Surging Chaos in Yemen
By Asif Haroon Raja
Conflict between the Houthis under Abdul Malik al-Houthi and the elected government of Abd-Rabbuh Mansour al-Hadi, now in exile, is seen as part of a regional power struggle between Shia-ruled Iran and Sunni-ruled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which shares a long porous border with Yemen. The sectarian problem certainly looms in the background somewhere but is not the main factor. The ongoing war in Yemen is in essence a political struggle and not a sectarian tussle. Tribalism remains the sole driver of politics in Yemen. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh is a Zaidi. Having ruled Yemen for 33 years, he still didn’t reconcile to his peaceful ouster and desires his son Ahmad to become the president. He and part of Yemeni Army and police loyal to him got aligned with Houthis to gain power. The power struggle has been given the color of sectarianism, which has been played up in the western media and insensitively espoused by our media and self-styled intellectuals. This is of course not to say that the Houthis are not being supported by Iran.
Although in the current timeframe there is no direct clash between KSA and Iran, possibility of Houthi ruled Yemen joining Iran-Iraq-Syria-Hezbollah axis in the future cannot be ruled out. If so, when seen in the backdrop of warmed up relations between Iran and the west, possibility of sectarian war between the Iran led nexus backed by Russia and KSA led Arab coalition tacitly supported by the US and Israel may turn into a horrific reality.
King Salman is rightly worried about the building scenario in immediate neighborhood. He knows that Yemen under Houthis backed by Iran may energize already restive Shias in Al-Qatf (less than 3% Sunnis only) and Al-Ahasa housing world largest oilfields in its eastern province together with some other anti-monarchy Sunni Saudi tribes, when seen in context with expanding Iranian driven Shia arc in the backdrop of US-Israeli designs in Middle East can prove extremely dangerous. He cannot overlook the possibility of division within KSA armed forces as it happened in Syrian military, Libyan military and Yemen Army.
The picture is further complicated by the presence of Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula, which has staged numerous deadly attacks from its strongholds in the south and south-east in Yemen. After their ouster from Abyan and Shabwan provinces by Hadi in 2013, they have again regrouped and recently taken over Al-Houta near Aden which was in occupation of Houthis and Saleh friendly troops. They freed 300 prisoners from a jail in Aden on April 2. Sunni tribes in north Yemen are getting aligned with al-Qaeda which is surreptitiously filling up security vacuums. There is a segment of sympathizers of Al-Qaeda in KSA as well. Emergence in late 2014 of a Yemen affiliate of Islamic State (IS) is yet another threat, which claims to have carried out a series of suicide bombings in Sana in March 2015. Strong presence of the IS in western Iraq is perilously close to KSA’s northern border, which claims to have sizeable number of supporters in KSA and has declared its intentions to capture Mecca and Medina.
This time, House of Saud has decided not to seek western assistance as it had done in 1990 and instead is relying on the Muslim armed forces. The Arab League sanctioned establishment of joint force comprising all Gulf States less Oman, Jordon, Morocco and Sudan. Malaysia and Indonesia have consented to assist whenever KSA’s integrity is threatened and so has Pakistan. Joint Arab force is meant to overawe Iran and non-state actors. Ironically, the Joint Arab Force has no mandate to protect Palestinians from Israeli aggression. KSA’s urgent request for Pakistani fighter jets and naval warships to take part in its war against the Houthis has put Pakistan in a tight situation, although it has in principle agreed to defend KSA whenever its territorial integrity and sovereignty was threatened.
Pakistan is walking on tight rope since on one hand there is massive home pressure to avoid getting involved in someone else’s war, on the other, KSA expectations are high. Our chest thumping, or logical reasoning and genuine compulsions will not impress them since this time the stakes are very high. Ideally, the Saudis want our trained pilots to immediately strike Houthi targets and force them to surrender so that the need for a ground offensive doesn’t arise. As a minimum, they want Pakistan-Turkey-Egypt military’s physical presence along with Arab Military Force as a symbolic gesture of support to deter Iran and IS from meddling in Yemen and other Sunni ruled Arab States.
Concerns shown at home are that Pakistan’s hands are already full fighting existential war in three hot regions. With 172,000 troops deployed in the west, dispatching another division size force to fight someone else’s war would be at the cost of upsetting Operation Zarb-e-Azb, weakening military balance along eastern border, disturbing Shia-Sunni harmony at home leading to conflict, spoiling Pak-Iran relations and possibly heating up southern border. It is also argued that we have already suffered a great deal fighting someone else’s war and cannot afford to jump into another war. Good thing is that while there is strong opposition to involvement of Pakistani troops in Yemen war, most are on one page with regard to the defence of KSA.
Irrespective of these genuine constraints, Pakistan can ill-afford to look the other way in KSA’s testing times. Besides China and Turkey, KSA is also a time-tested friend and has always come to the aid of Pakistan whenever chips were down. About two million Pakistanis working in KSA are sending huge remittances. Pakistan and KSA enjoy excellent relations based on mutual respect and shared interests. Their relations are marked by full trust and complete understanding and not for once there was any point of friction. While KSA provided military assistance during 1965 war and oil and financial assistance liberally to bail it out of series of crisis, and has been in sync with Pakistan on major regional and global issues, Pakistan has also been reciprocating Riyadh’s friendly gestures by stationing up to 18000 troops in Tabuk from 1982 till 1990 and then deploying a brigade size force along Yemen border when Iraq had annexed Kuwait in August 1990. Even now, about 1000 non-combatant troops are present in KSA. The two countries hold joint exercises regularly. Today, KSA’s defence budget is the 4th largest in the world and its forces are laced with latest weapon systems. Yemen poses no military threat to KSA’s territorial integrity but can become a cause of instability. Rather than fighting prolonged insurgencies inside, KSA wants to keep the flames well away and to keep the States bordering KSA peaceful and friendly so as to have perimeter of security. After all, the US is fighting war on terror across seven seas to keep its homeland secure.
Looking at Pak-Iran relations, the two neighbors enjoyed best of relations during the era of Shah of Iran. However, after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, Pak-Iran relations remained mired in misgivings for one reason or the other. Despite its coolness, Pakistan didn’t abandon Iran when it was declared an outcast by the west and was isolated till as late as November 2013. Fact of the matter is that Pak-Iran proximity is a geo-strategic necessity for both and must be mutually sustained. With hostile eastern border and western border in a state of flux, Pakistan can ill-afford to have trouble on its southern border. However, it cannot be ignored that both KSA and Iran have been promoting Wahhabism and Shiasm in Pakistan since 1980s and have contributed to the rise of sectarianism in Pakistan.
Other aspect that must be understood is that Iran has not declared itself as a stakeholder in Yemen crisis. Nor it admits that it is providing assistance to Houthis. KSA and not Iran has common border with Yemen and only former gets directly affected by the chaos in Yemen. Till Houthis gain power through elections, they are no more than non-state actors snatching power forcibly. Request for air support by the elected government of Hadi duly recognized by UNSC was not illegal and very much fall within charter of UN. While Iran has no internal or external threat from Sunnis, Shia ruled Iraq, Shia Alawite ruled Syria, Shia heavy Bahrain, Shia Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon as well as Shias in KSA’s eastern province are a source of serious concern for KSA. It feels that Yemen under Iran’s influence will further strengthen the Shia arc around it. Yemen is its backyard which it would like to keep nonviolent and friendly.
Having seen the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt and serialized destruction of Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia and Yemen and division of Sudan in recent times, Riyadh cannot remain oblivious of the possibility of foreign aided unrest within KSA. Why KSA should not get worried and threatened when Houthis hate Saudi leaders and declared KSA as a brutal and Evil State? Abdul Karim al-Khawani, an important Houthi leader, who was killed in infighting in January 2015, stated that, “We will circle Khana Kaaba in the next Hajj as conquerors”. Nic Robertson in CNN program reported that Houthis had threatened attacks inside KSA territory. For the first time two Saudi border guards were killed by Houthi fighters in a fire exchange on April 3, 2015.
The US has taken full advantage of intra-Arab rivalries and Arab-Iran hostility to achieve its strategic goals in Middle East. Annexation of Iraq by US in 2003 followed by Arab Spring triggered by the US and Israel in 2011 were meant to further speed up the accomplishment of their objective of changing the boundaries of Middle East and harness resources as well as help Israel in establishing ‘Greater Israel’ stretching from River Nile to Euphrates. The map of Col Ralph Peter published with his article ‘Blood Borders’ in 2006 shows extent of the kingdom confined to Mecca and Medina only. The US was involved in Yemen war from 2011 onwards and it used its drones and Special Forces against Al-Qaeda in Yemen. No eyebrows were raised against that intervention. What is intriguing is that the US has winded up its drone war once Houthis gained power.
Although Iran has been gradually increasing its influence in the Middle East since 1979, instability in Middle East helped Iran in expanding its sphere of influence up to Lebanon. Its expansion to some extent was curtailed by US-EU-Israeli hostility and draconian sanctions. This handicap has to a large extent been removed after the nuclear agreement in Lausanne on March 31, 2015 but has sharpened internal divide between Conservatives and Reformists, former seeing it as a ‘sellout’. While Russia is unhappy over P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran, Israel and KSA are equally apprehensive of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it’s growing military power and expanding influence in the region. At the same time, the US has begun to rely more on Iran to roll back IS from captured areas in Iraq since Iraqi and Irani Shia militias together with Revolutionary Guards and Kurds under Gen Qassem Sulaiman have achieved several victories including Tikrit. At the same time, Washington is mindful of expanded influence of Iran in the region and is looking for ways and means to curtail it.
Going by the saying “A friend in need is a friend indeed”, Pakistan must use all its diplomatic skills to help find a diplomatic solution to Yemen crisis by co-opting as many Muslim countries in its exterior manouevre and at the same time assuring Riyadh that KSA’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as well as security of Holy places of Mecca and Medina will be undertaken with full force. Half-baked response will prove counterproductive as it had happened in 1990. Heated discussion in the joint parliament session was a sad spectacle. There were more pro-Iran and pro-Saudi legislators and very few pro-Pakistan legislators/Senators. Thin attendance showed their lack of seriousness. Print and electronic media has been indulging in unsavory discussions, not realizing that Pakistan’s sincere friends are very few. KSA and not Iran is in duress, so instead of rescuing KSA, why so much of hullabaloo to save Iran? When Iran’s integrity gets threatened, by all means, give it all out support.
Meeting of Pak-Turkey leaders in Ankara, visit of Iranian foreign minister to Islamabad and Iran’s four-point plan to end Yemen crisis are positive developments. Contours of the plan are immediate ceasefire, hold dialogue and work for establishment of broad-based government. The only sticking point is surrender of arms by Houthis before air attacks are halted and ceasefire take place. Jordon’s resolution manifesting Arab League’s aspirations seeks to disarm Houthis, imposition of arms embargo and re-installation of Hadi regime before sitting for a dialogue. Arabs know that they cannot win the war through air attacks alone and sooner than later ground troops will have to be used which will prove risky and expensive given the nature of terrain and Houthis expertise in guerrilla war.
Iran is keen to stop hostilities since prolongation of conflict will strengthen Al-Qaeda and IS and the two could join up to defeat Houthis. Acquisition of cluster bombs by KSA is also a cause of worry for Tehran. Pakistan and Turkey can play a key role in convincing Iranian leadership to stay away from Yemen and also impressing upon Riyadh to give peace a chance. Riyadh-Tehran rapprochement will go a long way in easing tensions in Yemen and in Middle East. The UN and OIC also need to be woken up from slumber and pressed to play their role in defusing the volatile situation. Pakistan should consider volunteering to become part of UN designated peace keeping mission in Yemen once ceasefire takes place.
Last but not the least, both KSA and Iran should carryout dispassionate introspection and judge for themselves what they have gained from the proxy wars within Muslim countries and what has been lost. The whole Middle East is in turmoil and drenched in blood and is at the verge of implosion. The tumult is heading towards sectarian war at a much bigger scale, which if God forbid triggers, it will ease the task of Great-Game players to neo-colonize the Muslim world as a whole. There is still time to avert this disaster and mend fences. Intra-Arab rivalry and Arab-Iran rivalry must end to safeguard the future of Muslim Ummah. The US should also carryout self-analysis and see what it has gained and lost after spending $2 trillion in Middle East.
With regard to Pakistan’s military support, knowing the geostrategic compulsions and difficulties of the Army, it will be worthwhile to tap the reservoir of 2.5 million Pak armed forces veterans under the helmsman-ship of retired Lt Gen Hamid Gul. I am sure; one to two composite divisions can easily be created from within this valuable reservoir, which is lying redundant to defend southern border of KSA and also provide trainers, advisers, technical and medical support. Jet and fighter pilots as well as warship crews can also be found from within this experienced, well-trained and disciplined workforce. This platform can also help in carrying out an in-depth appraisal of the emerging threats in Middle East and suggesting concrete proposals to address the security concerns of KSA as well as best utilization of joint Arab Force to meet all kinds of future threats.
The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre, member Board of Governors TFP. email@example.com