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Saudis’ Yemeni headache won’t go away if and when the guns fall silent

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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These are tough times for Saudi Arabia.

The drama enveloping the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the brutal way in which it was carried out have captured public attention. In reality, however, Saudi Arabia’s real problems began earlier as a result of its conduct of the Yemen war.

Saudi interference in Yemen that culminated in military intervention predates the four-year-old war. Yemen has long been perceived by Saudi Arabia as a threat. That threat went far beyond current Iranian support for the Houthis. In fact, it was Saudi divide-and-rule tactics in Yemen, changing Saudi attitudes towards the Houthis and Saudi Arabia’s global campaign to promote anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian strands of ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Islam that helped pave the way for the current Yemen crisis.

It is only half a century ago that the Houthis were part of a Saudi effort to confront Arab nationalism. As an aside, Saudis and Israelis cooperated already then with Israeli military aircraft dropping weapons for the Saudi-backed rebels that included the Houthis. The deterioration in Saudi-Houthi relations accelerated just after the turn to this century when the Saudis funded the opening of a Salafi centre on the outskirts of the Houthi capital of Saada.

The centre constituted not only a challenge to the Houthis but also to the power of the Houthi leadership. It successfully appealed to the socially disadvantaged as well as youth who were attracted by Salafism’s egalitarianism, resented the power of the older generation and saw puritan Islam as a vehicle to challenge the traditional hierarchy.  Fear of the Wahhabi/Salafi encroachment fuelled the Houthi’s armed fight against the government of then President Ali Abdullah Saleh, his Saudi-backed successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, and ultimately the Saudis themselves, which led to the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen in March 2015.

To initially counter the threat, the leadership of the Houthis, Zaidis who are Shiites with practices more akin to Sunni Muslim ritual, turned to Iran for support in religious education, a development that further angered the kingdom, and laid the groundwork for a war that has devastated a country that already ranked as one of the world’s poorest.

The Saudi intervention was, however, about more than just confronting an Iranian proxy on its doorstep. For one, if anything, it was the intervention that really drove the Houthis and Iranians closer to one another. Even so, the Houthis remain an opportunity in a far broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry rather than a strategic target for the Iranians.

The Salmans, the king and his son, have since coming to office and despite the emergence of Donald Trump, taken to new heights a far more assertive foreign and military policy that was initially crafted by their predecessors in response to the popular Arab revolts in 2011. Make however no mistake, Saudi Arabia’s new assertiveness is not a declaration of independence from the United States even if the kingdom is expanding its international relations as is evident in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s recent tour of Asia.

On the contrary, Prince Mohammed made that very clear in multiple interviews. His goal was to force the United States to reengage in the Middle East as the best guarantor for regional stability. The Saudis appear to be operating on the basis of Karl Marx’s Verelendungs theory: things have to get worse to get better. That is the part of the backdrop of the stalled military intervention in Yemen. Dangling Iran as the real threat emanating from Yemen serves the Saudis’ purpose.

In doing so Saudi Arabia, has proven to be driven. It is a drive that is fuelled by a perception that Iran poses an existential threat to Saudi Arabia. In fact, that may not be incorrect, certainly from the perception of the monarchy and its ruling family.

Saudi Arabia dazzles with the billions of dollars gained from oil exports that it is able to invest overseas and the investment opportunities it creates in the kingdom itself. But the truth of the matter is that long-term Saudi Arabia’s future is not that of a regional hegemon.

Saudi regional leadership, even if it has been tarnished in Yemen in military and reputational terms, amounts to exploitation of a window of opportunity rather than reliance on the assets and power needed to sustain it. Saudi Arabia’s interest is to extend its window of opportunity for as long as possible. That window of opportunity exists as long as the obvious regional powers – Iran, Turkey and Egypt – are in various degrees of disrepair. For now, punitive economic sanctions and international isolation take care of Iran.

And that is what bites. Iran may not be Arab and maintains a sense of Persian superiority, but it has like Turkey and Egypt assets Saudi Arabia lacks: a large population base, an industrial base, a huge domestic market, a battle-hardened military, a deep-rooted culture, a history of empire and a geography that makes it a crossroads. Mecca and money will not be able to compete.

Add to all of this two factors. The Islamic regime came to power in a revolution that preceded the 2011 Arab revolts by 32 years. Moreover, the Iranian revolution toppled a monarch not a president and an icon of US power in the Middle East.

Perhaps, more importantly, if one disregards the sanctioning of Iran, it is Iran rather than Saudi Arabia that is likely to shape the future energy architecture of Eurasia. Oil, in terms of demand is a diminishing commodity. If the long-term future is renewables, the medium term will be shaped by gas. Iran has gas, Saudi Arabia does not, at least not the kind of gas it can export. In fact, Iran, has the world’s second largest gas reserves. Again, disregarding the sanctions, Iran would have in the next five years 24.6 billion cubic metres available for annual piped exports beyond its current supply commitments.

If, indeed, Iran poses an existential threat to the rule of the Al Saud family that it cannot eliminate and at best contain with the support of the United States, the question is what Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen is as well as in its broader rivalry with Iran. There are those who coherently argue that Saudi Arabia’s goal in Yemen may have initially been the roll-back of Houthi advances with their occupation of the Yemeni capital Sana’s and large parts of Yemen, destruction of Houthi power and forcing them into a situation in which they would have had to accept a Saudi-dictated end to the war.

Four years into the war, that is not a realistic goal. Short of that, the question is how sincere Saudi and for that matter UAE interest is in finding a way out of the war. It is conceivable that short of outright victory, Saudi Arabia would want to keep Yemen weak and the Houthis militarily on the defensive. That is at best only sustainable in the short term. Fact of the matter is that the reputational damage Saudi Arabia has suffered is starting to hurt witness measures taken by the US Congress and Germany’s decision to halt arms sales to the kingdom. Conflicts are only ended, if not resolved if the pain of continuing the conflict is greater than the pain of ending it. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia could well be nearing the inflection point.

The problem is that even if the United Nations mediated peace talks ultimately produce an end to the war, Yemen, if anything, will pose in the post-war era an even greater and more real threat. Yemen for much of post-World War Two history has been an after thought in the international community if it sparked a thought at all. Yet, what a post-war Yemen will represent is a devastated country that largely needs to be rebuilt from scratch, a country whose traumatized population has suffered one the world’s worst humanitarian disasters and will need all the after-care that goes with that.

Beyond the taking care of the most immediate humanitarian issues, there is little reason to believe that investors and governments with massive aid packages and offers of reconstruction will be knocking on Yemen’s doors. Like in Syria and Libya, the risk is of the emergence of a generation that has nothing to look forward to and nothing to lose. In Yemen, that generation is likely to deeply resent what it perceives Saudi Arabia has done to their country. If Saudi Arabia, long saw Yemen as the Gulf’s most populous nation with a battle-hardened military that needed to be managed, that new generation is likely to put flesh on the skeleton.

Its not a pretty picture to look forward to. And it is one in which the damage has already been done. Having said that, its never too late to try to limit the damage, if not reverse affairs. That however would take the kind of courage and vision that Prince Mohammed and others in power elsewhere in the Middle East have yet to demonstrate.

Edited remarks at Stand with Yemen Symposium and Exhibition 23 February 2019

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Turkey and the time bomb in Syria

Mohammad Ghaderi

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The Turkish attack on northern Syria has provided conditions for ISIS militants held in camps in the region to escape and revitalize themselves.

Turkey launched “Operation Peace Spring” on Wednesday October 9, claiming to end the presence of terrorists near its borders in northern Syria. Some countries condemned this illegal action of violation of the Syrian sovereignty.

The military attack has exacerbated the Syrian people’s living condition who live in these areas. On the other hand, it has also allowed ISIS forces to escape and prepare themselves to resume their actions in Syria. Before Turkish incursion into northern Syria, There were many warnings that the incursion would prepare the ground for ISIS resurgence. But ignoring the warning, Turkey launched its military attacks.

Currently, about 11,000 ISIS prisoners are held in Syria. ISIS has claimed the responsibility for two attacks on Qamishli and Hasakah since the beginning of Turkish attacks.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump said that Turkey and the Kurds must stop ISIS prisoners from fleeing. He urged European countries to take back their citizens who have joined ISIS.

It should be noted that the U.S. is trying to prove that ISIS has become stronger since the U.S. troops pulled out before the Turkish invasion, and to show that Syria is not able to manage the situation. But this fact cannot be ignored that ISIS militants’ escape and revival were an important consequence of the Turkish attack.

Turkish troops has approached an important city in the northeast and clashed with Syrian forces. These events provided the chance for hundreds of ISIS members to escape from a camp in Ayn Issa near a U.S.-led coalition base.

 The camp is located 35 kilometers on the south of Syria-Turkey border, and about 12,000 ISIS members, including children and women, are settled there. The Kurdish forces are said to be in charge of controlling these prisoners.

Media reports about the ISIS resurgence in Raqqa, the former ISIS stronghold, cannot be ignored, as dozens of terrorists have shot Kurdish police forces in this city. The terrorists aimed to occupy the headquarters of the Kurdish-Syrian security forces in the center of Raqqa.  One of the eyewitnesses said the attack was coordinated, organized and carried out by several suicide bombers, but failed.

In response to Turkey’s invasion of Syria, the Kurds have repeatedly warned that the attack will lead to release of ISIS elements in the region. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan denied the reports about the escape of ISIS prisoners and called them “lies”.

European officials fear that ISIS prisoners with European nationality, who have fled camps, will come back to their countries.

Kurdish forces are making any effort to confront Turkish troops in border areas, so their presence and patrol in Raqqa have been reduced.

Interestingly, the Turkish military bombarded one of temporary prisons and caused ISIS prisoners escaping. It seems that ISIS-affiliated covert groups have started their activities to seize the control of Raqqa. These groups are seeking to rebuild their so-called caliphate, as Kurdish and Syrian forces are fighting to counter the invading Turkish troops. Families affiliated with ISIS are held in Al-Hol camp, under the control of Kurdish forces. At the current situation, the camp has turned into a time bomb that could explode at any moment. Under normal circumstances, there have been several conflicts between ISIS families in the camp, but the current situation is far worse than before.

There are more than 3,000 ISIS families in the camp and their women are calling for establishment of the ISIS caliphate. Some of SDF forces have abandoned their positions, and decreased their watch on the camp.

The danger of the return of ISIS elements is so serious, since they are so pleased with the Turkish attack and consider it as an opportunity to regain their power. There are pictures of ISIS wives in a camp in northern Syria, under watch of Kurdish militias, showing how happy they are about the Turkish invasion.

In any case, the Turkish attack, in addition to all the military, political and human consequences, holds Ankara responsible for the escape of ISIS militants and preparing the ground for their resurgence.

Currently, the camps holding ISIS and their families are like time bombs that will explode if they all escape. Covert groups affiliated with the terrorist organization are seeking to revive the ISIS caliphate and take further actions if the Turkish attacks continue. These attacks have created new conflicts in Syria and undermined Kurdish and Syrian power to fight ISIS.

From our partner Tehran Times

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The Turkish Gambit

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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The only certainty in war is its intrinsic uncertainty, something Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could soon chance upon.  One only has to look back on America’s topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Syria for confirmation.

The Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria has as its defined objective a buffer zone between the Kurds in Turkey and in Syria.  Mr. Erdogan hopes, to populate it with some of the 3 million plus Syrian refugees in Turkey, many of these in limbo in border camps.  The refugees are Arab; the Kurds are not.

Kurds speak a language different from Arabic but akin to Persian.  After the First World War, when the victors parceled up the Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire, Syria came to be controlled by the French, Iraq by the British, and the Kurdish area was divided into parts in Turkey, Syria and Iraq, not forgetting the borderlands in Iran — a brutal division by a colonial scalpel severing communities, friends and families.  About the latter, I have some experience, having lived through the bloody partition of India into two, and now three countries that cost a million lives.   

How Mr. Erdogan will persuade the Arab Syrian refugees to live in an enclave, surrounded by hostile Kurds, some ethnically cleansed from the very same place, remains an open question.  Will the Turkish army occupy this zone permanently?  For, we can imagine what the Kurds will do if the Turkish forces leave.

There is another aspect of modern conflict that has made conquest no longer such a desirable proposition — the guerrilla fighter.  Lightly armed and a master of asymmetric warfare, he destabilizes. 

Modern weapons provide small bands of men the capacity and capability to down helicopters, cripple tanks, lay IEDs, place car bombs in cities and generally disrupt any orderly functioning of a state, tying down large forces at huge expense with little chance of long term stability.  If the US has failed repeatedly in its efforts to bend countries to its will, one has to wonder if Erdogan has thought this one through.

The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 is another case in point.  Forever synonymous with the infamous butchery at Sabra and Shatila by the Phalange militia facilitated by Israeli forces, it is easy to forget a major and important Israeli goal:  access to the waters of the Litani River which implied a zone of occupation for the area south of it up to the Israeli border.

Southern Lebanon is predominantly Shia and at the time of the Israeli invasion they were a placid group who were dominated by Christians and Sunni, even Palestinians ejected from Israel but now armed and finding refuge in Lebanon.  It was when the Israelis looked like they were going to stay that the Shia awoke.  It took a while but soon their guerrillas were harassing Israeli troops and drawing blood.  The game was no longer worth the candle and Israel, licking its wounds, began to withdraw ending up eventually behind their own border.

A colossal footnote is the resurgent Shia confidence, the buildup into Hezbollah and new political power.  The Hezbollah prepared well for another Israeli invasion to settle old scores and teach them a lesson.  So they were ready, and shocked the Israelis in 2006.  Now they are feared by Israeli troops.   

To return to the present, it is not entirely clear as to what transpired in the telephone call between Erdogan and Trump.  Various sources confirm Trump has bluffed Erdogan in the past.  It is not unlikely then for Trump to have said this time, “We’re leaving.  If you go in, you will have to police the area.  Don’t ask us to help you.”  Is that subject to misinterpretation?  It certainly is a reminder of the inadvertent green light to Saddam Hussein for the invasion of Kuwait when Bush Senior was in office. 

For the time being Erdogan is holding fast and Trump has signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Turkish officials and institutions.  Three Turkish ministers and the Defense and Energy ministries are included.  Trump has also demanded an immediate ceasefire.  On the economic front, he has raised tariffs on steel back to 50 percent as it used to be before last May.  Trade negotiations on a $100 billion trade deal with Turkey have also been halted forthwith.  The order also includes the holding of property of those sanctioned, as well as barring entry to the U.S.

Meanwhile, the misery begins all over again as thousands flee the invasion area carrying what they can.  Where are they headed?  Anywhere where artillery shells do not rain down and the sound of airplanes does not mean bombs.

Such are the exigencies of war and often its surprising consequences. 

Author’s Note:  This piece appeared originally on Counterpunch.org

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Could Turkish aggression boost peace in Syria?

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On October 7, 2019, the U.S. President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from northeast Syria, where the contingent alongside Kurdish militias controlled the vast territories. Trump clarified that the decision is connected with the intention of Turkey to attack the Kurdish units, posing a threat to Ankara.

It’s incredible that the Turkish military operation against Kurds – indeed the territorial integrity of Syria has resulted in the escape of the U.S., Great Britain, and France. These states essentially are key destabilizing components of the Syrian crisis.

Could this factor favourably influence the situation in the country? For instance, after the end of the Iraqi war in 2011 when the bulk of the American troops left the country, the positive developments took place in the lives of all Iraqis. According to World Economics organization, after the end of the conflict, Iraq’s GDP grew by 14% in 2012, while during the U.S. hostilities the average GDP growth was about 5,8%.

Syria’s GDP growth should also be predicted. Not right away the withdrawal of U.S., French, British, and other forces, but a little bit later after the end of the Turkish operation that is not a phenomenon. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has been going on since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Kurds started to promote the ideas of self-identity and independence. Apart from numerous human losses, the Turks accomplished nothing. It is unlikely that Ankara would achieve much in Peace Spring operation. The Kurds realize the gravity of the situation and choose to form an alliance with the Syrian government that has undermined the ongoing Turkish offensive.

Under these circumstances, Erdogan could only hope for the creation of a narrow buffer zone on the Syrian-Turkish border. The withdrawal of the Turkish forces from the region is just a matter of time. However, we can safely say that the Turkish expansion unwittingly accelerated the peace settlement of the Syrian crisis, as the vital destabilizing forces left the country. Besides, the transfer of the oil-rich north-eastern regions under the control of Bashar Assad will also contribute to the early resolution of the conflict.

It remains a matter of conjecture what the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia agreed on during the high-level talks. Let’s hope that not only the Syrians, but also key Gulf states are tired of instability and tension in the region, and it’s a high time to strive for a political solution to the Syrian problem.

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