US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Tim Lenderking has spent the last three weeks in shuttle regional diplomacy across the Gulf to lay the groundwork for a US-hosted summit in January that would launch the Middle East Strategic Alliance (Mesa), a concept similar to an Arab Nato.
In an interview with The National on Wednesday, Mr Lenderking divulged details about the structure of Mesa and its long term prospects. He said besides the Gulf Cooperation Council members – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman – the US and both Egypt and Jordan would be members of such an alliance.
Mr Lenderking said that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be hosting a GCC + 2 meeting on the margins of United Nations General Assembly on Friday to prepare for the January summit.
“This stems from the Riyadh summit in 2017 where everyone agreed that the US and the GCC would meet on an annual basis...we added on top of that the keen interest on both sides in building Mesa,” Mr Lenderking explained. The alliance would be based on a security, economic and political agreement that would bind together the GCC countries, along with the US, Egypt and Jordan.
Notwithstanding the different policy priorities within the GCC itself, Mr Lenderking said the idea of Mesa is “it builds a good strong shield against threats in the Gulf,” naming Iran, cyber concerns, attacks on infrastructure, and coordinating conflict management from Syria to Yemen as part of its agenda.
“The more we have coordinated efforts, the more effective in enhancing stability,” he said, adding that Iran was the “number one threat” on the Mesa list.
The senior US official confirmed that the US would be part of the alliance and "we [US] would like to agree on the concept of Mesa by the January summit."
He cautioned, however, that these conversations are still in their early stages and “if we find we need to change dates we need to be flexible on that”.
Within the GCC, Mr Lenderking acknowledged the severity of the Qatar crisis despite US calls to resolve it. While in the short term the Qatar crisis is not a hurdle to Mesa, the long term calculus looks different, he argued, despite defense meetings resuming within the GCC with Doha present.
“In the long term, with the Mesa that we envision, it would be hard to have two or three countries in this alliance in this kind of confrontation...We can continue to develop the concept and work on some of the pillars but ultimately you have to see the rift de-escalated,” he said.
Another crisis the US is monitoring in the region is Yemen. Mr Lenderking met with UN officials and envoy Martin Griffiths this week in New York.
Following the failure of the Geneva talks this month and the no show from the Houthis, Mr Lenderking said “it’s a forbidding climate to make progress”. He highlighted US support behind Mr Griffiths but sounded the alarm on the humanitarian situation.
“We hope to make progress on both the negotiations and in the confidence building measures,” he said.
He urged to improve the situation on the ground “making sure arteries and ports are open and unblocked”. Mr Lenderking said the “return of market forces to Yemen, making salary payments to civil servants, to resume commerce from Saudi Arabia into the Yemeni ports, is what will ultimately save the day”.
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On the issue of civilian casualties, he said “it’s an ongoing challenge, to help the Saudi-led coalition to do better on this score”.
While noting some progress, he said the US has “not been 100 per cent satisfied with the coalition's performance on this…but we do believe our engagement, rather than pulling back is going to be key to bring about the change in tactics and ability to follow up when mistakes are made”.
Mr Lenderking offered harsh words on Iran’s role in Yemen. “Iran is getting away with literally murder,” he said. “They are aiding and abetting the Houthis in attacking Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
He warned that “this is unacceptable for the US, these are key allies, and Saudi’s and UAE’s territorial integrity has been a cornerstone of our policy in the Gulf for decades”.
Iran’s role “is not about building up Yemeni state institutions, it’s about prolonging the war, and they have multiple ways to do this at a low cost,” Mr Lenderking argued. “It’s incumbent on all of us to raise the cost to Iran, and part of our Iran strategy includes a Yemen element where we see the Iranians playing in this theatre of operations with relative impunity.”
Asked if raising the cost would include increasing America’s naval presence near the Bab Al Mandeb strait and intercepting arms shipments, Mr Lenderking said “these are the things that we would see and we would build on the weapons display that we have…to get more firsthand what Iranians are doing”.
Mr Lenderking rejected the allegation that the US is scaling back its defense commitment following a report in the Wall Street Journal that it's withdrawing missile defense systems from Kuwait, Bahrain and Jordan to counter China and Russia threats in other areas.
“It’s not scaling back in commitment...but maybe shifting of resources,” he said.
However, Mr Lenderking warned that “Russia and China relations with the GCC are very much on the US radar”.
“We don’t say don’t have reciprocal visits with the Chinese, but we are looking for these (Gulf) countries to support efforts to help manage the manage Russian and Chinese negative activities whether it’s Russia’s aggression in Syria or Chinese economic influence that sometimes does not have the interest of the host country in mind,” he said.
He added that China’s attempts to expand its military bases is not compatible with the US-GCC strategic relations.
“Our engagement with the Gulf, our strategic dialogue is aimed to ensure that Gulf relationship remains primary and we hope the GCC considers the primacy of US relationship before they enter problematic agreements with other countries.”
Mr Lenderking welcomed the thaw in Saudi-Iraqi ties and the recent announcement that Germany and Saudi Arabia have fully restored their diplomatic ties. “It’s terrific,” he said.