U.S. and Arab leaders can launch a framework for security cooperation easily enough, but enduring success will require deeper thinking.
In the wake of the P5+1-Iran nuclear framework agreement, U.S. officials are taking pains to reassure Middle East governments that worry that Tehran will increase its destabilizing activities as international pressure wanes. President Barack Obama and regional leaders will discuss ways to increase regional security cooperation this week. But absent a larger strategic framework for the Middle East, focusing U.S. policy narrowly on such cooperation could put U.S. interests at risk.
Washington has pursued security cooperation with Middle East countries for six decades, building partner capacity, conducting military exercises, and securing critical base and posture access for U.S. forces. But over the last two years — amid the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, the tumultuous aftermath of the Arab uprisings, and a perceived distancing of Washington from the Middle East—regional partners have increasingly taken security matters into their own hands. They have conducted unilateral airstrikes in Libya, struck targets in Syria and Iraq, and led a military intervention in Yemen, showing that they now possess both the military capabilities to address shared threats and the political will to use them. However, this increased assertiveness may come with a price if partners’ actions do not always align with U.S. interests. For example, U.S. officials are watching the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen with concern, worried that high civilian casualties may deepen sectarianism and escalate the conflict there.
To mitigate this misalignment, the United States should lead its allies and regional partners in creating a multilateral, normative framework for the use of force in the Middle East. This should begin with an annual defense ministerial meeting and regular diplomatic and military engagement, events that would allow participants to develop common threat assessments, determine desired outcomes and objectives, identify comparative advantages in military capabilities and build transparency and mutual trust.
Effective cooperation begins with shared threat perceptions. At the political-military level, the United States should use its regular ministerial-level meetings to build a bilateral understanding with regional partners and allies inside and outside the region about common threats and interests. The United States should also sponsor a series of Track 1 or Track 1.5 multilateral scenario-based exercises to help key actors explore threat perceptions and determine how best to communicate about priorities and force employment and deployment.
Over time, such a framework would raise the political costs of unilateral action. Although increasing fragmentation and fragility of states in the region may undermine the effectiveness of this state-based approach, the United States should hold its remaining strategic partners close—and press them toward gradual reform through strong dialogue and by pegging security assistance levels to reform milestones and adherence to human rights principles.
While creating momentum for and through this “top-down” strategic framework initiative, the United States and its allies and partners can work on the “bottom-up” approach of building complementary military capabilities to knit together countries that share common interests. Among the areas that hold the most promise are force posture, information sharing, counter terrorism, strike, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, maritime security, missile defense and cyber security. Meanwhile, U.S. policymakers and Congress will continue to bear in mind the requirement to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge over its regional neighbors.
The success of the U.S. commitment in the Middle East will depend in no small part on its ability to perform engagement and combined operations with forces already in theater, which means the U.S. will have to work with and rely on its allies and partners. Of particular interest, U.S. planners should factor in growing UK, French, Australian and possibly Japanese capabilities. Meanwhile, the U.S. and its partners should improve their ability to track Iranian behavior and movements and share that information, allowing the international community to hold Tehran accountable for its actions.
The U.S. and its partners should also build interrelated institutions for counterterrorism training, coordination and planning to add to the current efforts at the King Abdullah Special Operations Center in Jordan. They should also develop a joint training program focused on counterterrorism and border security. The U.S. should then accelerate transfers and deliveries of requested weapons and equipment, including precision-guided munitions, to members of the anti-ISIL coalition and encourage joint deployments to improve interoperability.
There are several steps that could help the Gulf Cooperation Council members in particular. To improve ISR, the U.S. could help develop a plan to obtain affordable and interoperable assets, including manned aircraft, unarmed UAVs, modular sensor packages (e.g., radar packages and electro-optical infrared) and data-sharing equipment. The United States and its allies should then coordinate and sell to the GCC as a bloc, which should expedite sales, build interoperability, and encourage cooperation.
In the maritime domain, if smaller GCC nations are unable to afford modern frigates and destroyers in sufficient quantity to deter illicit activity, an effective alternative might be establishing a multinational force of smaller vessels and maritime patrol aircraft connected by robust information-sharing agreements. The GCC should also establish a counter-mine warfare task force and accelerate training with international partners to better deter Iranian minelaying.
To improve GCC missile defense cooperation, the United States should encourage greater sharing of early warning or tracking data from dedicated air and missile defense radars, as well as human and signals intelligence, evolving over time into a common operating picture with digital networking. As well, the U.S. should build cyber deterrence in the region by encouraging regional partners to procure hardware and technical expertise with a focus on attribution techniques and to conduct exercises to test these new capabilities.
The spread and transnational nature of threats emanating from the Middle East should compel like-minded countries to work together on common security goals. Steps taken now can be woven together to create a more strategic approach over the next several years. Through a phased approach, connecting security cooperation with a normative framework will enable the United States, its allies and partners to secure their interests in a coherent and enduring manner.