A Young Prince May Cost Syria and Yemen Dear
As the US and Iran reach accord, Saudi Arabia endangers the status quo in the
By Patrick Cockburn
April 06, 2015 "ICH"
Independent " - A succession of crucially important
military and diplomatic events are convulsing the political landscape of the
Middle East. The most significant development is the understanding between the
US and five other world powers with Iran on limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in
return for an easing of sanctions. But the muting of hostility between the US
and Iran, a destabilising feature of Middle East politics since the overthrow of
the Shah in 1979, may not do much to stem the momentum towards ever greater
violence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
In any case, the
benefits of a US-Iran agreement may be slow to come, if they come at all, as the
Republicans in Congress, the Saudis and Israel try to torpedo it. And even if an
accord is ratified and implemented, President Obama could be hedged in by its
opponents from further co-operation with Iran in other parts of the Middle East.
In contrast to this snail’s pace rapprochement, the crises in Yemen and Syria
are getting worse by the day and, in Iraq,for
all the government’s claims to have captured Tikrit, its forces are still
only nibbling at the outer defences of Islamic State (Isis).
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have the greatest
self-interest in maintaining the status quo in the region, something they have
been fairly successful in doing in the past. Who would have predicted in the
late 1950s that Arab nationalist and socialist movements would pass away but
Saudi Arabia would remain the theocratic absolute monarchy it has always been?
What is striking about developments in the past few weeks is that it is Saudi
Arabia that is seeking radical change in the region and is prepared to use
military force to secure it. In Yemen, it has launched a devastating air war
and, in Syria, it is collaborating with Turkey to support extreme jihadi
movements led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate that last week captured
its first provincial capital.
The Saudis are abandoning their tradition of pursuing
extremely cautious policies, using their vast wealth to buy influence, working
through proxies and keeping close to the US. In Yemen, it is the Saudi air force
that is bombarding the Houthis, along with Yemeni army units still loyal to
former president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was once seen as the Saudis’ and
Americans’ man in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. As with many other air campaigns,
the Saudis and their Gulf Co-operation Council allies are finding that air
strikes without a reliable military partner on the ground do not get you very
far. But if Saudi ground forces are deployed in Yemen they will be entering a
country that has been just as much of a quagmire as Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Saudis are portraying their intervention as provoked by
Iranian-backed Shia Zaidis trying to take over the country. Much of this is
propaganda. The Houthis, who come from the Zaidi tribes in Yemen’s northern
mountains, have an effective military and political movement called Ansar Allah,
modelled on Hezbollah in Lebanon. They have fought off six government offensives
against them since 2004, all launched by former President Saleh, then allied to
the Saudis. Saleh, himself a Zaidi but drawing his support from the Zaidi tribes
around the capital, Sanaa, was a casualty of the Arab Spring in Yemen but still
has the support of many army units.
Why has Saudi Arabia plunged into this morass, pretending that
Iran is pulling the strings of the Shia minority though its role is marginal?
The Zaidis, estimated to be a third of the 25 million Yemeni population, are
very different Shia from those in Iran and Iraq. In the past, there has been
little Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Yemen, but the Saudi determination to frame
the conflict in sectarian terms may be self-fulfilling.
Part of the explanation may lie with the domestic politics of
Saudi Arabia. Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi visiting professor at LSE’s Middle East
Centre, says in the online magazine al-Monitor that Saudi King Salman’s
defence minister and head of the royal court, his son Mohammed bin Salman, aged
about 30, wants to establish Saudi Arabia as absolutely dominant in the Arabian
Peninsula. She adds caustically that he needs to earn a military title, “perhaps
‘Destroyer of Shiite Rejectionists and their Persian Backers in Yemen’, to
remain relevant among more experienced and aspiring siblings and disgruntled
royal cousins”. A successful military operation in Yemen would give him the
credentials he needs.
A popular war would help unite Saudi liberals and Islamists
behind a national banner while dissidents could be pilloried as traitors.
Victory in Yemen would compensate for the frustration of Saudi policy in Iraq
and Syria where the Saudis have been outmanoeuvred by Iran. In addition, it
would be a defiant gesture towards a US administration that they see as too
accommodating towards Iran.
Yemen is not the only country in which Saudi Arabia is taking
a more vigorous role. Last week, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria suffered
several defeats, the most important being the fall of the provincial capital
Idlib, in northern Syria, to Jabhat al-Nusra which fought alongside two other
hardline al-Qaeda-type movements, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa. Al-Nusra’s
leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, immediately announced the instruction of Shia
law in the city. Sent to Syria in 2011 by Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to
create al-Nusra, he split from Baghdadi when he tried to reabsorb al-Nusra in
2013. Ideologically, the two groups differ little and the US has launched air
strikes against al-Nusra, though Turkey still treats it as if it represented
The Syrian government last week accused Turkey of helping
thousands of jihadi fighters to reach Idlib and of jamming Syrian army
telecommunications, which helped to undermine the defences of the city. The
prominent Saudi role in the fall of Idlib was publicised by Jamal Khashoggi, a
Saudi journalist and adviser to the government, in an interview in The New
York Times. He said that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had backed Jabhat al-Nusra
and the other jihadis in capturing Idlib, adding that “co-ordination between
Turkish and Saudi intelligence has never been as good as now”. Surprisingly,
this open admission that Saudi Arabia is backing jihadi groups condemned as
terrorists by the US attracted little attention. Meanwhile, Isis fighters have
for the first time entered Damascus in strength, taking over part the Yarmouk
Palestinian camp, only ten miles from the heart of the Syrian capital.
Saudi Arabia is not the first monarchy to imagine that it can
earn patriotic credentials and stabilise its rule by waging a short and
victorious foreign war. In 1914, the monarchs of Germany, Russia and
Austro-Hungary had much the same idea and found out too late that they had sawed
through the branch on which they were all sitting. Likewise, Saudi rulers may
find to their cost that they have been far more successful than Iran ever was in
destroying the political status quo in the Middle East.