Keeping Syria, losing Yemen?

Ahmed Eleiba , Thursday 25 Feb 2016

The regional confrontation between Riyadh and Tehran is heating up in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, with few prospects of a peaceable resolution

Saudi soldiers keep watch at Khoba, the frontline border with Yemen. (File photo: Reuters)

US-Russian talks on a ceasefire in Syria are running up against the conditions of other parties involved. The Washington-Moscow duo hopes to introduce an element of calm to permit for some confidence-building measures followed by a resumption in negotiations; the others appear interested in only a fighters’ break to catch their breath.

Therefore, in the event of a truce, Syria, torn by a five year long war (2011-2016) into four fronts (the regime, the opposition, Daesh and the Kurds), will see a new chapter of scrambling to reorder the international, regional and domestic cards, but few if any signs of genuine progress toward ending the protracted civil-regional war.

For one, at the procedural level the conditions for concluding a truce are still being negotiated. Al-Assad, who controls 16 to 22 per cent of Syrian territory, insists that the war continue against groups ranked by the UN as terrorist organisations, but without specifically referring to the Islamic State (IS) group.

This means that organisations that are part of the opposition, especially those fighting in and around the governorate of Aleppo, will remain targets for ongoing raids by regime forces supported by Russian air forces.

Meanwhile, the opposition that is negotiating in Riyadh between its constituent factions and with Western parties is waiting to see what US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin agree on.

Under such circumstances, it is difficult to see a truce-making process serving as a platform for launching the diplomatic process or for mounting a concerted offensive against Daesh which controls almost twice as much territory in Syria as Al-Assad’s regime, or around 35 per cent of the country at least.

Bahgat Korany, professor of international relations at the American University in Cairo, told Al-Ahram Weekly that, on the basis of information in UN reports, it would take Syria 38 years just to return to its level of development in 2010.

Secondly, in terms of the regional tug-of-war, there is no Gulf-Iranian or, more appropriately, Saudi-Iranian dialogue to parallel the Russian-US dialogue.

In fact, the hostile tenor of the relationship between Tehran and Riyadh appears to preclude such a prospect and, in turn, a return to the negotiating table. It should be added, that although the prospect of a Saudi-Turkish ground offensive into Syria receded a bit, after Saudi Arabia dispatched a number of its fighter planes to the Incirlik air force base in Turkey, and Qatar and the UAE declared they would take part in such an offensive if asked, the senior negotiator in the Syrian opposition delegation, Mohammed Alloush, stated that the mere threat of such an offensive caused Daesh to withdraw from 25 villages in the rural environs of Aleppo.

The mounting Saudi/Gulf-Iranian friction over Syria is mirrored in other arenas, most notably in Yemen. But it has also re-emerged over Lebanon. This is not a surprise. The Taef Agreement has always left Lebanon a major barometer in the Syrian-Gulf-Iranian triangle.

When Saudi Arabia freezes some $4 billion that it pays to Lebanon to help finance security-related expenses for forces and weapons, it would naturally have numerous repercussions and these would reverberate through the discourses that reflect the polarisation in Lebanon between the 14 March and 8 March alliances.

This applies in particular to the leader of the Future Movement (the core of the 14 March alliance)) Saad Al-Hariri, and Hassan Nasrallah, the friction between whom most epitomises the conflict over Lebanese identity as Arab versus an Iranian “hostage” state, as Kataeb Party chief MP Sami Gemayel put it. More dramatically, this was manifested in a spate of cabinet resignations, the most recent at the time of writing being that of Justice Minister Ashraf Rifi.

Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea warned that other resignations would follow if Lebanon’s friendly relations with Saudi Arabia were further threatened— a veiled reference to Hezbollah’s activities.

In this context, the prominent Saudi political commentator Abdel Rahman Al-Rashed wrote in Asharq Al-Awsat, beneath the headline, “When Lebanon becomes an Iranian colony”: “When Saudi Arabia decided to allocate a huge sum — $3 billion for the army and another $1 billion for security forces — to develop their capacities and train them, it did not stipulate that Lebanon, in return, should engage in foreign wars or join regional alliances.

Rather, the aim was to strengthen the central authorities and to support the institutions of the Lebanese state in the face of bullying militias, to fight extremist organisations and to fill the vacuum that arose following the withdrawal of Syrian forces in accordance with a UN Security Council resolution issued following the Al-Assad regime’s involvement in the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri.”

Al-Rashed continued: “But as Saudi Arabia was lending a hand to strengthen the state, Hezbollah reached out its hand to seize control of it, not content with the large share that it already had. It then turned Lebanese military institutions to the service of its own ends in the war in Syria and it used the foreign ministry to support Iranian positions in international forums.

In addition, it dared to exploit the banking system, reputed to be one of the best in the region, to engage in illicit arms and drugs trading in various parts of the world.”

The animosity is fiercer yet in Yemen, where prospects of a negotiated settlement have receded in tandem with growing opportunities for a definitive military solution in Sanaa. Perhaps the clearest development at this stage in the war in Yemen is the repeated appearances of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh declaring that he will lead the battle of fate in Sanaa.

Editor-in-chief of the Yemeni Al-Shahed newspaper, Abdel Aziz Al-Majidi, told the Weekly that Tehran, via threats issued by Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, is trying to bolster the Houthi militias with illusory morale.

The objective is to drive them to suicidal courage in the face of the national army and popular resistance on the basis of the belief that “intervention” is on its way and will reverse the equations and change the game. “Intervention”, here, is a reference to talk of an Iranian ground offensive in Yemen, following the Saudi proposal of a ground offensive in Syria.

“But the situation is not so simple,” Al-Majidi continues. “Tehran knows very well that freeing Sanaa from the grip of its terrorist militias is only a matter of time. Therefore, it tossed out a bubble to drive its sectarian ally to greater suicidal fervour in the field and to gain more time to arrange the situation in Syria before losing Sanaa. But they are hollow messages and the coalition is aware of their significance.”

He added: “Yemen was no more than a lucky card that Tehran played. It invested a lot in it, truly, but its calculations stemmed from the attitude that if Yemen yielded to it, that would great, but if it met too strong of an obstacle, Yemen would be no more than a good hotbed of anarchy and a bargaining card for Damascus.”

Yemeni President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi, in a moment of frankness, predicted this around two years ago when he said that under the best of circumstances, Tehran will barter way Sanaa in exchange for an Alawi sectarian state in Syria subordinate to the supreme leader and connected in a single coastal line to the southern suburbs (meaning Hezbollah’s Beirut stronghold).

So, no real solutions are hovering on the horizons for the Middle East which, observers agree, will emerge as a totally different region to that which existed before the eruption of the Arab Spring uprisings, at least in terms of political boundaries, once the conflicts subside. But that could take at least another decade if not more, given the strategic imbalance in the region.

Meanwhile, conflicts of a geopolitical nature will continue to prevail in the region as long as equilibrium cannot be struck, or as long as it is impossible to channel surplus force into settlement mechanisms. Regional mechanisms are declining and losing their efficacy, and the least effective of these — the Arab League — is unable to set the venue for its next periodic annual summit against the backdrop of mounting crisis.

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly.

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