Part 1 of this seven-part series is here; part 2 here; part 3 here: part 4 here; and part 5 here

Barrel bomb attack in west Ghouta region, Syria, September 2015 (Photo: Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty)

Long before Jeffrey Goldberg gentrified the ‘Obama doctrine, the US president’s approach to foreign policy occupied a somewhat coarser neighbourhood apparently called ‘don’t do stupid shit’. 

Obama’s reduction of US foreign policy to a glib aphorism was widely criticised, including by his one-time Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. And while some would argue that the real organising principle of Obama’s foreign policy, at least in the Middle East, has been ‘don’t do any shit’, I do think the president has a point.

In my last post I argued that to restore stability to the Middle East, Western countries should help the citizens of the region build new political and economic orders in their states. This would match the West’s current, and necessary, short-term military focus on security threats with a more positive effort to cultivate ‘green shoots’ that will contribute to a more stable region in the long term.

But, confident that Western foreign ministries won’t be rushing to adopt my suggestion any time soon, I would argue that Western countries and other external players in the Middle East should at least avoid doing things that make the current regional turmoil worse.

Perhaps the best example of what not to do at the moment is to sell weapons to the Middle East.

According to SIPRI, in the five years since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings arms imports to the Middle East have increased by 61% compared to the previous five-year period. Saudi Arabia has become the second biggest arms importer in the world; its imports since 2011 have increased some 275%.

A hard-headed analysis might argue that it is reasonable for Middle Eastern states to be buying weapons at a time when heightened regional unrest has made them feel more insecure. But an equally hard-headed analysis would also be asking why are outside countries funnelling weapons into a region riven by civil conflicts and proxy wars that have had so many disastrous consequences, including for those same outside countries?

Or to put it another way, at a time when the Middle East is burning, why are we selling matches to pyromaniacs?

Syria is the most prominent example of how weapons sales, and indeed gifts of weapons, to both the regime and the opposition have undermined efforts to de-escalate the conflict. In fact, perversely, at least until the Russian intervention, the military support provided to the various sides in the conflict has never been enough to allow anyone to win, but has been just enough to keep everyone fighting.

Likewise in Yemen, where the Saudi and Emirati intervention in that country’s civil war has stalled, deepening Yemen’s humanitarian crisis (for which Riyadh’s opponents, the Houthis, deposed Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Iran, are also to blame). Today more than 80% of the Yemeni population require some form of humanitarian assistance, and a third of the population is severely food insecure.

Publicly the US has backed the Saudi-led intervention. Privately Washington has well-founded reservations about the war that it has muted for the sake of its relationship with Riyadh.

Yet last year the Obama administration approved the sale of $US1.29 billion worth of smart weapons to the Saudis to replenish Riyadh’s war stocks expended at a great rate in Yemen.

But for me the most egregious example of an unnecessary and unhelpful arms sale is one that has not actually cost any lives, at least not yet. Last year France agreed to sell Egypt two helicopter carriers that it had, in an equally dubious decision, originally built for Russia. France was forced to abandon that sale when Russia annexed Crimea (thereby proving how dubious the original decision was).

Hoping to recoup their losses, the French then shopped the almost complete carriers around until they finally found a buyer in Egypt (despite a partial and clearly pretty ineffective EU arms embargo on Egypt). So in June this year Egypt’s largely brown-water navy — a motley assortment of second-hand frigates and patrol boats — will be joined by two large helicopter carriers almost the size of HMAS Canberra.

The story might not be so bad if it were just a case of Egypt wasting money that it does not really have on equipment it does not really need. What makes it potentially worse are reports that Russia is preparing to sell Egypt attack helicopters to use on the vessels. 

The carriers may end up as bases for helicopter strikes in Sinai where the Egyptian military has already been making a hash of its counterinsurgency campaign by overusing heavy weapons.

But if reports that the purchase of the carriers was partly funded by Saudi Arabia are true, it might be that they are intended as transports for the mooted but yet unrealized plan to create some form of joint Arab force. Just what the Middle East needs now: more heavily armed troops floating around the region.

Selective embargoes 

There are some obvious counter-arguments to embargoing arms sales to the Middle East: an arms embargo (or embargoes) would have little impact in a region already awash with weapons; some regional countries have legitimate defensive needs that should be supported; if the West stops selling weapons in the Middle East then the Russians or the Chinese will simply take its place; and if the West does not sell smart weapons to some of its allies in the Middle East they will use dumb ones, increasing the risk of collateral damage to civilians.

But rather than being an obstacle to any consideration of arm embargoes in Middle East, the more well-founded of these arguments should instead be used to shape the kind of embargoes that might be both effective and have a reasonable chance of implementation.

It is true that a general embargo on arms to the Middle East is never going to get off the ground. Some regional countries do have legitimate defensive needs and major arms suppliers to the region have alliance commitments that they are unlikely resile from. 

But this has never precluded selective embargoes. Indeed there are currently a number of UN arms embargoes in place, of varying degrees of effectiveness, on either specific groups (Islamic State and al-Qaeda) or specific countries (Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, and Yemen).

These existing embargoes could be strengthened with an obvious case being Iran. Under the terms of the Iranian nuclear deal it is now possible to sell conventional weapons to Iran, although these sales need to be approved by the Security Council for the next five years Given that major purchases of conventional arms by Iran would fuel regional tensions and arms racing, the Security Council could block major sales without doing major violence to the nuclear deal.

Other countries should be added to the list. There is currently a UN embargo on supplying weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, but no such embargo on other countries fighting in that war. Indeed, US support for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, as well as UK arms sales to the same, have drawn considerable criticism in both countries and seen calls for an arms embargo, including by the European parliament. Any arm embargo on Saudi Arabia need not be total, but focused on de-escalating the conflict in Yemen by denying Riyadh new stocks of weapons for its airforce.

Another form of selective embargo would be to ban particular types of conventional weapons that are likely to fuel regional conflicts or exacerbate tensions. This has also been done in the past and at times has been the product of quiet diplomatic understandings rather than any formal UN embargo. For example, for a number of years Russia dragged its feet on the sale of s300 air to surface missile to Iran. (Last year it lifted the self-imposed ban).

Finally, more needs to be done to stop the flow of weapons within the region. It is not just the sale of arms to the region that is contributing to instability, but also the smuggling of arms across the region from looted government armouries in Libya, Syria and Iraq. There should be an expanded effort by external powers to interdict these smuggling operations, backed by a strong UN Security Council resolution prohibiting the transfer of weapons to non-state actors in the Middle East.

The expanded use of selective embargoes, both unilateral and/or multilateral would be complicated, messy and incomplete. In some cases it will also require sacrificing some short-term interests for the sake of trying to stabilise the region in the long term.

But most of all it will require some focused coordination from the major supplying countries, perhaps in the form of some high-level working group. Conveniently, the countries that would need to be in this working group are few. According to the Congressional Research Service, between 2011 and 2014, the US accounted for almost 60% of the value of arms sales to the region, followed very distantly by major European countries (just over 17% collectively), Russia (just over 14%) and China (just over 1%)

Acting on its own the US could achieve a lot, but obviously this is not an ideal way to assure US allies that they are not the only the target of this effort to de-fang the region. Getting a real commitment from the Russians to slow the pace of arms sales to the region would also be required, and there is a reasonable chance of getting that cooperation in some cases. And, as the foregoing implies, there is a spectrum of mechanisms that could be used to impose such embargoes, from unilateral action and quiet diplomatic understandings to Security Council resolutions.

If none of this sounds like a silver bullet (pardon the pun), it’s because it isn’t. If there is a theme to the second half of my series it's that returning stability to the Middle East will be grinding, piecemeal, long-term work. But it will also require Western countries and other external players to re-think how they act in the region, including what they sell to it.