This week, Alpher discusses how significant is it that Saudi Arabia has put together a ten-nation Sunni coalition to fight Iran-backed Zaidi-Shiite forces in Yemen; how does one explain Saudi and Egyptian alarm, given that Yemen is a poor, dysfunctional backwater parts of which are virtually unconquerable due to geography; what is unusual about the participation of Turkey, Qatar and Sudan in the Saudi-led coalition; if a joint Arab army is a serious proposition; what the Saudi-led war effort has accomplished thus far and what strategic challenges remain; if a Saudi-Iranian proxy war could spread elsewhere in the Middle East; if there is really solid evidence of Iranian participation on the side of the Houthis in Yemen; the Israeli angle to the Yemen struggle; and if there is a Palestinian angle.
Q. Saudi Arabia has put together a ten-nation Sunni coalition to fight Iran-backed Zaidi-Shiite forces in Yemen. How significant a development is this?
A. In Middle East terms, it is nothing less than earthshaking. The last time Arab states got together on their own in a war coalition was in 1973, to fight Israel. (The 1991 Gulf War coalition was recruited by the United States; Arab participation was little more than symbolic.) Now the specter of Iranian-led or inspired penetration of Arab states has caused sufficient alarm in Riyadh and Cairo to produce this coalition and to generate an Arab League decision to create a 40,000-strong joint Arab army.
Israel is not only not alarmed by the advent of the coalition, but is pleased to have tacit allies in its struggle with Iran. The fact that Qatar, Turkey and Sudan have joined the coalition is striking. The leadership displayed by Saudi King Salman appears to represent a considerable departure from that of his predecessors in Riyadh.
This move also seeks to put the Obama administration on notice: you cannot work with the Iranians in Iraq and Syria and negotiate a nuclear deal with Tehran, and expect your Sunni Arab allies to treat this as a friendly and coherent Middle East strategy.
Q. Let’s take some of these assertions one-by-one. Yemen is a poor, dysfunctional backwater parts of which are virtually unconquerable due to geography. How do you explain Saudi and Egyptian alarm?
A. In the Saudi perception, Iran has established a military presence to its north, in Iraq. It seeks inroads into Shiite-majority Bahrain to the northeast. Now Iran, with Hezbollah’s help, is training and arming the Houthi-led Zaidis in Yemen, with which Saudi Arabia shares nearly 2,000 kms of border on its southwest flank. Riyadh is understandably uncomfortable at the thought of being “surrounded” by Iran and its proxies. And if Saudi Arabia is being outflanked by hostile forces, Egypt--which currently depends on Saudi and Gulf emirate funds for economic survival and development--has to be concerned as well.
A second area of great concern for the Saudis and Egyptians is the Bab al-Mandeb straits that link the Indian Ocean with the Red Sea. Whoever controls the Yemeni Red Sea coast can effectively control the straits and threaten shipping in a major world channel of commerce that serves Israel, Jordan, Sudan and Ethiopia as well as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Suez Canal link between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Iran already sits abreast the Strait of Hormuz entrance to the Persian Gulf. Even the mere projection of a capacity to interfere with Bab al-Mandeb passage would significantly boost Iran’s aspirations to regional power status at the expense of the Arabs.
Finally, Yemen offers the Saudis a chance to respond pro-actively to what they (like the Netanyahu government in Israel) view as mistaken American policies regarding Iran: the impending nuclear deal along with tacit US-Iranian cooperation against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That Washington has felt obliged to assist the Saudi effort against Iranian interests in Yemen with intelligence and logistics seems to many to reinforce the perception of a problematic American strategy based on contradictory approaches to Iran in two Arab theatres of war.
Q. What is unusual about the participation of Turkey, Qatar and Sudan in the Saudi-led coalition?
A. Turkey under President Erdogan has been supportive in recent years of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Saudis and Egyptians detest, and has been relatively uncritical of Iran even as it calls for the removal of Syrian leader Bashar Assad, an Iranian protege. Qatar has also supported the Brotherhood and its Palestinian offshoot, Hamas, and has only recently abandoned a relatively independent regional stance that antagonized the Saudis. Sudan has worked closely with Iran in recent years and has facilitated Iranian arms smuggling.
Khartoum’s about face is particularly significant insofar as in joining the Saudi-led coalition it reportedly expelled Iranian personnel. But it is also the easiest to explain: presumably, the Saudis promised Sudan large sums of aid. In contrast it must be assumed that Turkey and Qatar, neither of which needs Riyadh’s largesse, have simply become convinced that Iran is going too far in Yemen and that on this occasion it would be unwise to say ‘no’ to Riyadh, even if their participation in the Saudi-led coalition is likely to be symbolic in scope.
The presence of the other members of the coalition is easier to explain. Egypt, Jordan and Morocco receive generous Saudi aid and Egypt and Jordan share concern over Bab al-Mandeb. The UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait are close collaborators within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council. And Pakistan has a long history of military support for the Saudis in return for financial aid--including, allegedly, financing of its nuclear weapons program.
Q. Is a joint Arab army a serious proposition?
A. The Arab League, founded in the 1940s, is a joint security pact. Yet that pact has never been invoked to protect an Arab country from aggression. A joint army might be a good first step. But it faces huge obstacles, beginning with the absence of shared command and control systems, weapons systems and war-fighting strategies and ending with the obvious rivalries among the various Arab states and the need for undemocratic Arab regimes to keep their armed forces under close control. Note that the Arab states, many of which are currently threatened by instability, dis-functionality and Islamist incitement, have thus far proved incapable even of establishing a common market or customs union, much less a joint military force.
Q. What has the Saudi-led war effort accomplished thus far and what strategic challenges remain?
A. The Saudis claim their air force has destroyed Yemeni air force and missile units that had joined the Zaidis. That could slow down the Zaidi advance southward into the key port of Aden and down the Red Sea coast. A logical strategy for fighting the Zaidis would now call for coalition forces, meaning mainly Egyptians, to be landed on the Yemeni coast and in south Yemen with massive air support, to keep the Zaidis away from Bab al-Mandeb and to push the vanguard of their force, the Houthis, back toward their tribal redoubt in the high mountains of northern Yemen. Those mountains constitute a formidable barrier to a Saudi land invasion from the north. Note that the Houthi-led Zaidis constitute as much as 50 percent of all Yemenis and that a major portion of the Yemeni army appears to be siding with them.
The outcome could conceivably be the de facto repartition of Yemen between the north and the south. That was the status until 1990, when the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (also known as South Yemen) was united with the Yemen Arab Republic to form the Republic of Yemen. The PDRY was ruled by a Marxist country backed heavily by the USSR, whose collapse triggered the decision to unite with the north. Now another regional “earthquake” might precipitate a new Yemeni split. But note that large parts of both the north and the south are held by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has been fighting everyone: the Zaidis, the Saudis, and the (now exiled) Yemeni government.
Q. Could a Saudi-Iranian proxy war spread elsewhere in the Middle East?
A. There are Shiite minorities in the eastern oil-rich region of Saudi Arabia and in Kuwait that Iran could now seek to incite; the Saudis allege Tehran has done so periodically over the years. And there is a Sunni Arab minority in the oil-rich southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan (Ahwaz) that was already the focus of incitement by Iraq’s Saddam Hussein shortly after the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.
Beyond those familiar prospects, it will be interesting to see whether the Yemen conflict alters loyalties in the US-led campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Can Sunni Arab forces committed to the coalition against Iran in Yemen continue to participate in a US-led coalition against ISIS where they find themselves on the same side with Iran and with Iraqi Shiite militias?
Q. Is there really solid evidence of Iranian participation on the side of the Houthis in Yemen?
A. Until a few months ago, Iran was quietly delivering arms by ship to the Houthis along the north Yemen coast. With the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, all of a sudden four commercial flights a day between Tehran and Sanaa were announced, providing ample opportunity to deliver men and munitions. Indeed, since then we hear of Iranian and Hezbollah trainers and experts embedded among the Houthis. In parallel, politicians and Revolutionary Guard commanders back home in Tehran are trumpeting Iran’s success in taking over yet another Arab capital.
There may be some exaggeration here by both Arabs and Iranians, but there is undoubtedly also some truth in the reports of growing Iranian presence and influence among the Houthis.
Q. Is there an Israeli angle to the Yemen struggle?
A. One of several previous civil wars in Yemen was fought in the 1960s, when the Yemeni royalists, Zaidis supported by Saudi Arabia, defended against a republican revolt supported by Egypt’s Abd al-Nasser, who landed as many as 70,000 troops in Yemen with Soviet air support. The Arab nationalist Nasser hoped to use Yemen as a stepping stone into Saudi Arabia with its oil wealth. At that time in Arab and Muslim history, a Saudi-Zaidi connection was not considered a volatile Sunni-Shiite issue as it would be today.
Israel was recruited by the British, who had not yet abandoned their base in Aden and withdrawn from “east of Suez”, to parachute vital war supplies to the royalists in their high mountain redoubt in northern Yemen. The British feared Nasserist and Soviet influence among their Arab clients. The Israeli supplies (booty from earlier Arab-Israel wars, with Hebrew markings removed) enabled the royalists to fight the republicans to a standstill and eventually a truce. Meanwhile, the Egyptian expeditionary force suffered military setbacks and general demoralization, and these contributed materially to Israel’s dramatic victory in Sinai in the 1967 Six-Day War. It’s all related in my just-published book, Periphery: Israel’s Search for Middle East Allies.
Now we contemplate Egyptian forces returning to Yemen some 50 years later, again fighting the Zaidis, but this time on the Saudi side.
Q. Is there a Palestinian angle?
A. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas was at Saturday’s decisive Arab League summit in Sharm al-Sheikh, where the joint Arab army was (at least in theory) created and support was voiced for the Saudi effort. Abbas took the opportunity to call on Arab states to “carry out the same policy. . . [as] in Yemen” in other internal conflicts such as Palestine. He was apparently referring to Arab states taking armed action against Hamas in Gaza. That is how Abbas was understood by the other Arab leaders at Sharm al-Sheikh, who were reportedly taken aback by his demand.
Hamas, incidentally, offered guarded support from its base in Gaza for “the self-determination of the Yemeni people”. This was interpreted as tacit and cautious endorsement of the Saudi-led military response in Yemen. Hamas is apparently concerned lest even this support jeopardize Iranian military backing, which has in any case been reduced in recent months.
Meanwhile, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority appear to have yielded to Israeli financial pressure. In return for an announcement on Friday by PM Netanyahu that Israel would turn over PA tax funds it had withheld since the Palestinians opted to join the International Criminal Court, the PA reportedly signaled that while it would join the ICC on April 1, it would for the time being not pursue its case against Israel there. Moreover, now that it can pay the salaries of its security personnel, the PA would also not make good on a threat to sever security cooperation with Israel.
Ostensibly, Netanyahu has temporarily succeeded in bending the will of the PA and blunting its drive to “internationalize” the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was politically cost-free for Netanyahu to turn over tax funds to Ramallah now, since his coalition negotiations leave his right-wing allies dependent on his good will for the portfolios they want in the next government. But by the same token, it is unlikely that we’ll see an Israeli diplomatic quid pro quo for the Palestinians in return for freezing their ICC move, insofar as Netanyahu has no government with which to back up anything but the most temporary of measures. Nor is there any apparent link between Netanyahu’s move, which international observers had expected to take place after Israel’s elections, and events in Yemen and Sharm al-Sheikh.
One intriguing explanation for the Palestinians putting the ICC “on hold” is the possibility of a French initiative to present a Palestinian state resolution to the United Nations Security Council--and a US decision not to veto it or even to present a resolution of its own. Such a resolution would be far more valuable to the Palestinian cause than a controversial and risky attempt to criminalize the Israeli occupation at ICC proceedings at The Hague.