The United States has been preoccupied with economic issues and domestic politics. So it was shocking to have the Attorney General of the United States call a news conference to announce that Iran’s government was implicated in a plot to murder the Saudi Ambassador to Washington while in the city and (from other sources) conduct mass casualty attacks on the Saudi Embassy near Kennedy Center and on the Israeli Embassy near the University of the District of Columbia.

We probably shouldn’t have been surprised, because while we have been otherwise occupied, the Saudis, the Turks, the Israelis, and the Iranians have been engaging in an escalating, and increasingly dangerous, covert war to fill the power vacuum that has emerged as regimes crumble under the “Arab Spring”. Of course, the US was involved in the region for a lot longer than that, and our preoccupation with domestic considerations while being tied economically to the region’s principle resource export, oil,  only amplifies the power vacuum.

I wrote about how the nations in the region were aligning last spring, but it’s time for an update in light of the past week’s announcement.

To give more context to what is happening now, Steve Clemons writes about the target in the Atlantic:

“First of all, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir is not a member of the Saudi royal family, but he is widely considered to be the closest national security adviser and confidante to King Abdullah.  Al-Jubeir is constantly flying to and from Riyadh and Washington and wherever the Saudi King is as the King constantly depends on him for counsel and advice — and thus al-Jubeir is far more than just an Ambassador.

“Secondly, one of the key themes that has frequently emerged here at the Abu Dhabi meetings of the World Economic Forum this week is that a more intense proxy struggle is taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran throughout the Middle East as the perception of American strategic contraction grows.

“This alleged assassination plot simultaneously may indicate both the intensity of anti-Saudi passion among Iran’s senior leaders and a greater aggressiveness by Iran against the U.S.

“This is a serious situation — and this kind of assassination is the sort that could lead to an unexpected cascade of events that could draw the U.S. and other powers into a consequential conflagration in the Middle East.”

The seriousness is further emphasized by events that have happened since the arrest of the defendants in New York on September 29 (but not then publicly announced). Estimates of the number of dead in the Syrian uprising have grown steadily over the summer to as many as 3000, with wounded and numbers arrested seemingly much higher than that. Thousands have fled into Turkey, with defectors including numbers of Syrian troops (though NOT a critical mass of such troops). The Syrian military has operated right up to the Turkish border, in defiance of Turkish attempts as a former Syrian friend to mediate between the rebels and Assad. (Turkey seeks opportunities to enhance its own leadership position in the region among the Sunni Muslims, and replacing Iran as Syria’s chief ally would have been a policy triumph; this is also a source of escalating tensions between Turkey and Israel).

Because of ethnic connections that stretch across the border, failure to stop the repression of the revolt in a negotiated solution has proved immensely embarrassing to the Turkish government, leading throughout the summer to gradually escalating tensions. At times, the Turks have threatened to carve out a refugee protection zone in Syrian territory along the common border, and during the early stages of the Libyan war, there were questions by the Russians as to why the US was moving missile defense ships toward the Turkish theater. Precautions if things got out of hand?

In addition, the Syrians started claiming that the rebels were getting arms from outside forces, by which they probably meant Saudi and/or Turkish and/or Jordanian and/or Israeli help. Their claims seem to have been sincere, since they shut down vital incoming truck commerce and started extensive searches for smuggled weapons coming into the country. At some point, at the very least, the claims probably became correct.

On the other side, Iran has been openly aiding the Syrian government (mirroring the Obama Administration’s strategic goal of trying to “engage” Syria away from Iran’s orbit). As explained here:

“Before the collapse of Syria into near civil war, Iran was betting that its alliance with Damascus gave it a trump card to deter any Israeli or US bombing raid on its nuclear facilities.

“Thanks to its central position, with borders on Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Iraq, Syria can cause trouble to US allies. It is the supply line for Hizbollah, the increasingly well-armed militia which, if a new war broke out, could inflict serious damage to Israeli population centres. Allied to Syria, Iran has a long reach. Without an alliance with Syria, Iran is isolated and easier prey.”

Now consider again what happened at the end of September, while the arrest operation was underway:

  • On September 27,  NATO European Commander James Staviris visits Ankara in apparent preparation for the mobilization of the 39th Mechanized Brigade and 730 reserves and their rapid transfer to the Syrian border. This is followed on October 3 by US Secretary of Defense Panetta visiting Israel; on the flight to Israel, Panetta tells the press about the importance that Israel and Turkey restore their deteriorating relations in order to deter Syria, Iran, and Hizballah.
  • On October 4, Turkey announces the “exercise” of the 39th Mech to be held from October 5-13. Syria cannot assume this is not the long-threatened establishment of the refugee zone, and so must move its own forces away from rebellion suppression to cover the border.
  • On October 5, Shiite gunmen attack Saudi security forces in the eastern oil region:  “…demonstrators fought the police with classical Iranian Revolutionary Guards tactics in the Shiite town of al Awamiya near the kingdom’s largest oil terminal at Ras Tanura.  In one incident, the security police were allowed to break up demonstrations. But when they chased the ringleaders into the alleys, they were ambushed with machine gun and automatic fire. Eleven officers were injured but as they retired with their wounded, they were hit a second time by Molotov-wielding motorcyclists with two riders – one driving and the other shooting.”
  • On October 5-6 the Israelis conduct a surprise rapid mobilization exercise during the Rosh Hashanah holiday that simulates gathering troops and getting them to the Northern Israeli border while the country is under full-scale missile attack. (Syria had previously threatened to target Tel Aviv with full-scale missile attack in the event of Turkish or other NATO intervention in Syria.) The mobilization again forces Syria to deploy its forces to a second border.
  • On October 6, Assad sends a senior official to Amman to warn Jordan that if it mobilizes as well, Syria will bomb Jordanian towns, and initiate general war if Israel comes to Jordan’s defense.
  • On October 7, agents of the Syrian military charged with the personal protection of the Assad family respond to a series of assassinations of major regime supporters and suspected collaborators by the rebels over the previous several weeks by killing a major Kurdish leader, Mashaal Tammo. At his funeral attended by 50,000 mourners, clashes with security forces left five people dead, and the Kurds, who had stayed quiet in the previous clashes, began to join the rebellion. Tammo had served as a back channel for cooperation between Syria and Turkey against the PKK groups operating against both governments, and so his assassination seemed to further signal a threat by Syria to allow the PKK freer rein to operate against Turkey.
  • On October 11, as the Iranian plot is announced in the US, Egypt and Turkey succeed in brokering an agreement between Israel and Hamas, after five years, for the exchange of hundreds of Palestinians held by the Israelis for Gilead Shalit, an Israeli soldier whose capture helped trigger the 2006 war. As part of the agreement, Hamas moves its headquarters from Damascus to Cairo — effectively taking it out from under the control of Shia Iran and under the wing of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood.
  • On October 13, Reuters runs an official statement by the Saudi government: “The kingdom, for its part, is considering decisive measures and steps it would take in this regard to stop these criminal actions and to decisively confront any attempt to undermine the stability of the kingdom, threaten its security and spread sedition among its people.”

Pieces seem to be moving behind the scenes to “prep the battlefield” for at least a diplomatic retaliation. As our pundits reopen the discussion about what should we do in light of this intended “act of war”, we discuss the familiar options of stronger sanctions and keeping the military option “on the table”. We should perhaps consider that the public diplomatic response is NOT the real one. We should wonder if the real retaliation is already underway, if it is going to be in the shadows, and if it is going to be directed at the Syrian end-game. Syria is far more important to Iran than sanctioning Iranian airlines or people who trade with the Iranian government, both in projecting conventional power in the Arab world, and in screening the Iranian nuclear programs.

For a generation, America has seen itself as having (with the exception of the Soviet Union) no enemy capable of engaging it in a war of survival instead of a war of choice. Other nations haven’t had the luxury of ever developing such a mindset. Many countries and their rulers, particularly in the Middle East, have spent the last generation fully convinced they are already engaged in a war to the death.

It is doubtful, for example, that the Iranian Revolution has ever regarded itself as in anything less than a shadow war with the US — going back to the Carter Administration. To them, this week’s events may simply be another operation in a long campaign. They can see things the US has done on Iranian soil as darkly as we view what they do in other countries.

And that is truly ominous, because there appears to be no way for Syria to end without further escalation by somebody. The Syrian regime can not back down and expect anything other than the fate of Libya. Neither can the rebels. There is no peace until there is resolution, however destructively, on the battlefield. The United States is not the key player here.