Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)
Tuesday,18 September, 2018
Issue 1240, (2 - 8 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

In the aftermath of Yemen

Operation Decisive Storm is a harbinger of definitive change in the Arab order and the region as a whole, whether it achieves its objectives or fails, writes Mohamed
Al-Said Idris

IS militants
IS militants
Al-Ahram Weekly

Operation Decisive Storm that has pitted a 10-country coalition against Houthi militias in Yemen supported at home by armed forces loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh and abroad by various regional parties, most saliently Iran and its Arab and international allies, will undoubtedly create a new regional reality with particular maps of conflict, and cooperation.

However, that reality will be contingent upon how successful the coalition is in defeating the Houthis and its allies and imposing a new balance of power in Yemen in favour of the popular will the Houthis and ally Saleh hijacked, so as to propel all political and social forces to the negotiating table on the basis of the outcomes of the more than a year-long national dialogue (2013-2014) sponsored by President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. That reality will also depend on the Arab nations’ success in creating a Joint Arab Force the details of which are to be worked out by the Arab Defence Council during the next three months.

This new reality, as shaped by the two factors above, will compel Iran, which is still stinging from the sudden blow of the Arab declaration of war against Tehran’s Houthi ally in Yemen before that ally could gain control over Aden, complete its overthrow of Hadi and impose its own absolute control, to contend with a number of challenges at a very difficult time. Not only is Tehran embroiled in other crises abroad, most notably the war against Daesh (the Islamic State) in Iraq, the war against the Syrian opposition organisations, terrorist and non-terrorist alike, it is also dealing with snags and intense pressures in the arduous negotiations over its nuclear programme with the P5+1 in Lausanne at a particularly delicate phase in which an agreement is almost within reach. But the new reality will also present terrorist organisations in Yemen (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Daesh) and outside Yemen (again Al-Qaeda and Daesh and their various branches and franchises in Syria, Egypt and Libya) with the challenge of having to choose between escalation as a means to hold on to supporters or defeat.

The position of the Muslim Brotherhood, too, will change as, in Yemen, they have come out in support of the international Arab coalition. The Muslim Brothers had been targeted by the Houthis and the forces of Saleh, who has been plotting to take revenge against the Islah Party (the Yemeni Congregation for Reform), the political wing of the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood, which played a prominent role in overthrowing him during the Yemeni revolution in 2011.

MAPS BEFORE THE STORM: Before the recent Yemeni crisis erupted and ricocheted, there were numerous attempts to read the contours of future maps of regional conflicts and alliances dominated by three major Middle East powers at a time when the Arab order is at one of its weakest states ever. Those three powers are Israel, Iran and Turkey, which have become more involved and more influential in the key crises of the Arab order.

One of the most prominent prognoses on future alliances in the Middle East, in light of the repercussions of the Arab Spring revolutions and in light of the war against the proliferation of terrorism, as epitomised by Al-Qaeda and Daesh, is that of the Israeli intelligence community as conveyed by Alex Fischer in the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. That reading speaks of four alliances or, as it called them, “rival camps”:

1. The radical Shia camp, consisting of Iran, Syria, Hizbullah, the Islamic Jihad (in Palestine) and the Houthis (in Yemen). This prognosis doubted whether this alliance would extend to Hamas, as Hamas was now more reliant on Turkey following the new situation with Qatar after internal reconciliation within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egyptian-Qatari reconciliation.

2. The moderate camp, made up of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the other GCC countries. The Israelis believe that Qatar’s inclusion in this camp will lead to Qatari-Egyptian understandings with respect to Hamas, the effect of which would be to keep Hamas away from Iran.

3. The Muslim Brotherhood camp, consisting of Brotherhood organisations in Egypt, Jordan, Gaza, Syria and the West Bank. Israeli intelligence analysts believed that this camp would continue to escalate, especially in Egypt, in light of the actions that will be undertaken by the Salafist Jihadist camp and the likely scenarios in the war against Daesh.

4. The Salafist Jihadist camp, as epitomised by Daesh, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusrah Front, Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis and Ansar Al-Sharia. According to the prognosis, this camp will retain the ability to throw the three preceding camps into confusion and disarray.

The four camps as conceived above were more a reflection of the concerns and anxieties of Israeli military intelligence from a purely Israeli security standpoint than a reflection of the fuller picture of actual realities and the interplay between the Arab, regional and international spheres.

The state of uncertainty that had pervaded all interplay between the parties of the Arab and Middle Eastern regional orders, in conjunction with the state of alarm stirred by the intensity of the volume of threats, had stood in the way of the creation of solid alliances. This does not to suggest that Iran did not interact with parties close, friendly or even allied to it within the Arab order. However, those parties were operating as though in a state of anticipation for certain undetermined developments that would affect the course of their association with Iran. The conclusion of a comprehensive long-term agreement resolving the crisis over the Iranian nuclear programme, for example, would be critical. An agreement of that sort would overturn regional power balances while failure to reach an agreement would also send shockwaves that would not only affect the positions of the parties linked to Iran but also and perhaps more fundamentally those of the parties opposed to Iran, Saudi Arabia above all.

In the same vein, Turkey, which had lost most of the leverage it once had in the region, retaining only such pressure cards as Qatar, the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist organisations such as Daesh and Al-Nusrah Front, was as keen as Israel to forestall the emergence of any alliance in the region that conflicted with its interests and its determination to impose itself as an ally supportive of certain parties without entirely alienating other parties.

At the time, the “terrorist axis” was moving to acquire new territory and expand its influence, in the hope that the Muslim Brotherhood would respond to the Daesh call to abandon the tactic of peaceful opposition or restrained violence and join the “systematic jihad” against “heretic states”. Perhaps, too, the Muslim Brothers would forge an open alliance with the jihadist Salafi trend in the Arab world, especially Daesh and Al-Nusrah Front and their extensions in Arab countries such as Egypt, Yemen and Libya. However, such a prospect would be contingent on a resolution to the ideological conflicts between the Muslim Brothers and the jihadist Salafists. It would also rest on a conclusion to the conflict between Daesh and Al-Qaeda over leadership of the global jihadist movement. Yet, a conclusion to this power conflict is unlikely, if not impossible, given Daesh’s resolve to impose the supremacy of the Islamic caliphate it has declared and its insistence that Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri and his followers declare their allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as “caliph”.

In general, the future of this alliance, which would include the forces of takfiri and Muslim Brotherhood terrorism, would be shaped by the outcome of the conflicts currently in progress on the ground between the fragile US-led coalition and those organisations in Syria and Iraq. The same applied to the futures of both Iraq and Syria, futures that would carry the most salient features of the new Arab order that the wave of Arab revolutions had so far been unable to impose.

However, Operation Decisive Storm has thrown all such calculations into confusion. It delivered a direct blow to Iranian aspirations to turn Yemen into “another Iraq”, this one controlled by its Houthi allies while Iran served as its backbone and its source of authority. Tehran would then have been able to control the Arab maritime passages from the Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz to Bab Al-Mandab and the Red Sea. As this means it would also be able to control passage to and from the Suez Canal, Egypt would have been forced to choose between two alternatives. The first would be to clash with Iran. However, as Egypt would have to do this on its own in view of the prevailing disarray in Arab ranks and the disintegration of the Arab order, the second alternative would be more likely, and this would be to yield to the Iranian will and enter into a cooperative arrangement that would open the door to Egyptian understandings on affairs in Syria and Lebanon, independently from Riyadh and the other GCC countries. In other words, Iran would have been poised to impose itself, firstly, as a regional power in the Gulf after having driven a wedge between Egypt and the Gulf and, secondly, as a dominant Middle Eastern power rivalling Israel and Turkey.

But such visions have been dispelled. Iran now finds itself on the defensive and it will ultimately be forced to search for ways to re-forge alliances capable of defending its interests and contending with the new realities.

Decisive Storm may also pave the way for the rise of a broader “Arab alliance” backed by a “Joint Military Force” and that would link the Gulf countries with Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and perhaps other countries that would feel that this alliance best promotes their interests. Still, the success of such an alliance is contingent on the success of the current coalition fighting in Yemen. In this regard, political success will ultimately be more crucial than a military victory. A successful political solution in Yemen is what will encourage the Arab coalition to deal more effectively, politically, with other Arab crises (in Syria, Libya and Iraq), as a military victory in Yemen would not be as easy to repeat elsewhere.

But a political solution in Yemen must rest on a number of conditions and foundations. Firstly, it will have to strike a new balance between the forces in Yemen in favour of those that supported Decisive Storm and that participated in the Yemeni national dialogue. Secondly, the military capacities of the Houthis and Ali Abdullah Saleh will need to be totally destroyed and Saleh and all those responsible for murdering, torturing and imprisoning Yemeni civilians during the period of the Houthi coup must be brought to trial. So, too, should Saleh’s son Ahmed, whom Saleh had been grooming to become president in the future. At least he should be removed from the country. In addition, it will be important to furnish Yemen with sufficient aerial and maritime protection against any possible Iranian infiltration in the future. Finally, there must be a political programme aimed at reconstructing the national army and laying the foundations for a democratic, non-sectarian system of government based on the principles of equal citizenship and that safeguards the stability and security of Yemen.

Such hoped for successes are what will shape the future of the Arab coalition, as will their failure. They will also determine the agendas of terrorist groups inside Yemen and elsewhere. Military and political success will obstruct the designs of Daesh and AQAP to plunge Yemen into a sectarian civil war pitting Sunnis against Houthi Shia. Nevertheless, while curbing terrorist activities in the south, this development could precipitate more intensive pushes by terrorist organisations in the Levant and North Africa (ie. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Libya).

POST-DECISIVE STORM MAPS: On the basis of the abovementioned dynamics, we can envision the following three axes or alliances:
1. The Arab Alliance. Born in the womb of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, this alliance will bring together initially the countries that took part in the Arab coalition force and that will most likely lay the foundations for an Arab collective security system on the basis of a format that will re-establish the bond between the national security needs of member states and Arab national security as shaped by the higher collective strategic interests of the Arab world.

This alliance could eventually seek to transform the Arab League into an Arab federation bound by economic and political institutions and certain military functions. However, such a federation would then come under the crosshairs of international and regional parties. It would be opposed by the West (the US and Europe) and certainly by Israel, Iran and Turkey, although the latter might try to forge links with such an Arab alliance without disturbing the equilibrium of its relations with Iran and without becoming embroiled in unpredictable tensions with Israel. Ultimately, the Arab alliance will depend on the political will of its prospective members to forge it and then to sustain and defend it and to keep it from becoming involved in risky conflicts that have no bearing on the alliance’s identified aims.

2. Iran plus Iraq and Syria. An alliance that could also come to include pro-Iranian organisations such as Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and the Houthi Ansar Allah in Yemen, the prospect of such an alliance arose following the visit by the Syrian and Iraqi foreign ministers, Walid Al-Muallem and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, to Tehran to take part in a conference called, “A world without violence and extremism.” Iran, through its President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohamed Zarif, took that occasion to reiterate its support for Syria and Iraq. However, the remarks by General Yahya Rahim Safavi, special advisor to the general-commander of the Iranian armed forces, were more to the point, as he referred to an alliance or coalition between these three countries, albeit in the context of his criticisms of the US-led coalition to fight Daesh and Al-Nusrah Front. “The coalition formed by the US to fight Daesh is not effective and will not produce anything,” whereas, “the alliance that is currently being formed between Iran, Iraq and Syria will form a strong coalition against takfiri forces,” he said.

A quick glance at the international and regional environment suggests that this environment is neither absolutely favourable nor unfavourable to such an alliance. Conditions are too fluid to be able to predict one way or the other with any confidence. One could argue that the current US-Iranian rapprochement over the Iranian nuclear question, the restrictions that hamper President Obama’s ability to send ground forces to fight Daesh in Iraq, and the lack of enthusiasm among some of the partners in the US-led coalition will eventually make Washington more receptive to a more aggressive Iranian intervention in Iraq against Daesh. In such a case, the new boost to Iranian influence in Iraq would ultimately extend to Syria which, in turn, would have a considerable impact on the interplay in Arab countries beyond Iraq and Syria, most notably GCC countries and Egypt, especially in view of understandings that just fall short of open cooperation between the US and Iran in the war against Daesh in Syria, to which the recent liberation of Tikrit testify.

Conversely, one can argue that too many regional restrictions, posed by Turkey and Arab countries, would preclude the emergence of such an Iranian-led coalition, restrictions that might work to draw Syria and Iraq away from Iran.

3. The Muslim Brotherhood-jihadist Salafi alliance. The emergence of such an alliance will propel the Middle East into a three way conflict between different regional projects, one bent on imposing a new regional order centred around a resurrected caliphate, a second bent on infiltrating and controlling the Arab order through means to which Iran holds the strings, and the third which seeks to reinvigorate the Arab order on the basis of the shared principles and interests of its member states.

At the midst of these rival alliances Israel will remain the only party to benefit from inter-Arab and other regional conflicts as it continues to pretend that the Arabs are to blame for their squabbles as though Israel had not been a prime cause of the destabilisation and conflict present in the Middle East. Nevertheless, Israel should not congratulate itself yet for coming into possession all the fruits of the “constructive chaos” in the region. For one, there is likelihood that Iran will emerge victorious in the battle over its nuclear programme and draw closer to Washington, at least during the two remaining years of Obama’s term in office, and this will form a considerable source of tension in the Israeli interplay with regional developments.

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