Image credit: CNAS

April 25, 2019

Slow and Steady: Improving U.S.-Arab Cooperation to Counter Irregular Warfare

By Chris Estep

Ungoverned spaces in the Middle East have produced environments that are hospitable to the growth of Salafi-jihadist terrorist organizations and Iranian-backed proxies. For almost two decades, the United States has struggled to respond effectively to these threats, either committing a politically unsustainable amount of resources or disengaging completely. To strike a balanced, sustainable approach to countering these threats in the Middle East, the United States must be able to better work with its Arab partners.

In a new CNAS report, “Slow and Steady: Improving U.S.-Arab Cooperation to Counter Irregular Warfare,” authors Ilan Goldenberg, Nicholas A. Heras, and Kaleigh Thomas propose new channels for the United States to engage with Arab partners and confront the challenges posed by irregular warfare in the Middle East. Drawing upon extensive field research, experiences in government and policy-making, and engagements with other regional experts, the authors present a new model for cooperation between the United States and Arab partners on two levels:

  1. The Strategic Level: Establish two tailored working groups to produce common threat assessments and develop joint strategies, one focused on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force and its proxies and one focusing on Salafi-jihadist extremists.
  2. The Operational Level: Focus on individually working with Arab partners to help improve their special operations forces, which are central to countering irregular warfare, and conduct joint training and military exercises to improve joint capabilities and cooperation.

Citing the successes of the “By, With, and Through” approach utilized by U.S. and partner forces in the counter-ISIS campaign, the authors recommend that the United States pursue a more incremental approach toward cooperation and capacity building with Arab governments. They provide a comprehensive overview of each Arab state’s capabilities as well as political factors worth considering in connection to each government. Recognizing that Iran’s regional proxies and the Salafi-jihadist extremists represent two distinct threats, the authors argue that the creation of two separate working groups would accommodate the unique factors at play with regard to each Arab government.

The authors conclude that instead of establishing the current administration’s proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), U.S. policymakers should “take an incremental approach that over time allows the United States and its Arab partners to come to a common understanding on the irregular warfare challenges in the Middle East and which common tools can be used to address these threats.”

Read the full report

For more information or to schedule an interview with the authors, please contact Cole Stevens at or call 202-695-8166.


  • Chris Estep

    Former Communications Officer

    Chris Estep is a former Communications Officer at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), where he coordinated the Center’s digital engagement and congressional relatio...