America's Dilemma: Juggling the Gulf-Iran Cold War

Time for Washington to demonstrate that it is willing to pursue an enhanced relationship with Iran and a balance between competing actors in the region.

Last month, President Barack Obama reiterated that there is “no military solution” to the Syrian conflict. The sentiment rings true, but considering the militias that dominate Syria, it seems equally unlikely that they will negotiate their way to a solution. Despite rebel advances in the south last week and gains against the regime in the north in March and April of this year, it remains unclear whether Assad will fall, but even if he should, the fight that will emerge amongst the fractured opposition to fill the power vacuum will be brutal and unlikely to result in stability or a solution. What happens in Syria, however, cannot be examined in isolation. Though the war began in Dara’a and Damascus, the country has since been enveloped into a larger conflict between the Gulf states and Iran. Following Syria’s path, Yemen has found itself sucked into the same regional fight. With substantial foreign involvement in both of these conflicts, a meaningful solution must be much larger in scope, and it must be the result of a great balancing of power in the Middle East that challenges the current relationships that are mainly based on inertia—especially the relationship with Saudi Arabia.    

Solutions in Syria will not be negotiated at the domestic level. The militias that have gained prominence since the war began in 2011 are not long-existing institutions representing swaths of Syrian society—especially considering the large segment of foreigners fighting both for and against the regime. Groups have emerged quickly and gained power and patronage networks that they will not be willing to sacrifice for unity. Not only do they lack a common vision of the future with the Assad regime, they fail to share one amongst themselves. Furthermore, these fighters have flourished in a lucrative war economy, engaging in looting, kidnapping and smuggling and capitalizing on control of important infrastructure such as border crossings, checkpoints, highways and oil fields. The notion that the leadership of revolutionary, Islamist or Salafist militias profiting from the conflict would take the initiative to coalesce and either represent collective Syrian demands before the regime or cooperatively govern the country is a fantasy.

It’s beyond contention that the ongoing fighting in Syria and Yemen are facets of a larger conflict between the Arab Gulf states and Iran. Yes, both wars have their own domestic dimensions within them that exist independently of the larger regional one, and internal disputes may have sparked the fighting in the first place, but the Gulf and Iran are largely responsible for fueling and facilitating the conflicts through training, funding and arming forces and are even participating in the fight.

In Syria, Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent millions of dollars funding a bloc of non–Al Qaeda Islamist militias, and Qatar has been even less cautious than the Saudi government about its money and weapons falling into the hands of more radical groups. Iran has maintained and increased its support of Lebanese Hezbollah and the Syrian Arab Army loyal to Assad and is sending Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders to enhance their capacity to strategize and collect intelligence. Though Yemen does not have the same level of foreign fighters as Syria, it certainly has its share of foreign involvement. Iran has provided support to the Houthi tribes that overtook the capital Sana’a last September and expanded their control this March, and the Saudi-led coalition’s campaign of airstrikes supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi against Iran’s allies has continued into its third month.