Evolving situation in Yemen
Sectarian and tribal divides in Yemen had sharpened during the long rule of President Gen Ali Abdullah Saleh. Arab spring followed by entry of Al-Qaeda made the internal situation in Yemen chaotic. Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) led Gulf States prevailed upon reluctant Saleh to make way for his Vice President Mansour Al-Hadi in 2012. Hadi got elected on February 21, 2012 election and received 99.2% votes, but Houthi tribe in northeastern Yemen (9% of total population) boycotted the election. The change however didn’t improve the security situation and it kept deteriorating. A new Islah Party affiliated to Muslim Brotherhood joined Hadi’s regime. Independence movement in South Yemen sprouted up and Houthi rebels in the north also got activated duly aided by loyalists of Saleh in Yemen Army and aided by Iran. Saleh who is Zaidi had not reconciled to his ouster and desperately wanted his son Ahmad Saleh, Commander Republican Guards, to become the president. The turmoil allowed al-Qaeda to grow in strength and it converted Yemen into its main base for the Arabian Peninsula. Its fighters were subjected to 250 drone attacks by the US from Socotra military base.
With the passage of time tribal groups in North Yemen that make up the Houthi Ansarallah movement in which many are Zaidi Shias gained strength and with active support of army units loyal to Saleh managed to capture capital city of Sana’a in September 2014. President Hadi was forced to sign a power sharing agreement. Finding faults in the agreement, the Houthis seized the presidential palace in January 2015 and put Hadi under house arrest. Hadi managed to flee to Aden next month and made it an alternative capital. Thereon, the power pendulum swung in favor of Houthis and strength of Hadi loyalists kept depleting. Once pressure built up, Hadi had to take flight from there also and sought refuge in KSA. Bulk of port city of Aden is now under the control of Houthis and intense battle is raging.
Explosive situation in Yemen made Arabian Peninsula vulnerable to exploitation by foreign powers as well as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) and thus a threat to the integrity and sovereignty of KSA. Amid the building volcano in Yemen, the new KSA King Salman expectantly looked towards KSA’s traditional and closest ally Pakistan which had always come to its aid in the times of crisis. Nawaz Sharif, already indebted to Saudi hospitality during his decade long exile, and also mindful of the liberal assistance doled out by Riyadh in the past, and recent gift of $1.5 billion in the back of his mind, he promised all out support. His spontaneous promise raised the expectations of KSA leadership sky-high. However, when Saudis put in their bid for division size composite force, fighter jets and naval warships to fight the Houthi threat, the government already enmeshed in host of internal challenges as well as uncertain transition in Afghanistan, ever belligerent India and not so friendly Iran, came under intense pressure of opposition political parties and media. It was widely speculated that Nawaz had consented at his own at the cost of Pakistan’s national interests. Public opinion seemed divided over tackling Yemen crisis. While all were on one page to safeguard integrity of KSA and two Holy Mosques, none wanted Pak Army to jump into the cauldron of Yemen.
Mounting pressure compelled Nawaz to call a joint session of the parliament to seek a consensus response action rather than letting the Foreign Ministry in consultation with JS HQ/GHQ to handle the situation. During the five-day marathon session many indulged in loose talk and some passed acrimonious remarks against the Saudis. Yellow journalism and talk shows further exacerbated things. KSA was held responsible for the deteriorating situation in Muslim world in general and Middle East in particular for promoting Salafist Islam. Pro-KSA parliamentarians and media-persons blamed Iran for exporting Shiaism in Middle East. Option of mediation prevailed upon confrontation.
At the end of the day the joint resolution which was quite balanced was made controversial at the last minute by inserting the word ‘neutrality’ at the behest of PTI which had threatened to boycott. Inadvertent slip into the hole of neutrality without realizing its implications raised concerns among the leaders of Arab States that had already formed a ten-member ‘Joint Arab Force’ led by KSA. The resolution gave an impression that Pakistan was neither on the side of Houthi rebels or Hadi government in exile and that it would play a lead role as an honest mediator to end the Yemen crisis and arrive at a political settlement.
It was by accident an all win-win resolution for Iran backed Houthis and they couldn’t have wished for more. Presently, Houthis are in control of bulk of the country and have installed their government under Abdul Malik Houthi. It is matter of time when they will be able to dismantle most positions held by beleaguered Hadi loyalists in southern Yemen including leftover pockets of Aden since air attacks have done little to stem their tide. They are confident that air war will not help the Arabs to win the war. They also know that the Arabs would refrain from committing ground troops inside Yemen in the backdrop of their bitter experiences in earlier conflicts. UN mandated negotiations will also suit them since they would be negotiating from the position of strength and would dictate terms. In all this, Iran would emerge is the chief gainer since it is the only country enjoying strong influence over Houthis.
The issue at hand is not the security of KSA and Holy mosques in the immediate timeframe, but that of threat to the Arabian Peninsula and backyard of KSA. With Yemen and strategic chokepoint Bab al- Mandab in its bag, it will become easier for Iran to create unrest in KSA, particularly among its southern regions bordering northern Yemen where the tribes are affiliated with each other and also the Shia heavy province in Eastern KSA which had become restive in 2011 as a result of Arab Spring. Gain in Yemen would strengthen Iran’s arc around KSA formed by Iran-Iraq-Iran-Hezbollah and would make its task of bringing a regime change in Shia heavy Bahrain easier. It would establish credentials of Iran as the regional policeman, a role aspired by KSA.
It was in the background of this perspective that KSA and other Gulf States were displeased and disappointed with the wordings of Pakistan’s resolution. They felt offended that Pakistan had equated legitimate regime of Hadi duly recognized by the UN with non-state actors Houthis who had illegally and forcibly seized power. They felt that Pakistan seemed more concerned about offending the sensibilities of Iran and took KSA’s threat perception lightly. They argued that KSA and not Iran borders Yemen where KSA has traditionally maintained its influence. They further bickered that neither Iran’s backyard was threatened nor Iran’s integrity was under any threat and that Yemen was situated 3000 miles away from Iran where Zaidi Shias and Shafi Sunnis have co-existed harmoniously since centuries and after 1990 have been sharing power. UAE minister Gargash in utter frustration passed undiplomatic remarks such as ‘Pakistan will have to pay a price’.
In the wake of new threat in the backyard of KSA and to Bab al Mandab from where 4 million barrels of oil pass through daily and 60% of world trade is done and the US-NATO expressing their inability to commit ground troops, 22-member Arab League held an emergency meeting at Sharm el Sheikh and agreed to form a ‘Joint Arab Force’ to counter the threat. 40,000-strong force with 230 jet fighters/bombers will take time to become operational since it has to develop mutual harmony, coordination, planning and work out an operational plan how to fight battle-hardened Houthis, adept in fighting and in possession of 300 missiles with range of 500 km provided by Iran that can strike any ship in Gulf of Aden and any target in KSA.
Egypt under Gen Sisi has expressed keenness to play a lead role in the war to re-establish its credentials as leader of the Arab world, which it had lost after signing peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Sisi is indebted to KSA for recognizing his regime and providing $10 billion assistance. Although Egypt has promised to provide substantial air, naval and land forces, it will avoid getting involved in ground fighting inside Yemen because of its bitter experience in 1962-70 conflict in which it had lost 24000 soldiers fighting Houthis and KSA was supporting their opponents. Exhaustion in this prolonged conflict was a reason behind Egypt’s shocking defeat at the hands of Israelis in 1967 war.
KSA also has a rough experience in its fight with Houthis in 2009 in which it lost over 300 soldiers in a span of 3 months. In the current war, both Egypt and KSA are partners. Yemen crisis has healed the rift between KSA and Qatar over Muslim Brotherhood. All are on one page to stem Iran’s interventionist policy in Arab world.
KSA has deployed troops along its southern border facing Yemen and its border guards have suffered few casualties in skirmishes at the hands of Houthi fighters. The Arab Joint Force led by KSA started an air campaign on March 26 at the request of Hadi and duly legitimized by the UN. Jets are targeting Houthi positions and their military installations including missiles arsenal. Fighting is going on in 15 of 22 provinces of Yemen. So far, 1300 air sorties have been launched. Human and material collateral damage is increasing with every passing day. 10,000 have been displaced while workers of other countries evacuated.
The Arabs know that air war alone wouldn’t fetch decisive results as can be seen by continuing advances of Houthis. Mindful of the weakness of the Arab militaries, KSA is looking towards Pakistan and Turkey to join the Arab Force to put fear into the hearts of Houthis and also to deter Iran as well as ISIS. It would prefer Pak Army to take on Houthis directly, PAF to lead the air assault and Pak Navy to become part of blockade of Gulf of Aden.
Houthis - army units loyal to Saleh nexus neither have the capacity to overpower all regions of Yemen nor to retaliate against air attacks because of non-availability of ack ack guns or to mount ground invasion inside KSA. 3000 miles deep desert stretching from Yemen-KSA border up to built up areas in depth is too formidable to traverse by attackers.
Both Iran and Russia wanting to assist the Houthis do not have moral ground to intervene since the two have no stakes in Yemen. Stationing of three warships in Gulf of Aden by Iran has given rise to the fear of Yemen crisis morphing into a bigger conflict. However, covert assistance has become difficult in the wake of arms embargo imposed upon Houthis by the UNSC on April 14th and Russia abstaining from voting. Houthis have been asked to pull back from captured territories and seek a political settlement. Foreign accounts/assets of Saleh and his son Ahmad have been frozen and ban imposed on their travelling. These development have to a large extent tilted the scales in favor of Arab supported Hadi regime in exile. In case the US decides to target Houthis with drones from Djibouti, it will add to their troubles. High powered civil/military meeting chaired by the PM decided to back the UNSC resolution and to send Shahbaz Sharif to Riyadh to remove misunderstandings. .
Al-Qaeda and the IS will be major beneficiaries in case the war gets prolonged. Suppression of Houthis will keep Yemen restive and will create greater space for Al-Qaeda and the IS. In case the two groups marry up in Yemen, it will make the overall situation more dangerous and lead to uncontrollable civil war. In fact, Houthis are the most organized force in Yemen and the only one that can stand up to the threat of al-Qaeda and the IS.
Immediate ceasefire as demanded by Iran and Russia or even operational pause will suit the Houthis since it will help them in receiving military/logistics assistance and to consolidate their gains. Outcome of immediate ceasefire will be akin to India-sought ceasefire in January 1948 by which time Indian forces had annexed two-thirds of Kashmir. Likewise, Houthis being in control of bulk of the country, ceasefire at this stage will be to their advantage. In case of proposed dialogue, they will sit on the negotiating table from position of strength and dictate terms of their choice. Houthi government in Yemen will be pro-Iran and anti-KSA. These stark realities have impelled KSA and its Arab allies to disagree cessation of air war till Houthis agree to surrender arms and re-establish Hadi regime and then open dialogue. Iran should be convinced to stop its interference in Yemen and to prevail upon Houthis to lay down arms and opt for negotiations. KSA should also be advised to give peace a chance.