this is not a monolithic bloc bound by uniform ideas of authoritarian rule or Sunni supremacy. Instead, it is a messy realpolitik coalition hammered together by shared interests — and at times by bribes and blackmail. Its members don’t agree on everything: Saudi Arabia hates Russia, in part because Moscow backs Iran and Syria. Egypt loves Saudi Arabia because Riyadh keeps its economy afloat — but it also loves Russia, because it can play off military aid from Vladimir Putin against that from the United States. In public, Sisi praises the Gulf leaders — but in leaked private recordings, he dismisses them as oil bumpkins who can be bilked of their money by more dynamic Arab nations. Qatar no longer openly defies Saudi Arabia, but it still supports Muslim Brothers and jihadis in Syria to the extent it can, and in opposition to Saudi preferences.

Since Saudi Arabia’s gloves came off in Yemen,

Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence.

Sunnis across the region have expressed a kind of fatalistic relief: At last someone is doing something to confront Iranian influence. But Tehran has extended its influence carefully, hedging its bets by supporting multiple groups in every conflict zone and always maintaining a degree of remove — if their investments fail, it will have not lost a war in which it was a declared combatant. This blueprint has served Iran well during 30-plus years of intervention in Lebanon and Iraq, and four years of orchestrating major combat in Syria. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has entered the Yemen war directly, and therefore has no cover. It will own the civilian casualties, and inevitably — when the war has no clear and easy outcome — it will own a failure.

History is not on Riyadh’s side in this campaign. Regional wars tend not to go well for invaders; just think of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait or the last Yemen war in the 1960s. The U.S. invasion of Iraq should also offer a cautionary lesson: Many people at the time, including some Iraqis, felt that some major action was better than the status quo, that toppling Saddam Hussein would at the least get a hairy situation unstuck. They were soon disabused of that notion, as Iraq spiraled into chaos.

America should take particular care in this conflict. It has built deep alliances with Saudi Arabia, and it has been far too hesitant to reinvent its dysfunctional relationship with Egypt in the post-Mubarak era. It should act as a brake on Saudi Arabia’s outsized expectations in Yemen, and it should exact a price for any support it gives the war there. Any campaign in Yemen should strengthen, rather than undermine, counterterrorism efforts there, and the United States should share its military know-how in exchange for Saudi cooperation on the Iran deal.

Sure, it’s bizarre to see the U.S. military working with Iran to battle the Islamic State in Iraq, while working against Tehran in Yemen. It’s also refreshing. This isn’t a homily; it’s foreign policy. It’s encouraging to see the United States operating around the edges of a complex, multiparty conflict and finding ways to advance American interests. Its next challenge will be finding new ways to simultaneously pressure rivals like Iran and recalcitrant allies like Saudi Arabia.

But to a large extent, the United States is a sideshow: The main event is the regional struggle for influence between the Iran and Saudi blocs. One need only look at the two major events this spring — the Iran nuclear deal and the capture of Tikrit with the help of Tehran’s military advisors — to get a sense of who’s winning. America’s preferred side has bumbled impulsively from crisis to crisis, buying or strong-arming support and launching military adventures that are likely to produce inconclusive results. Iran’s side, meanwhile, has crafted tight state-to-state relations with Syria and its onetime enemy Iraq, and has deepened its influence in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Yemen. Despite the theocratic dogma of Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs, the regime in Tehran has managed to position itself as the regional champion of pluralism and minorities, against a Saudi grouping whose philosophy has drifted dangerously close to the nihilism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Unless Saudi Arabia and its allies can learn a new, more durable style of power projection, their costly feints will only buy short-term gains. The kingdom might manage to bomb the Houthis back to their corner of Yemen, and its Syrian clients may seize some more towns and cities from Assad, but the long-term trend points in Iran’s favor.


Foreign policy wins Obama still can pull off

Posted January 18th, 2015 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing



Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.

LAST MONTH, in a pre-Christmas surprise, the White House announced a major foreign policy breakthrough on a front that almost nobody was watching: Cuba and the United States were ending nearly a half century of hostility, after secret negotiations authorized by the president and undertaken with help from the pope. Lately, America’s zigzagging on the grinding war in Syria and Iraq has attracted the most attention, but President Obama has punctuated his six years in power with a series of foreign policy flourishes, among them ending the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; launching an international military intervention in Libya; and a “reset” with Russia, which ultimately failed.

Time is running short. Obama has only two more years in office, and an oppositional Congress that will likely block any major domestic policy initiatives. But the president’s opening with Cuba raises a question. What other foreign-policy rabbits might this lame-duck president try to pull out of his hat?
Obama often talks about the arc of his history and his legacy. And we know from history that presidents in the sunset of their terms often turn their focus to foreign policy, where they have a freer hand. The presidential drift abroad has been even more pronounced in administrations that face an opposition Congress and limited support for any ambitious domestic agenda items.

Despite keeping his promises to end two wars and to reestablish America’s power to persuade, not just coerce, Obama has drawn some scorn as a foreign policy president. Poobahs across the spectrum from right to left have derided him for not having a policy (drifting on Syria, passively responding to the Arab Spring), for naively pursuing diplomacy (the reset with Russia, the pivot to Asia), for adopting his predecessor’s militarism (the surge in Afghanistan, the war on ISIS).

But, free from any future elections, the president may finally be at liberty to engineer bigger symbolic moves, like the recent rapprochement with Cuba. He can even try for politically unpopular policy realignments that would ultimately benefit his successor.

So what bold gambits might Obama reach for in his final two years? We’re talking here about unlikely developments, but ones that, with a push from a willing White House, could actually happen. Here’s a look at what might be on Obama’s wish list, and his real chances of grabbing any of these wonky Holy Grails.

A stand on torture

IN ITS WAR ON TERROR, America adopted a number of tactics that its leaders used to call un-American. Some of them appear here to stay, like remote-control bombing runs by robot planes (known by the anodyne moniker “drone strikes”), which have killed more than 2,400 people and have become the most common way Obama pursues suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.

But other tactics have lingered long after the White House has concluded they are counterproductive: most notably the use of torture, and the indefinite detention of enemies without charge or trial in the limbo prison at Guantanamo Bay. President George W. Bush, toward the end of his term, backtracked on both policies, quietly roping in the use of torture and exploring ways to shut down Gitmo. Obama has taken a more assertive moral stance on the issue, perhaps because he realized that America’s treatment of detainees delivered a propaganda boon to its enemies—and increased the risk of similar mistreatment for American detainees. But though he ended torture, he hasn’t settled the political debate, nor has he managed to close Guantanamo Bay.

This is one problem that Obama could resolve by fiat, if he were willing to deal with the inevitable political yelps. He could close Guantanamo Bay overnight, sending dangerous detainees to face trial in the United States, shipping others to allied states like Saudi Arabia, and releasing the rest (many of whom have spent more than a decade incarcerated). To those who would accuse him of putting America at risk by not detaining accused terrorists without charge forever, Obama could point to the US Constitution and shrug his shoulders. As for torture, some believe the best move would be to follow the South African model of a truth commission that airs all the grisly details, while granting immunity from prosecution to those who testify. Of course, critics of torture would decry the amnesty, and supporters would decry the release of narrative details.

Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt says to forget the truth commission. The simplest way for Obama to end one of the most contentious debates in America, he argues, is with a set of sweeping pardons for all those involved in torture. That could include officials from Bush on down, as well as leakers like Chelsea Manning. In an e-mail, Walt said such a move would be a “game changer,” although one with odds so long that he put it in the category of “foreign policy black swans.” “I regard it as very, very unlikely, but it would be a huge step,” he said.

Presidential pardons could make clear that torture and extrajudicial detention were illegal mistakes, while simultaneously freeing whistle-blowers and closing the books on the whole affair. Obama could even wait until after the 2016 presidential election has been decided, altogether eliminating political risk.

A détente with North Korea



NORTH KOREA entered the news recently because of its alleged role in the Sony hack over the silly film “The Interview.” But the hermit kingdom isn’t a problem because of its leader Kim Jong-un’s absurd cult of personality. No, North Korea poses a problem because it’s a belligerent, opaque, hyper-militarized state that stands outside the international system and is armed with serious rockets, nuclear warheads, and a powerful military.

One fraught area remains the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. About 30,000 American personnel are deployed there, and North Korea routinely provokes deadly clashes to remind the world of its resolve.

If Obama could finally end the Korean war—officially just in a cease-fire since 1953—he would resolve the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia and perhaps the world. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, has an almost mythic status among villainous world leaders. Millions have suffered in North Korea’s prison camps, and the militarized state maintains a hysterical level of propaganda that makes it stand out even among other “rogue” states. Even China, long the dynasty’s primary backer, has begun to express irritation with North Korean’s volatility.

But all this creates an opportunity, according to veteran Korea watchers. “There’s an opportunity, oddly enough,” says Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” “It would require a bold gesture on somebody’s part.”

Kim Jong-un, third in the family dynasty, has lived abroad and appears more open-minded than his father, Demick says. More importantly, despite the anti-American rhetoric, North Korea might want to end its comparatively young feud with the United States, which dates only to the 1950s, to better protect itself from the local threat from its millennial rival China.

Earlier efforts at reconciliation in the early 1990s foundered and collapsed after Kim Jong-il cheated on an agreement to freeze his nuclear weapons program. Demick and other experts are more hopeful that his son will be more interested in negotiating. Three years after taking over, Kim Jong-un seems to have consolidated power. He has relaxed some control over private trade, and he executed a senior member of his own regime who was considered China’s man in Pyongyang, asserting himself over rivals within his family and government.

“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to want to spend his whole life as the head of a pariah state,” Demick says.

It’s quite difficult to imagine North Korea doing an about face and becoming a friendly US ally in Asia, but surprising things have happened. Vietnam, just a few decades after its horrifying war with the United States, is now as warm to Washington as it is to Beijing. Obama could try to end one of the world’s longest lingering hot wars by forging a peace treaty with Pyongyang.

A grand bargain with Iran

AMERICA’S RELATIONSHIP with Iran never recovered from the trauma of the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis of 1980. Iran, flush with oil cash and the messianic fervor of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, has been at the center of regional events ever since. Iran has been perhaps the most influential force in the Arab world, helping to form Hezbollah, prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and foiling America’s plans in Iraq.

Of late, attention has focused on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but that’s arguably not the most problematic aspect of Iran’s power in the region. A regional proxy war between two Islamic theocracies awash in petrodollars—Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq—has contaminated the entire Arab world. Resolving Iran’s major grievances and reintegrating it into the regional security architecture would reduce tensions in several ongoing hot wars and dramatically reduce risks across the board.

Obama could seek an overall deal with Iran, in which Tehran and its Arab rivals would agree to separate spheres of influence in the region and the United States could reopen its embassy. A Tehran-Riyadh-Washington accord could signal a major realignment in the region and a move toward a more stable state order, and is actually possible—not likely, but possible.

The big protagonists here, Iran and Saudi Arabia, lose a lot of money in their proxy fighting. It’s been 35 years since the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power, and both sides—Riyadh’s Sunni theocrats and Tehran’s Shia ones—have learned that no matter what human and financial resources they pour in, they can’t achieve regional hegemony. Eventually, they’re going to have to coexist. Israel, meanwhile, has maintained a fever pitch about Iran, and should welcome a calming shift.

The trick for today’s White House is what’s going on internally in Iran. “My sense is that if Obama and Kerry could push a button and normalize relations with Iran they’d do so in a heartbeat,” says Karim Sadjadpour, who studies Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The biggest obstacle to normalization is not in Washington, it’s in Tehran. When your official slogan for 35 years is ‘Death to America,’ it’s not easy to make such a fundamental shift.” But if Iran’s president can find a way to de-fang the hard-liners in his own country, Sadjadpour believes, there’d be a strong constituency among the political elites in Iran and the United States for a grand bargain.

A step back from Israel

PRESIDENT AFTER presidenthas poured time and energy into a Middle East peace process that never works. Failures have cost America political prestige around the world. As more governments lose patience with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, America has found itself defending the Israeli government at the United Nations even as the same Israeli government openly mocks Washington’s agenda.

The bold move that the president could make—potentially changing the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—would be not to invest more in some new variant of the peace process, but simply to care less. Cooling our relations with the Israeli government could reestablish the strategic calculations at the core of the relationship and remove the distracting secondary issues that have accumulated around it. Israel is one of America’s closest military and economic allies, and the tightly woven relationship will survive a political shift. Obama could simply announce that the United States would no longer act as Israel’s main international political advocate, and that we would be happy to let other actors try to negotiate agreements, as the Norwegians did in the early 1990s.

Such a move would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would go a long way toward reducing costs for the United States. Washington doesn’t need to own the baggage of its close allies. It could treat Israel like it treats the United Kingdom: as a special ally with extra privileges, but one whose bilateral conflicts are its own business.

“I realize that a president’s hands are tied by Congress when it comes to Israel, but there is plenty that the president can do without congressional approval,” says Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. She said that Obama has plenty of options, from using his bully pulpit to condemn Israeli actions to not blocking Palestinian UN resolutions.

Duke political scientist Bruce Jentleson suggests another kind of US surprise: incorporating Hamas into peace talks. “A delicate dance no matter what,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But Middle East peace breakthroughs have usually been through the unexpected,” like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, or the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords.

What Jentleson says of Middle East breakthroughs may well be true of other ones as well. Global politics never loses its capacity to catch us off guard, regularly delivering events that experts say are impossible. Only an inveterate optimist would bet money on any of these slim possibilities coming to pass. But only a fool would be certain that they won’t.

Regional realignment with Hezbollah, Assad & Iran?

Posted December 4th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

 Screen Shot 2013-12-04 at 10.18.17 AMScreen Shot 2013-12-04 at 10.18.26 AM

Hassan Laqqis, assassination scene. Source: Al Manar

There’s been lots of talk about the regional consequences of the Iran nuclear deal, and of a realignment as the West realizes that it might prefer Assad in power to a jihadi-dominated rebel government or some version of the current punishing settlement. Ryan Crocker told The New York Times that the US should resume cooperating with Damascus against Salafi jihadis, and various analysts and diplomats have been speculating that Iran, Assad, Hezbollah, and the US share plenty of common interests. Saudi Arabia and Israel stand to lose if the US begins to behave like a mature superpower, collaborating where it sees fit rather than holding itself hostage to the agenda of small allies behave as peers rather than clients.

The latest trigger was yesterday’s assassination of a Hezbollah official in Beirut. (Hassan Lakkis, according to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar Television, played an important role in the fight against Israel; Reuters reports that Lakkis was fighting recently in Syria.) That killing once again raised the question of Hezbollah’s broader direction. Has it provoked a maelstrom of jihadi attacks, retaliation for Hezbollah’s role in the Syrian civil war? Or is the conflict in Syria playing out in the interests of Hezbollah, Assad and Iran?

I think there’s some evidence that three years after a non-violent popular revolt against Assad’s nasty dictatorship, Assad has finally managed the shape the conflict he wanted. He wiped out the non-violent resistance, the intellectuals and the pluralists, and continues to mass his firepower against the FSA rather than the jihadists. As a result, the conflict pits an authoritarian but non-sectarian dictatorship against a Sunni rebellion dominated by takfiri jihadists. Hezbollah entered the war supposedly to fight the sectarian jihadis over there before they made it over here, a la George W Bush. It sounded facile then, but now it sounds true; each time there’s a bomb of assassination in Lebanon, it adds credence to Hezbollah’s claim that it’s on the side of a Middle Eastern order that tolerates multiple faiths and power-sharing, while on the other side Saudi and other Gulf money is supporting extremists who want to recreate the 7th Century Caliphate. Self-serving, but perhaps, true.


We’ve seen hints of change:

  • An increase tempo of back-and-forth attacks in Lebanon.
  • Stronger desire by Lebanese national institutions to contain the crisis.
  • Reports that the US has shared intelligence with Lebanon in order to protect Hezbollah from attacks.
  • A real push – in Track 2 and perhaps Track 1 diplomacy – to make the January talks in Geneva really amount to a negotiation for a settlement in Syria.
  • The Iranian nuclear deal, which could calm anxieties about the regional Iran-Saudi cold/hot war, and allow for some tit-for-tat that could reduce global interest in the Syrian theater.


What should we look for as signals of a coming, substantive change?

  • Rhetoric from Hassan Nasrallah that opens the door to a frigid détente with the US on some issues.
  • Continuing restraint by Hezbollah in its response to attacks and assassinations.
  • Agreements or accords that result from the vigorous outreach by Iran’s foreign minister to the leaders of the Arab countries in the Gulf.
  • Offers, even totally rhetorical ones, from Assad to cooperate with the US against the jihadi groups in Syria.


The interim Iranian nuclear agreement could easily collapse (Marc Lynch writes here about the enormous potential but also the need to remember that it could all come to naught), but it’s a major opening. Iran has always been a more natural geopolitical ally for the US than the tiny oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. It’s hard to imagine a full realignment without an internal shift in the governance of Iran, but perhaps, that could occur with a political shift short of regime change. The most likely outcome is incremental, with Iran and the US finding more avenues of cooperation but stopping short of an open embrace. But even the prospect of a cooling in the US relationship with absolute monarchs of the Gulf and the hawkish establishment of Israel, in favor of a more pragmatic policy that leaves room to cooperate with all the region’s heavyweights, has prompted a panic in Riyadh and Israel. That anxiety suggests it’s a very real prospect, and one that in the long-term would serve to cool down the region.

How much to worry in Lebanon, once more?

Posted November 19th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

 Soldiers, policemen and medical personnel gather at the site of explosions near the Iranian embassy in Beirut


After today’s bombing at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, how much should we worry that the war in Syria will engulf Lebanon? First, the usual caveat: I live here, and I have a vested interest Lebanon remaining viable and stable, so discount my analysis accordingly.

Nonetheless, nothing so far has changed my fundamental view that the major players in Lebanon want to preserve the existing order here, as combustible as it is. The attackers presumably come from the jihadist strain of the Syrian opposition; they have little invested in the Lebanese status quo and are willing to upend it.  But the major actors with organizations in Lebanon, including the Sunnis who support the Syrian rebels, as well as the Hezbollah constituents who support the Syrian government, benefit from the truce in Lebanon. Beirut especially serves as a neutral area where all parties communicate with each other, raise funds, and do their political work.

Iran’s immediate accusation of Israel supports this view: if Iran wanted to raise tensions, it would point at jihadists or Lebanese factions allied with the Syrian opposition. Instead, it pointed at Israel (just like Hezbollah did after the Dahieh bombing in August), a convenient and unifying enemy. Blaming Israel is a calming gesture; even if Hezbollah and Iran suspect a local or Syrian Sunni network, it deflates tension to pin the attack on Israel. And if Iran genuinely has evidence or believes Israel is responsible, that’s all the better insofar as it minimizes the risk of hostilities taking root beyond Syria’s borders.

In coming weeks, we should watch the rhetoric of Hassan Nasrallah; if he repeats his previous positions on the Syrian war, as I expect, that will signify that Hezbollah maintains its interest in a calm Lebanon. We also should watch the retaliation; small attacks against centers of jihadist activity would remain with the limited framework that, again, minimizes the chance of escalation.

Today’s attack is certainly a worrisome development, since the apparent suicide bombers struck a diplomatic target. It will increase anxiety among all people in Lebanon, and will especially worry the civilians living in the Dahieh, who already suffered an indiscriminate attack in August that killed 20 people and wounded more than 100. These are not good things. But they don’t guarantee that war will engulf Lebanon either. For that to happen, the established parties here – in particular Hezbollah and the Future Movement – would have to radically change their cost-benefit analysis. So far, I don’t see that happening. Lebanon’s future holds more simmering violence, like the back and forth bombings, assassinations, and occasional skirmishes we’ve seen so far in the Bekaa, Tripoli and Beirut; but not, I expect, outright conflict.

Iran’s Vietnam?

Posted May 14th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing


[Published in Foreign Policy.]

ARSAL, Lebanon — For more than a year, leaders in Lebanon have anxiously eyed the murderous civil war in Syria, wondering whether it would leap across the border and engulf the small, fractious country. And yet, it is Lebanon that now has jumped decisively into the fray, with Hezbollah’s help apparently crucial to the Syrian regime’s strategy and survival.

Uniformed Hezbollah fighters openly patrol the northern reaches of Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, fighting on either side of the increasingly porous border with Syria. Rocket and mortar teams target Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters a few miles away, and Lebanese Hezbollah infantry fighters crisscross the “Shiite villages” surrounding the city of Qusayr just across the border in Syria, which now forms one of the pivot points of the conflict.

The fighting around Qusayr has brought into the open the parlor game over whether Iran and Hezbollah are active combatants in Syria’s war. In an April 30 speech, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah hinted at greater involvement from the Lebanese paramilitary group in Syria, warning that the regime had “real friends” who would prevent Syria from “fall[ing] into the hands” of the United States and Israel.

The thunder of artillery fire in the mountains flanking the Beqaa Valley, like the spate of no-longer-hidden Hezbollah funerals, make clear that Hezbollah and its Iranian sponsors have crossed a Rubicon. They are now fully vested factions in the Syrian civil war, and they’re committed to an open and escalating fight.

Not 20 miles from Hezbollah’s position as the crow flies, FSA fighters flee across the border to the Sunni village of Arsal, nestled north in the Beqaa Valley in the mountains separating Lebanon and Syria. They make no distinction between the Syrian army, Hezbollah, and Iran — because, they say, they get shot at by all three.

“We could have common interests with Hezbollah, but they’re attacking us. Now there are grudges, which we will have to settle after the war,” said Shehadeh Ahmed Sheikh, 24, a self-described mortar man in the FSA. He was sitting cross-legged on the floor of an unfinished home in Arsal. Sheikh had brought with him 16 members of his extended family after their house in Qusayr had been destroyed earlier that week; as we talked, they squatted around him in the dwelling, which they had been assigned to by Arsal’s mayor.

Like many Sunnis in the area, he referred to Hezbollah, whose name means “the Party of God” in Arabic, as Hezb al-Shaitan — “the Party of Satan.”

By supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, Hezbollah and Iran are risking their hard-won reputation as stewards of an anti-Israel and anti-U.S. alliance that transcends sect and nationality. Syrian combatants increasingly understand the war in sectarian terms: On one side there is the Sunni majority; on the other side, other sects and a small group of Sunnis that have made common cause with the Alawite regime.

Western diplomats estimate that a few thousand Hezbollah fighters are involved in the Syrian fighting. Close observers of the group, which carefully guards its operational structure, say that they mistrust any precise numbers. But if Hezbollah has sent hundreds, or even a few thousand, of its best-trained fighters to Syria, that deployment certainly represents a significant percentage of its fighting force. During its 2006 war with Israel, the highest estimate of Hezbollah fighters killed was about 700, with the group’s own official death toll closer to 300.

Sunnis are increasingly framing the conflict as a sectarian jihad. The influential Lebanese Salafi cleric Ahmad Al-Assir has set up his own militia, suggesting his fighters would be just as willing to confront Hezbollah in Lebanon as they already are to travel to Syria to fight alongside the rebels there. Supporters of the regime and Hezbollah point out that the rebellion tolerates Sunni fundamentalist extremists whereas Assad and Hezbollah rely on a time-tested alliance of minorities, including Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Shiite Muslims. The propaganda of both sides has sharpened a narrative of the Syrian conflict as a struggle between Sunni extremists and old-style authoritarians, who at least protect the minorities they exploit. Deadly identity politics have taken root, and people on both sides of the conflict see it more and more as a matter of survival. Sheikh, the young Sunni fighter, planned to return to battle as soon as he settled his family: “We cannot go back to the way things were before.”

* * *

On the eve of the uprisings just three short years ago, many Arab analysts observed half-jokingly that the most influential state in the Arab world wasn’t Arab at all — it was Iran, awash in oil revenues and ready to lavish cash on a region in the throes of an increasingly hot Sunni-Shiite cold war. Sunni monarchs and dictators fretted about a “Shiite Crescent” linking Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah. Tehran, for its part, strutted triumphantly across the Arab stage, bragging about an unstoppable “Axis of Resistance” oiled with ideological fervor and the supreme leader’s bank account.

What a difference a few uprisings can make. Today, Iran’s involvement in Syria has all the makings of a quagmire, and certainly represents the Islamic Republic’s biggest strategic setback in the region since its war with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein ended in 1988. Syria’s conflict has begun to attract so much attention and resources that it threatens to end the era when Iran could nimbly outmaneuver the slow-moving American behemoth in the Middle East.

Iran — already reeling from sanctions — is spending hundreds of millions of dollars propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the murky arena of sub rosa foreign intervention, it’s impossible to keep a detailed count of the dollars, guns, and operatives the Islamic Republic has dispatched to Syria. Westerners and Arab officials who have met in recent months with Syrian government ministers say that Iranian advisers are retooling key ministries to provide copious military training, including to the newly established citizen militias in regime-controlled areas of Syria. “We back Syria,” Iranian General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan reiterated on May 5. “If there is need for training we will provide them with the training.”

In private meetings, Iranian diplomats in the region project insouciance, suggesting that the Islamic Republic can indefinitely sustain its military and financial aid to the Assad regime. To be sure, its burden today is probably bearable. But as sanctions squeeze Iran and it comes under increasing pressure over its nuclear program, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) might find the investment harder to sustain. The conflict shows no signs of ending, and as foreign aid to the rebels escalates, Iran will have to pour in more and more resources simply to maintain a stalemate. If this is Iran’s Vietnam, we’re only beginning year three.

The cost of Tehran’s support of Assad can’t entirely be measured in dollars. Iran has had to sacrifice most of its other Arab allies on the Syrian altar. As the violence worsened, Hamas gave up its home in Damascus and its warm relationship with Tehran. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government has also adopted a scolding tone toward Iran on Syria. On Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy’s first visit to Tehran, he took the opportunity to blast the “oppressive regime” in Damascus, saying it was an “ethical duty” to support the opposition.

Gone are the days when Iran held the mantle of popular resistance. Popular Arab movements, including Syria’s own rebels, now have the momentum and air of authenticity. Iran’s mullahs finally look to the Arab near-abroad as they long have appeared at home — repressive, authoritarian, and fierce defenders of the status quo.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Iran’s commitment to Assad has put the crown jewel of its assets in the Arab world, Hezbollah, in danger. Just a few years ago, a survey found that Nasrallah was the most popular leader in the Arab world. Along with other members of the “resistance axis,” Hezbollah mocked the rest of the Arab world’s political movements as toadies and collaborators, happy to submit to American-Israeli hegemony. Today, however, it has sacrificed this popular support and enraged Sunnis across the Arab world by siding with a merciless dictator.

Hezbollah used to try to cultivate allies from all sects, so that it wouldn’t seem to be pursuing a purely Shiite agenda, but it now appears in the eyes of the Arab world to have cast its lot — hook, line, and sinker — with a brutal minority regime in Syria over a popular, largely Islamist movement. A Pew survey last year found that the group’s popularity was declining in predominantly Sunni countries such as Egypt and Jordan, while Lebanese Sunnis and Christians also increasingly soured on the party.

In the border town of Hermel, usually secretive Hezbollah fighters have openly mobilized. They fight on both sides of the border, protecting a ring of Shiite villages in Syria that connect Damascus to the Alawite heartland. An untold number of Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria — so many that the movement has stopped keeping the funerals secret and has even released videos of some of the martyrs. “We bury our martyrs in the open,” Nasrallah said in his recent speech. “We are not ashamed of them.”

Hezbollah positions in Hermel were shelled on May 12, and the Sunni jihadist Nusra Front reportedly claimed responsibility. In their rhetoric, Lebanese politicians have sought to downplay the sectarian nature of the fight in Syria, and there are plenty of individuals who say they have chosen sides out of interest or ideology, rather than sect. Yet to most of its participants, the conflict has taken on an undeniably sectarian hue: an almost entirely Sunni rebellion, against a regime supported by the majority of Syria’s other sects.

“There’s no difference between Hezbollah, the army, and the Syrian regime,” scoffed Mustafa Ezzedine, a driver in Arsal who was recently dragged into the conflict as a literal hostage, kidnapped because he was a Sunni Muslim by a Shiite clan that wanted one of its own kidnapped members released. It doesn’t matter that among his guests at a recent, lazy hashish-fueled afternoon tea was a member of that same rival clan: sectarian politics have little regard for personal views. For residents of the Beqaa Valley, the war in Syria has already drifted across the border, and they fear it could get worse quickly.

The regional stakes are high as well. On at least one occasion, the Syrian conflict has cost an Iranian military commander his life. In mid-February, a shadowy IRGC officer responsible for overseeing Iranian reconstruction projects in Lebanon who went by the names Hessam Khoshnevis and Hassan Shateri was killed on the road from Damascus to Beirut. Iran put out the story that Israel assassinated their man, but Western and Arab officials told me they had seen reliable intelligence reports that it was a Syrian rebel ambush.

A who’s who of Lebanese politicians paid condolences at the Iranian embassy, and Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem, delivered a long tribute to the fallen IRGC offer at a memorial service in an underground theater in Beirut’s Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs. It was the latest sign that Hezbollah is willing to risk everything in supporting the Syrian dictator — and that Iran just may ask its Lebanese ally to fight to the end, or go down with the ship.

“We would be nothing without Iran!” Qassem thundered in his tribute. “Others hide the foreign funds they receive. We proudly open our hands to Iran’s gifts. What the resistance needs, they provide.”

Iran on Israel’s border

Posted September 15th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

For as long as I’ve been covering this region, there have been some Israeli officials who describe Hezbollah as a crack division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and conclude that Iran has literally surrounded Israel.

In the war of rhetoric and symbols, Iran appears only too happy to oblige.

This weekend I visited “Iran Park” in Maroun Al Ras, the Lebanese border village where one of the first and nastiest engagements of the 2006 war was fought. Israeli ground troops got bogged down for days on the ridge at Maroun, and Hezbollah fighters consider it one of their finer engagements of the war.

The Iranian government has funded and designed a lush park near the site of the battle, on the mountainside directly overlooking Israel. In the parking, visitors can stand at an observation point beside an Iranian flag fluttering in the wind, and look directly down at the Israeli hamlets of Avivim and Yir’on.

Through an arcade of ponsiana trees and an arch, past a commemorative plaque crediting President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad with gifting the park to the Lebanese, visitors find terraced playgrounds and picnic spots refreshed with the mountain breeze.

There’s soft-serve ice-cream trucks, grills, and replica of the Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem – naturally, topped with an Iranian flag as well. Presumably, Israelis down in the valley can look up and see the Iranian flags and the replica Jerusalem mosque.

Along the path, detailed placards provided educational information about Iran – its population, its provinces, the neighborhoods of Tehran, and so on.

On Sunday mourning the park was already nearly full by 10 a.m. with families that had come to enjoy the cooler temperatures of Jabal Amal.

Three families from the humid coast had assembled under one of the palm-frond roof picnic stations, setting in for a long day grilling and eating.

“Coffee?” said Jihan Muselmani, 35.

“We come here for the clean air,” said Najua Khanafer, 52. “We thank all those who work for our land. Sayed Hassan, Iran, Qatar.”

“This will be the first place the Israelis destroy during the next war,” said Jihan.

“Even if they destroy it, we will build it up again,” said Rabab Haidar, 28.

“If you won’t have coffee, you must at least try these apples,” Jihan insisted, clutching a plastic tub of tiny green fruit. “They come from our own tree.”

Iran’s Greens in New York

Posted April 13th, 2010 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Work

This coming Saturday, April 17, a group of new generation Iranian activists is gathering at Columbia University for a public forum that intends, ambitiously, to reinvigorate the Iranian Green movement. One of the organizers, a Columbia SIPA graduate student named Mehdi Jalali, told me that he and several other young exiled Iranians want to assert a leading role in the opposition to Iran’s theocracy.

“We are a different generation. We do not have the same ideologies of our parents,” Jalali said. “And because we live abroad, we are free to organize without interference from the regime.”

Jalali’s father is a cleric, but he became a critic of the ayatollahs and an advocate for secular rule. He also embraced the use of television and new media; once forced into exile, he hosted a political talk show in Farsi on satellite television.

Entitled “New Generation, New Perspectives, New Media,” the forum will include a lot of prominent and articulate Iranian voices. It’s bound to be interesting.

Here’s the invitation:

As a unique historic event bringing together a unique set of young thought leaders on Iran, this event should be of significant value to all those with an active academic or strategic interest in the future of social change, media and the young generation in Iran.

What sets this forum apart from traditional conferences is the active role of the audience in shaping the discourse. In the morning sessions, panelists will provide discussion openers on critical issues related to various aspects of social change in Iran and engage the audience (both present and online) in an in-depth collaborative discussion on these topics during the afternoon sessions.  Leveraging the power of Tweets, live blogging, and real-time videocasting technologies, the final product of the forum will be a set of collaborative artifacts generated by the speakers and the participants throughout the day.

Panelists include:

·   Ali Afshari (Former Head, DaftarTahkimVahdat, Largest Iranian Pro-reform student group)

·   Masih Alinejad (Journalist and Blogger)

·   Maziar Bahari (Newsweek Correspondent and Filmmaker)

·   Nazila Fathi (New York Times Reporter)

·   Mehdi Jalali (Political Commentator)

·   Omid Memarian (Journalist and Blogger)

·   Roozbeh Mirebrahimi (Journalist, Author and Blogger)

·   Ali Mostashari (Academic)

·   Kelly Niknejad (Founder Tehran Bureau News Website)

·   Trita Parsi (President, NIAC)

·   Karim Sadjadpour (Associate, Carnegie Endowment for Peace)

·   Mehdi Yahyanejad (Founder,

.  Austin Heap (Haystack- campaign against Iranian government’s web filtering mechanisms)

.  Davar Ardalan (Former Senior Supervisory Producer at NPR)

To Register Please Visit the Forum Website at: