Only a political solution for Yemen can stop regional war

Yemen must now be classified as a failed state: it has no government, no army, no president and no civic institutions. It is descending into bloody anarchy and widespread sectarian violence which threatens to spread throughout the region, writes Abdel Bari Atwan.

Yemen is awash with arms, with an estimated two weapons for each of its 25 million citizens. Many of these weapons have been provided by Saudi Arabia and Iran to arm their proxy entities in the war-torn land.

The situation in Yemen now is reminiscent of the catastrophe that befell Libya after outside powers intervened in its domestic struggles to fulfil their own political and economic ends.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to start a bombing campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis is the most dangerous development in the region in recent times, eclipsing even the emergence of the Islamic State.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are both armed to the teeth with the latest weaponry; both have strong regional alliances along sectarian fault lines and both have superpower back-up – the US has overtly supported the Saudi military intervention in Yemen which was announced at the Saudi Embassy in Washington; Iran has friends in Moscow and Beijing.

Saudi Arabia is sandwiched between two countries where Iranian proxies are prevalent – Iraq to the north and Yemen to the south. The situation is further complicated by the fact that to the north, Saudi’s allies, the Americans, are offering air cover to the Iraqi army and some remaining Shia militias as they battle the Islamic State in Tikrit and elsewhere.

Iran

The current Iraqi regime is closely tied to Iran; Iraq was effectively delivered to Tehran on a golden plate by the US invasion in 2003. On 8 March, Ali Younesi, formerly Iran’s Intelligence Minister, spoke of an eventual “union” between the two countries and said, ‘There is no way to divide the territory of Iran and Iraq’. Perhaps the Syria-Iraq border is not the only one that has disappeared in the course of the current regional turmoil.

Nor should we forget the Iran-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria which still has an army of up to 180,000 men and a capable air force with a fleet of MiG fighter planes.

The Saudi air raids (the participation of the other 9 Arab states in the alliance is mostly symbolic) have ended the chance of a political solution to the Yemen crisis and poured petrol on the already raging sectarian fire which is racing across the region.

Yemen's Houthis are thought to get limited help from Iran
Yemen’s Houthis are thought to get limited help from Iran

Iran’s tactics to date have been to operate through the region via proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Even when its Revolutionary Guard personnel appear on the front line in both Iraq and Syria, its presence is camouflaged in one way or another, and we believe that it will continue the same policy in Yemen where the Houthi militias are doing its bidding.

Surely one motive for this policy is that where Iran is fighting Arabs on their own land, rather than on Iranian soil, its human and material losses are limited, while Arab losses multiply.

Iran is a formidable enemy, too, because it fights alone. Although it has superpower alliances it has yet to call on them to fight by its side – unlike the Sunni Arab entities who regularly call on the US and its western coalition for help (as in Kuwait, Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria).

So far Iran has not revealed how it will respond to the Saudi intervention in Yemen. It has only demanded an end to the “aggression” but this is highly unlikely to be its final comment. The conflict looks set to widen drawing in a broader constituency of parties involved.

Saudi Arabia

The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has an effective and sophisticated air power, that is not in doubt, but this is not sufficient to win the war. Many believe that the arrival of troops on the ground is imminent and they will not have an easy time. The Houthis are known to be courageous fighters and they are adept in guerrilla warfare which conventional armies are not well versed in.

Let us not forget that the US has been battling al-Qaeda in Yemen for seven years by air (mostly drones) and on the ground in the form of the Yemeni army but has been unable to eradicate the entity. In fact the contrary had happened; al-Qaeda is not only resurgent but has been joined by its ultra-violent younger brother, Islamic State.

The Gulf is the region’s most stable, secure and prosperous area, but its internal structures are actually very fragile, despite the efficiency and professionalism of its highly advanced security apparatus. Its member states count Shia minorities among their citizens who may rise up against their Sunni masters in the event of all-out sectarian war: Kuwait’s populace is 40 percent Shia, for example, while Saudi Arabia’s is around 15 percent Shia.

Saudi Arabia and the US are close allies
Saudi Arabia and the US are close allies

In March 2014, before the US began its rapprochement with Tehran, there was a major stand-off between the Gulf States and Iran over the ownership of three tiny islands in the Strait of Hormuz: Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. Gulf officials I spoke to at this time expressed their fears that they would lose everything they had established in terms of the infrastructure and economy just for three barren islands no more than 11 kilometres square.

When they saw American and Western aircraft carriers and more than 200 warships in the Gulf which had arrived to counter Iran, they commented that these battleships and aircraft carriers would be of little value if Iran carried out its threat to destroy the desalination plants on the shores of the Bay that provide them with 90 percent of their drinking water. American fighter jets would not prevent them dying of thirst.

Foreign military intervention has failed to resolve the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Why then should anyone believe it will do so in Yemen?

Oman is already distancing itself from its fellow Gulf States’ stance, having historically enjoyed good relations with Tehran.

We sincerely hope that every effort will be made to find a diplomatic and political solution to the Yemen crisis, opening channels for a revival of the national Unity government negotiations. The alternative – all out regional sectarian warfare – is unthinkable.

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