Obama leashes the Saudi war dogs

M.K. Bhadrakumar March 28, 2015 1:30 AM (UTC+8)
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The international dimension to the conflict in Yemen has surged dramatically. This is not surprising because the fact of the matter is that the civil war in that country is entangled with global challenges and big-power relations, notwithstanding the simplistic perception that it is yet another manifestation of Saudi-Iranian rivalry. There is no denying that terrorist groups are operating in Yemen; Yemen is a strategically located country; Saudi Arabia’s security is affected; energy security could get disrupted; Shi’ite empowerment is a crucial template of regional stability; the impulses of the Arab Spring are from exhausted; and, the prestige of the United Nations is under challenge in Yemen.

President Barack Obama spoke with King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia on Friday and “emphasized the United States’ support” for the Saudi air attacks on Yemen. Obama “underscored” the US’ commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security. Thereupon, they agreed on “our collective goal” to steer Yemen through a “negotiated political solution facilitated by the United Nations and involving all parties as envisioned in the GCC Initiative” so as to achieve “lasting stability.”

The Saudi ambassador in Washington has also acknowledged that the US has been “very supportive” of the operation in Yemen not only politically but logistically as well and that Riyadh is “very pleased” with the level of military and intelligence coordination with the US. The National Security Council spokesperson separately confirmed in Washington that Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support for the Saudi-led military operations. Other reports mention that the US is establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia and that the US Navy handled a rescue operation involving two Saudi pilots.

From the above, It is tempting to rush to a facile conclusion that Obama is leading from behind the Saudi operations in Yemen. But such a conclusion will be judgmental. The key expressions in the White House readout on Obama’s conversation with King Salman are: “lasting stability” and “a negotiated political solution”. The formulation suggests that Obama recognizes the imperative need of a power-sharing arrangement in Sana’a that would also accommodate the Houthi demand for an inclusive government. (The ousted president Hadi was a Saudi puppet for all purposes — something that the Houthis (and Iran) have militated against all along.)

It is important to note that Obama has advised King Salman at this early stage of the military intervention itself to go back to the drawing broad in New York which first worked out the transition in Sanaa three years ago, and to re-negotiate a political solution “facilitated by the United Nations and involving all parties.”

Simply put, the conclusion becomes unavoidable that while Obama has no option but to be seen openly holding the hands of King Salman, a key ally, the US would have serious misgivings about the efficacy of the military intervention achieving anything of lasting value. The Saudis, after all, have no known record in modern history of being great performers in wars and the Americans willy-nilly factor in that if and when the Saudi operations in Yemen fail, a direct US military intervention may become unavoidable, which means involvement in another Middle eastern war, which is something that Obama has refused to contemplate.

Most certainly, Washington would also see that the weakening of the Houthis at the present juncture can only shift the balance of forces in favor of the extremist Islamist groups affiliated with the al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the standoffish stance taken by the European Union would also imply an early warning to the US from Brussels that it will essentially have to opt for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to carry forward any sustained military intervention in Yemen. In a clear-cut statement on Thursday, the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has disapproved of military actions on the whole and has counseled that the aim should be to reach “a political consensus through negotiations” so that a “sustainable solution” becomes available. She specifically warned about the danger of extremist and terrorist groups taking advantage of the situation “dramatically”.

Mogherini also advised the regional actors to “act responsibly and constructively, to create as a matter of urgency the conditions for a return to negotiations”. She saw in particular a role for the UN and the regional actors (read Iran). On the whole, her remarks hint at a distancing from the precipitate Saudi operation.

Conceivably, Obama and Mogherini’s thinking converge. And that brings in the role of Russia and Iran. Of course, Moscow and Tehran have held consultations. President Vladimir Putin received a phone call on Thursday from his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani and has been reported as stressing “the urgency of an immediate cessation of hostilities and of stepping up efforts, including the UN, to develop options for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.”

Clearly, Moscow is reading the tea leaves correctly that US will turn to the UN Security Council shortly to open a political and diplomatic track and that Russia’s cooperation becomes vital. Moscow is positioning itself accordingly. On Friday, Putin took a meeting of Russia’s Security Council (Russia’s highest policymaking body) to discuss Yemen. Later, he also held a telephone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during which he “stressed the need to step up the international community’s efforts to reach a peaceful and long-term settlement of the situation in Yemen.”

In sum, what emerges is that the US, Russia and the EU have been in unison that an intra-Yemeni political solution negotiated through the good offices of the UN only can ensure lasting peace and stability.

This dominant thinking in the world capitals make it very difficult for the Saudis to push ahead with the military operations and expand them to a ground offensive. Interestingly, Riyadh has since advised Islamabad to postpone the visit by a high-level Pakistani delegation including military officials that was to have taken place on Friday. (See my blog Pakistan’s Yemeni War.) Sensing that the Saudis are having a rethink, Islamabad has also quickly re-calibrated its earlier enthusiasm to be part of the Saudi-led coalition. The latest mantra is, “We [Pakistan] have made no decision to participate in this war. We didn’t make any promise. We have not promised any military support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.” (Daily Times).

All in all, the Saudi operations in Yemen are lacking a sense of direction and may have to give way to the political and diplomatic track sooner than later. Iran will be pleased that the prospect of the Houthis being accommodated in Yemen’s power structure in Sana’a as a legitimate constituent party looks brighter than ever. If that happens, Shi’ite empowerment in the region gains further ground. Indeed, the suppressed Shi’ite communities in Bahrain (where Shi’ites are in majority) and other regional states in the Gulf, including even in Saudi Arabia, are watching closely the denouement in Yemen.

As the best-organized force in Yemen, the Houthis can afford to play the long game. Their winning trump card, in the ultimate analysis, is that they are the bulwark against the al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Yemen — and not the GCC states.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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