Gulf States Slip Out of War on ISIS

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states went through the motions of joining the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State and other Sunni terrorists, who received substantial help from the same Gulf states, but those U.S. “allies” have now slipped out of the conflict almost entirely, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

With little notice and no fanfare, although the New York Times mentioned it the other day, the Gulf Arab states have withdrawn from significant participation in the war in Syria. This move involves in particular the air forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These are some of the same Arab governments that screamed long and loud about the need to do more in Syria. They are so exercised over the conflict in Syria that they are willing to fight there to the last American.

The Saudis and their colleagues are shifting most of their own air power to their armed intervention in Yemen. That intervention does nothing to advance U.S. interests, even though Washington managed to get itself maneuvered into supporting that expedition, too, through means short of direct U.S. military involvement.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative, known as Jihadi John and identified as Mohammed Emwazi, the target of a drone attack that the Pentagon announced on Thursday.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed in 2014 by an Islamic State operative, known as Jihadi John, later identified as Mohammed Emwazi, the target of a drone attack that the Pentagon announced on Thursday.

The Saudi-led air assault on Yemen has greatly exacerbated a humanitarian tragedy there. The side on which the Saudi have intervened, a side that includes Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is not one that the United States has any good reason to be identified with.

Even if the United States had a good reason to take sides in the Saudis’ contest with Iran for regional influence, which it doesn’t, the Yemeni war would be a poor place to do so; the Houthi rebels, who are the staunchest Yemeni foes of AQAP, are not proxies of Iran and do not do Tehran’s bidding.

Back in Syria, it’s not as if the departure of the Gulf Arab forces makes much of a dent in what the United States is trying to do militarily. There has always been a big disconnect in the priorities and objectives that each government has had there.

The Saudis have seemed even less interested in countering ISIS, as distinct from being fixated on the fate of the Assad regime, than the Russians have been, although they and the Russians are, of course, on opposite sides regarding the status of that regime.

But more important than the direct material impact is the symbolism of whether the United States does or does not have broad support and joint participation for what it is doing in Syria. The withdrawal of Arab air forces makes the U.S. role all the more lonely and conspicuous.

Participation of other Western powers already was lukewarm, and the U.S. role will get lonelier still with the promise by the new Trudeau government in Ottawa to end Canadian participation in military operations in Syria.

All of this makes the United States that much more of a salient target for anger over the no-good-solution Syria situation and for related reprisals, including those of the terrorist variety.

The Syrian case and especially adoption of the “Assad must go” standard is one of the latest examples of how the United States, through several presidential administrations, has repeatedly allowed itself to get sucked into other people’s quarrels in the Middle East. These include quarrels in which the United States should not have gotten involved at all, or in which it had no good reason to take the side it was enticed to take.

Generous quantities of moral hazard often have been involved in that the United States has assumed burdens that were defined or created by someone else. The usual nature of political debate and the political process within the United States has exacerbated the problem.

The tendencies to discuss any overseas problem as if it necessarily has a U.S. solution, and to invoke the need to support “allies” even when there is no treaty commitment and regardless of the nature of the particular issue at hand, put pressure on the administration of the day to take sides and to assume burdens. The burdens that have been assumed despite being contrary to U.S. interests have included ones defined by Gulf Arabs and certainly ones created by Israel.

The United States does have an interest, from the standpoint of counterterrorism, mitigation of refugee flows, and regional stability, to be deeply involved in multilateral diplomacy aimed at de-escalating and eventually resolving the extremely complicated conflict in Syria.

While engaging in that diplomacy, and in crafting reactions to the ideas and proposals of others, including from Russia, U.S. policy-makers need to be careful not to slide into the habit of adopting the objectives of others just because they may be commonly labeled as “allies.”

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

10 comments for “Gulf States Slip Out of War on ISIS

  1. Mortimer
    November 14, 2015 at 10:01

    Cheney Revives Parvus `Permanent War’ Madness
    by Jeffrey Steinberg, Allen Douglas, and Rachel Douglas
    September 23, 2005

    excerpt –

    That is the the policy which has unleashed the monstrous and worsening catastrophe which Cheney’s continued policies, and Cheney’s lies to the U.S. Congress, have created, which is moving now to the brink of a new disaster, in the entire region of Southwest Asia today. The facts which more than prove all this are not only clear. The greatest threat to the U.S. today, is the failure of most leading circles here, and in Europe, to understand the vast mass of often overlooked evidence which must be understood if we are to prevent the now financial-crisis-wracked U.S. and the world from being lured, very soon, into an early catastrophe beyond the calculations of most leading circles among governments still today.

    Those critics who do not understand what is really behind Cheney’s murderous rages and lies, and think that the “neo-cons” have failed in Iraq, are people simply do not yet understand the real goals of Cheney’s ongoing policy.

    True, the George W. Bush Administration has succeeded to an alarming degree, leaving Iraq in a state of Sunni versus Shi’ite, Kurd versus Turkmen, and even Shi’ite versus Shi’ite civil war, that could go on for generations, and which threatens to soon spread to all of the neighboring states.

    No competent strategists are surprised by this result of Bush Administration war-policy. What we are seeing today, is the foreseeable fiasco of Bush war policy which prompted many leading American military commanders and diplomats, like Gen. Anthony Zinni and Ambassador Chas Freeman, to vocally oppose the Cheney/neo-con Iraq adventure, long before the first American troops crossed into Iraqi territory.

    The neo-Trotskyist neo-cons and their hooligans, typified by Dick Cheney, were not out simply to establish a stable American imperial occupation, seize control over the oil fields, and blackmail rival states like China with the cutoff of petroleum, as many Bush-Cheney critics presume. Cheney’s gang never intended to end, with some form of Pax Americana. It was intended to be the first of a succession of permanent wars, engulfing the entire Persian Gulf and extended Southwest and Central Asian regions in decades of chaos, fostering a domino of “failed states,” and causing global economic and political mayhem, all to the benefit of a private financier oligarchy, largely centered in the City of London and its offshoots based in the Caribbean region, in such locales as the Cayman Islands.

    The already ongoing civil war in Iraq, fueled every step along the way by Bush Administration policy actions, reflected the intentions of the most hard-core of the neo-con ideologues, a cabal centered out of the Office of the Vice President, and together with such neo-Trotskyist “think-tanks” as the American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute.

    Just because President George W. Bush was foolish enough to believe the kindergarten propaganda of the neo-cons about a “cakewalk” victory, a flourishing of Iraqi democracy, and the immediate free flow of Iraqi oil, does not make it true. The President, with his bizarre Promise Keeper fundamentalist religious dogmas, is, after all, the perfect Straussian politician, the fool duped by the scheming “philosophers” who ply him with lies, which he takes as the gospel truth, and spreads to an equally duped, mindless following.

    • Bob Van Noy
      November 14, 2015 at 17:12

      What I keep thinking about Mortimer, is the classic environment of a Doctoral program where the “candidate” argues a point or points to a group of bettors and either makes his/her point or not, but the outcome is hopefully clearer understanding (learning). I think what prevails in Washington is groupthink where no case is made, and all assume they know what they are talking about. That is the very real danger of groups like PNAC, no real give and take and a presumed agreement. So a Cheney, for instance, speaks in his typical authoritarian voice, and a lesser, like Brooks receives the wisdom without question… That is what I see.

  2. Mortimer
    November 14, 2015 at 08:56

    Terrorist attack in Paris!
    Who let this venomous genie out of the bottle???
    The Emergence of ISIS Terrorist Fundamentalism Traced Back to Bush-Blair Decision to Invade Iraq

    IRAQ. MASSACRE OF A COUNTRY. “A War on Terror” when you are the Terrorist
    The emergence of ISIL and terrorist fundamentalism throughout Syria and the Middle East can be traced directly to the decision of Bush and Blair to accede to the demands from Sharon and Netanyahu for America and Britain to illegally attack Iraq to effect regime change in order to neutralise one of Israel’s perceived enemies. ( and for Iraq’s oil fields )

    The consequences have been, and are, catastrophic for the entire Middle East and now menace the stability of the entire European Union. This has arguably led to the most serious threat to Europe and the world, since 1939.

  3. Peter Loeb
    November 14, 2015 at 07:38


    One more brilliant analysis of Paul Pillar. Thanks!

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Stop food exports
    November 14, 2015 at 04:26

    Most countries don’t grow enough food to feed themselves.

    The US is responsible for 2/3 of the entire world’s corn exports.

    We can turn our food into fuel but they can’t turn their fuel into food.

    We should simply stop exporting food for a couple years.

  5. Call A Spade
    November 13, 2015 at 23:09

    The US, are being lead by the tail and are child like in the enthusiasm to immerse themselves in any foreign matter. Imperialism has its price and the US will find that they will be the ones that pay.

    They are gathering enemies even in countries that they call allies.

  6. James lake
    November 13, 2015 at 16:10

    The US chooses to be engaged as the worlds policeman because they feel they are exceptional. And they bully all the countries in the EU to follow their lead.

    This article really does not convey the misery and destruction US foreign policy causes around the world. And yet they stand up like Kerry did today and blame others; that they are only defending themselves; that they don’t seek enemies.

    No responsibility is ever taken for their proactive interference in any country that they feel has a regime they don’t like.
    It has been U.S. policy since after ww2 and nothing changes

    • Yuliy
      November 14, 2015 at 04:40

      Great comment, James. Can’t agree more, with all due respect to Mr. Pillar…
      His points usually reflect a rather pragmatic view of what is good for the US interests and even from that standpoint the US foreign policy is not something to be proud of… The United States are very well equipped to deal with “generous quantities of moral hazards” by simply dismissing them as immaterial – again, very pragmatic approach… We need to rise above pragmatism and assume some moral position on these issues.

  7. Bob Van Noy
    November 13, 2015 at 15:52

    “Generous quantities of moral hazard often have been involved in that the United States has assumed burdens that were defined or created by someone else. The usual nature of political debate and the political process within the United States has exacerbated the problem.”

    That someone else appears to me to be Zbigniew Brzezinski and his bizarre concept of geostrategy. He reminds me of a failed doctoral candidate who has somehow gained the high regard of politicians. Terribly dangerous stuff; he needs to be retired…

    • Andrew Nichols
      November 13, 2015 at 22:18

      I’m amazede at how so many truly elderly guys are still so influential in US politics like McCain, Brzezinski, Kissinger…Senile dementia in the former is clear. Looks like the old Soviet Union.

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