April 12, 2015

Yemen’s high stakes

Yemen’s high stakes

Yemen’s high stakesAs Saudi Arabia and Iran lock horns in Yemen, Pakistan feels trapped and Cairo goes back to the drawing board. Medhat Al-Zahed reports

I had the chance to talk to Major General Salama Al-Gohari, former military intelligence commander, and a group of young men who had just been evacuated from Yemen.

Their description of the current events in Yemen was mesmerising. A country inhabited by 30 million people who own 90 million pieces of weaponry was hurtling down the abyss, with the Houthis still running wild from Sanaa to Aden, and Al-Qaeda using the turmoil to boost its influence in the governorate of Abyan.

When one thinks of civil war, the images that come to mind are of urban warfare, with mortars and machineguns. But in Yemen, the scenes are more dramatic. According to those I talked to, regular citizens are now parking their private tanks and APCs in front of their houses.

The main question now is whether the 10-nation coalition that has poured death on the Houthis from the air, American style, is going to venture into a ground war. So far, the question hangs in the balance, met only with tentative answers.

Once the aerial campaign of Operation Decisive Storm has run its course, which countries will be willing to commit boots on the ground?

The Saudis can ask their GCC partners for help, and the Egyptians seem to be contemplating the possibility. But the Pakistanis are unlikely to send ground troops, except to deploy perhaps in defensive positions inside Saudi Arabia.

So far, the aerial campaign seems to have unsettled the Houthis, but not without a cost. Collateral damage to the population may strengthen the hand of the Houthis in some areas. And Yemen’s great has-been, the long-serving dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, is back from his forced retirement, claiming that he is defending the country against foreign invaders.

The Houthis may have been weakened, but they are not even close to giving up. They refuse to attend talks in Riyadh, they are dead against the return of President Hadi to power, and they are not willing to discuss a pullout from the cities they now control.

The clashes that erupted in predominantly Shia areas in eastern Saudi Arabia is another sign that the current turmoil in Yemen may prove difficult to contain.

Firm offers of ground troops sent to Yemen were not as forthcoming as many initially expected.

Aside from aerial participation, naval backing and moral support, Saudi Arabia’s allies have not yet committed to war inside Yemen. Sending ground troops to Saudi Arabia to protect its territorial integrity doesn’t seem to be a problem, but Saudi Arabia’s allies seem to be thinking twice before dipping a toe into the Yemeni quagmire.

Consultations are getting hectic, with the Egyptian chief of staff flying to Riyadh, the Egyptian defence minister talking to his Pakistani counterpart, and Egypt’s army commanders weighing their options.

Meeting under President Al-Sisi, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) asserted that free and safe navigation in the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandeb was a matter of national security for Egypt. But Egypt is not jumping into the fray with its eyes closed. Al-Sisi said that Cairo was exploring all diplomatic venues for a solution in Yemen, according to Egyptian media.

The president asserted that Egypt has no intention of letting down its Gulf brothers and that it sees the security of Gulf States as crucial to its own security. Addressing concerns that Egypt may be dragged into Yemeni affairs in the manner painfully experienced in the 1960s, Al-Sisi was quick to note that times have changed and a different approach will be taken this time around.

MENA, the Egyptian official news agency, says that Cairo is exploring political solutions to end the crisis in Yemen. But if no solution is found, Egypt may have no other option but to intervene. This will not be an easy decision to take, not least because of strong domestic opposition. Critics of Egyptian involvement in Yemen say that such a move may be unconstitutional. A civil war in another country in and of itself is hardly grounds for intervention, they add.

According to the critics, intervention would be too risky, perhaps protracted, and potentially debilitating  therefore inadvisable for a country already burdened with its own war on terror. The Houthis, critics add, are adept at guerrilla warfare and may give the Egyptians a run for their money. Egypt’s military, aware of the 1960s debacle, is not going to dismiss such claims as groundless.

The Pakistani connection
A country with an exceptional experience in fighting rebel insurrections is Pakistan. A close friend with the Saudis, Pakistan is in a mind to help, but only to a degree. A few weeks ago Pakistani troops recently conducted drills with the Saudi army, but the politics of intervention is more complex than meets the eye.

In his speech to the Arab Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, the Saudi king made no comment on the Egyptian proposal to form a joint Arab force to confront various threats around the region. So, even as the Saudis lead an unprecedented aerial coalition against the Houthis, they are not prepared for or haven’t thought yet about  what’s next.

Addressing the Pakistani parliament, Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Mohamed Assif asserted his country’s resolve to safeguard the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. So, Islamabad is apparently willing to put boots on the ground, but in Saudi Arabia rather than Yemen. Security of the Saudi borders from the inside is politically safe, but sending troops to take on Iran’s allies in Yemen may be too risky for Pakistan.

According to Assif, Islamabad favours a political solution in Yemen. One shouldn’t be astonished if Egypt, once it pondered its options, comes to a similar conclusion. The Pakistanis have to factor Iran into their calculations. Sharing long and turbulent borders with Iran, the last thing Islamabad wants to see is the resourceful Iranians stirring things up in border areas inhabited by separatist rebels.

When the Iranian foreign minister goes to Pakistan this week, he is likely to have a word of advice to his Islamabad interlocutors. According to Pakistani security analyst Fedaa Hussein, Islamabad is in a difficult position, caught between the conflicting interests of a strong neighbour and a close ally.

“Sending ground troops to fight in Yemen may lead to tensions with Iran,” Hussein said. Major General Mahmoud Ali Durrani, Pakistan’s former national security adviser, recently said that Pakistan’s involvement in Yemen “may be unwise”. Erfan Shah, a political researcher, agrees: “Joining the coalition is a tough decision; Islamabad cannot antagonise the Saudi and Iranians simultaneously.”

Nasrallah’s position
Iran has powerful allies in the region, none more so than the indomitable Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbullah’s secretary general. Speaking to the Syrian television channel Al-Ekhbariya, Nasrallah lambasted the Saudis, saying that the aerial campaign sent “millions (of Yemenis) to the streets demanding death to the Saud Family”.

Nasrallah said that the Yemenis now have the right to invade Saudi Arabia, and that’s why the Saudis evacuated 90 villages from their border areas. If the war in Yemen drags on, Iran may call other allies around the region into action. Some say that the Tehran may send Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps units in Iraq to foment trouble on the Saudi and Kuwaiti borders. Even if this is not the course Iran takes, there is hardly any doubt that the Iranians intend to make life hard for the Saudis.

Look at what happened to Iran’s other regional adversary, Israel. Iran was able to challenge Israel in costly proxy battles both to its north and south through its collaboration with Hizbullah and Hamas. Now, if the Saudi’s give Tehran half a chance, it will use the Houthis against them in the same manner, dragging on the war and using it to harass Riyadh for as long as possible.

Unless a political settlement is found, perhaps with Iran winning a chunk of considerable power for its local clients, the Houthis, the turmoil in Yemen may drag on. Sending boots on the ground may not necessarily end this game, but may rather make it more interesting to Tehran.

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