Reports from the Middle East that an extraordinary Arab League Summit is being convened at the instigation of Saudi Arabia, supposedly to discuss “Iranian interference” in the region, come alongside growing rumours that Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s volatile de facto ruler, is planning a military strike against those in the Middle East whom he can come to see as Iran’s allies: Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Gulf state of Qatar, which is currently under Saudi blockade.
Such a military strike would be in character with the wilful behaviour Muhammad bin Salman has been exhibiting since he burst on the Middle East’s political scene following the accession of his father King Salman in January 2015.
Muhammad bin Salman is believed to have played the decisive role in the disastrous decision by Saudi Arabia to invade neighbouring Yemen in March 2015, and he is also widely and almost certainly credited with being the person who was behind the Saudi decision earlier this year to impose the blockade on Qatar.
With reports of Saudi F-15 fighters flying over Saudi bases, most speculation centref on a possible Saudi air strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon as a follow-up to the Saudi enforced ‘resignation’ of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
A Saudi air strike on Hezbollah however faces an obvious obstacle. The most direct line for Saudi F-15s to launch a strike against Hezbollah in Lebanon would be across Iraq and Syria.
Iraq – which is becoming increasingly aligned with Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – would presumably refuse the Saudis permission to send their F-15 fighters through its air space for such a purpose, and Syria undoubtedly would.
Muhammad bin Salman might be reckless enough to send his F-15s across Iraqi and Syrian air space regardless, trusting in the fact that the Iraqi and Syrian air forces and air defence systems are unlikely to be able to intercept them.
However it would be a gamble, especially in the case of Syria which does operate advanced anti aircraft missile systems independently of the Russians, and which might be actually capable of shooting Saudi Arabia’s F-15s down.
The alternative would be to launch the air strike from bases in Turkey, Jordan or Egypt.
However Turkey – currently on bad terms with Saudi Arabia after siding with Qatar in the quarrel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia – would probably not agree, whilst an air strike from Jordan would have to overfly Israel which would need Israeli permission, something which despite the de facto alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia might still be controversial with Islamist feeling in Saudi Arabia,
That leaves Egypt as the only obvious choice for a Saudi air strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Whilst that is possible, and the planned Arab League summit meeting in Cairo might be intended to provide cover for it, it would mean Saudi F-15s would have to cover a considerable distance over the Mediterranean sea to reach Hezbollah positions in Lebanon.
That is a type of operation the Saudi air force has never done before and of which it has no experience.
Moreover the Saudis would have to consider that their F-15s would be continuously tracked en route from Egypt to Lebanon by the Russians, who have advanced radars in Syria and with their Mediterranean fleet that would enable to do this.
Whilst the Russians would be extremely unlikely to shoot the Saudi F-15s down, they might give Hezbollah a tip-off, which would give Hezbollah time to prepare.
Assuming that the Saudi F-15s did finally get to Lebanon it is not clear what they would achieve there.
Lebanon is a country which is being almost continuously bombed by the Israeli air force, an air force immeasurably more powerful than that of the Saudis.
Nearly all this Israeli bombing targets Hezbollah, which has therefore long since learnt to prepare itself for bombing. As it happens Israel’s bombing has never injured Hezbollah to any significant degree, and an intensive month long Israeli bombing campaign against Hezbollah in 2006 actually left the movement stronger.
It is impossible to see what damage the Saudi air force could realistically hope to do to Hezbollah which the far more powerful Israeli air force has not tried and failed to do previously, making the whole exercise look both expensive and pointless.
Whilst Muhammad bin Salman comes across as an impulsive and wilful individual, one must assume that there are people within the Saudi air force who are pointing this all out to him, and are advising him that an air strike on Hezbollah in Lebanon would be both extremely complicated and militarily pointless.
If Muhammad bin Salman really is intent on making trouble for Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon – as seems to be the case – then his obvious course is not through an over-complicated and militarily pointless air strike but through stirring up the profound sectarian differences that constantly beset Lebanon.
Unfortunately because of the depth and extent of Lebanon’s sectarian divisions this is a policy which has a real prospect of success, and the current visit of Lebanon’s Christian Maronite Patriarch to Saudi Arabia – where he is supposed to meet with Saad Harari – suggests that this is precisely the route Muhammad bin Salman is taking.
After all doing so would be consistent with previous Saudi policy, which has always been to try to exploit sectarian differences to achieve political goals, as for example in the undeclared war Saudi Arabia has waged against President Assad of Syria.
Whilst with someone as volatile and unpredictable as Muhammad bin Salman it is never possible to be sure, my own view is that if he really is intent on war then the more obvious target is not Hezbollah in Lebanon but Qatar, which is a tiny country with a border with Saudi Arabia which is easy for Saudi Arabia to attack and which because of its small size in the event of a Saudi attack would be incapable of defending itself.
I discussed this possibility back in June when the Saudi blockade of Qatar was first imposed. I pointed out then that the blockade of Qatar looked very much like it was intended to set the scene for an armed invasion
Whilst I do not know this for a fact, I think it is at least possible that Saudi Arabia’s breaking of diplomatic relations and the land and air blockade it imposed on Qatar were intended to be followed up by a ground invasion of Qatar.
Such an aggressive step would be very much in character for Saudi Arabia’s volatile de facto leader Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
In a follow-up article written shortly afterwards I discussed this possibility in more detail
…….there has to be a risk that rather than be humiliated by climbing down or having his ultimatum exposed as a bluff Prince Mohammed bin Salman might decide instead to double down further, and do what Saddam Hussein did in 1980, which is launch a ground invasion of a small but rich neighbouring Arab country which is daring to defy him.
After all like Saddam Hussein he already has form. Just as before attacking Kuwait in 1990 Saddam Hussein had previously in 1981 attacked Iran, so in March 2015 – just weeks after his father became King – Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the prime instigator of the disastrous Saudi intervention in Yemen.
If Prince Mohammed bin Salman really does order an attack on Qatar then there is a serious danger that the situation could spiral out of control.
In the event the invasion which I feared in June never happened, either because it was never planned or because Muhammad bin Salman was talked of it by the other Saudi Princes or by the US, or because he was deterred by the strong statements Turkish President Erdogan made at the time which seemed to hint that in the event of a Saudi attack on Qatar Turkey would come to Qatar’s rescue.
I will here state my view – which is broadly the same as the Moon of Alabama’s – that it was internal criticism within Saudi Arabia following his failure in June to bring Qatar to heel which provoked Muhammad bin Salman into launching his purge.
Now however with talk of war in the Middle East growing, an article has appeared by Paul Cochrane on Consortium News which speculates that a Saudi invasion of Qatar may be on the cards again
Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser at Washington D.C.-based consultancy Gulf State Analytics, posits that Qatar could be brought under Saudi Arabia’s umbrella by force to seize the country’s huge gas reserves, the third largest in the world.
Who knows, black swan events do occur, and the global powers would vocally oppose such a move but likely not exercise military intervention a la 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. The U.S. troops based in Qatar would just stay in their base; the Trump administration has signalled it has sided with Riyadh, even though the State Department has been more nuanced towards Doha. As for the Turks and the Iranians, they would not want to be brought into a conflagration with Riyadh and the ATQ. That really would tear the MENA apart.
Ultimately, there’s not much to stop a Saudi gas grab. There’s not much desire internationally for yet another Middle Eastern military “adventure” following the debacles in Iraq and Libya, while nobody’s lifted a finger against Saudi Arabia for its war against Yemen. As long as Qatari gas exports remain uninterrupted, the global powers might readily accept a change of management.
The point in this article about the possibility of Saudi Arabia seizing Qatar’s huge gas reserves being a strong incentive to launch an invasion is an important one.
Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991 was largely caused by his urgent need for money to rebuild Iraq’s economy and shore up his regime following the massively costly Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
Muhammad bin Salman, with his Homerically ambitious and hopelessly unrealistic Saudi Vision 2030 project to finance at a time when Saudi Arabia is short of funds because of the oil price fall, is potentially also someone on the lookout for money. As I pointed out in my recent article discussing Muhammad bin Salman’s purge, the money he has seized from the Saudi princes and their followers he has rounded up is nowhere near enough. The temptation to add to Saudi Arabia’s resources by seizing Qatar’s huge oil and gas wealth must therefore be very strong.
Whether a Saudi invasion of Qatar would be as risk-free as Paul Cochrane’s article suggests is however another matter.
The two strongest military powers in the region – Iran and Turkey – back Qatar. It is not inconceivable that in the event of a Saudi invasion of Qatar they may feel they have no choice but to come to Qatar’s rescue.
If so that would bring the crisis in the Gulf to stratospheric levels, with the US caught in the middle in a war between two sets of US allies: Turkey and Qatar on the one side versus Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the other Gulf states on the other.
The fact that the US has its single biggest Middle East military base in Qatar, that Iran would side with Turkey and Qatar in such a war, and that Qatar – as the country under attack – would have international law on its side, would make the problems the US would face in the event of such a crisis even worse.
Given all these risks one would assume that US diplomacy would be doing all in its power to warn Muhammad bin Salman against such a reckless venture.
Sadly, it seems US diplomacy in the Middle East is asleep at the wheel, There is no sign of any diplomatic move by the US to get Muhammad bin Salman to restrain himself, which given the dysfunctional state of US policy in the wake of the Russiagate scandal is unsurprising.
The situation in the Middle East is extremely tense as the fallout from the Russian-Iranian victory in the Syrian war, the recent Iraqi victory over the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the emergence in Saudi Arabia of Muhammad bin Salman, transform the region.
We may have some anxious days ahead.