Yemen: Is a political deal on the horizon?

As long as state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran are involved in Yemen, a political deal remains remote.

Armed Houthi followers rally against Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen [REUTERS]
Armed Houthi followers rally against Saudi-led air strikes in Sanaa, Yemen [REUTERS]

Earlier this month the US Navy confiscated about 1,500 Kalashnikov rifles and 200 rocket-propelled grenade launchers thought to be for Houthi rebels in Yemen. This follows the recent seizure of thousands of more weapons and rounds of ammunition by the French and Australian navies heading to Yemen.

Iran has long been supplying Houthi rebels in Yemen with weapons and training. This is becoming such a problem that the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (minus Oman) announced this week that they will carry out joint naval patrols in the region to stem the flow of weapons from Iran.

Iran aims to destabilise, or at least influence, the Middle-East with its export of terrorism, its supply of weapons, and its support for subversive Shia groups across the region.

Yemen talks: Useful start or doomed to fail?

What is happening in Yemen is a great example of this. The situation there is perilous.

Perilous situation

During the early days of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s newly elected government, Houthi rebels took advantage of an uncertain situation and took over large swaths of the country, including the capital of Sanaa which it still holds today.

In true Iranian fashion, Tehran took advantage of the situation to arm the Houthis as part of a larger proxy war against Saudi Arabia. It was claimed that as soon as the capital was captured by Houthis, flights between Tehran and Sanaa quadrupled overnight, many of which carried weapons and military advisers.

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In the ensuing chaos, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, once described as the most dangerous of all the al-Qaeda franchises, took over and now controls a large chunk of Yemen including a 560km stretch of the country’s coastline. Even the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS) has established a presence in Yemen, albeit a minor one – for now.

In true Iranian fashion, Tehran took advantage of the situation to arm the Houthis as part of a larger proxy war against Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia shares a long 1,600km border with Yemen – equal to the straight distance between New York City and Tampa. When the ballistic missiles started to land inside Saudi Arabia it became clear that something had to be done.

As the Saudi Ambassador to the US, Prince Abdullah al-Saud, recently commented: “No country would accept a similar situation on its border.”

He is right.

Inevitable clash

Everything Saudi Arabia does in the region must be seen through the lens of a larger geo-political struggle in the Middle-East. Often this is framed as a Sunni v Shia struggle, but this is a simple explanation which does not paint the full picture.

Underlying the Saudi-Iranian struggle is also an Arab-Persian struggle for dominance and control in the Middle-East.

This is not the first time Iran has meddled in Yemen. In the year 570, the Sassanian Empire, the predecessor of modern day Iran, had its first foray into Yemen.

Just as it does in Syria, Lebanon, southern Iraq, and up and down the Gulf; in Yemen, Tehran is seeking to re-establish its influence, or at least sow instability, over the dominions of the old Empire now in the Arab world.

Pro-government fighters ride on a tank in the Bir Basha neighbourhood after they took the area from Houthi fighters in Yemen’s southwestern city of Taiz [Reuters]

After all, Iran is the only country in the region whose constitution calls for the “continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad”. A clash is inevitable.

As history has shown, and as Saudi Arabia is finding out, counterinsurgency operations are long, bloody and deadly affairs – especially for innocent civilians. What makes the situation even worse in Yemen is that it is a civil war mixed with Iranian backing and transnational terrorism. This is a very deadly mix.

Ceasefire talks are due to take place in Kuwait on April 21 but talks or no talks, it does not really matter. As long as state sponsors of terrorism such as Iran are involved, a political deal remains remote.

Arab leadership

The recent interception of Iranian arms heading to Yemen was not the first, and it will not be the last. For every ship that is seized with weapons it must be assumed that many more make it undetected.

ALSO READ: Saudi Arabia draws the line in Yemen

With the deal agreed last year over Iran’s nuclear programme, and the $100bn windfall for Tehran linked to the deal, expect more meddling in the region.

Not only will Tehran have the money, but it now also has the confidence.

Is the Saudi-led effort in Yemen going perfectly? No, but then show me a counterinsurgency and a counterterrorism campaign that was easy, quick, and bloodless.

You may not agree with their tactics but at the end of the day it is only Saudi Arabia and its GCC allies who are willing to take meaningful action against the Iranian proxies and transnational terrorists operating in Yemen. The US sprinkles the countryside with a few drone strikes. Europeans issue communiques and then sit by idly.  

The West should want Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Arab world to start taking more responsibility for their own regional security. As Lawrence of Arabia said in 1916 during the Arab Revolt: “Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British Defence Secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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