28 April 2015
On 24 April Saudi Arabia announced that “Operation Decisive Storm” had achieved its objective and priority would now shift to rebuilding the country and political dialogue. This new phase was to be called “Renewal of Hope”. This led me to be cautiously optimistic because the Saudis through their air campaign had made their point militarily and the UN Security Council Resolution 2216 had given them everything they could reasonably expect diplomatically. Wrong! Hours later the air strikes were resumed. It is now understood that the air campaign had not ended but only entered another, “more limited” phase.
The US on the one hand has deployed a strong armada of naval vessels in the area and has been providing Saudi Arabia with political, logistical and intelligence support. On the other hand, it has been advising Riyadh that it is better to end the operations sooner than later since a military solution is out of the question. The Saudis should be well aware of this because Yemen is a neighbor and this is not the first time they are getting involved in Yemen’s internal troubles. So their continuation of the air campaign must have other purposes than preventing an existential security threat.
Firstly, Saudi Arabia has long been wary of the politico-military support provided by Iran to Baghdad, Damascus and the Hezbollah. Since the world generally sees the Riyadh-Tehran relationship as one of rivalry and competition the Saudis are probably trying to prove that they can match Iranian politico-military power at least in their immediate vicinity.
Secondly, Iran has long defied Washington but is now engaged not only with the US but also with five other world powers in a top level diplomatic effort regarding its nuclear program. Whatever the outcome, these talks have made a very significant contribution to Iran’s international standing. Saudi Arabia, therefore, may have seen merit in taking an independent position on Yemen and resisting international pressure to stop its air campaign.
Thirdly, it is suggested that following a nuclear deal the US would continue to engage Iran in order to contain if not end regional turmoil. Washington will no doubt consult its regional allies for such an endeavor. But Riyadh may have wished to make sure that it is not only consulted but remains a major player.
And fourthly, all of this must have an internal politics dimension for the Saudi dynasty. A strong foreign policy posture backed by force may appeal to the majority of the Kingdom’s population. Iran’s call for a political solution to be worked out among the Yemenis themselves now appears to contrast with Saudi Arabia’s more hawkish position. While realizing that its air campaign may eventually lead to louder international criticism and become counter-productive, it could be that this is how Riyadh wishes to be seen at present, a regional power with a defiant policy.
While continuing with the air strikes Saudi rulers must also be weighing the chances for political dialogue if not a peaceful solution under UN auspices. This also depends on Washington’s power of persuasion. As the deadline of 30 June for the P5+1-Iran talks approaches America’s priority is still a nuclear deal. This should be why US officials have reportedly acknowledged compartmentalizing policy on Iran. When faced with the impossibility of reaching broad agreements covering a wide range of issues, compartmentalization can be a reasonable approach.
The UN now has a new Yemen envoy in the person of Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. His success will more than anything else depend on the amount of regional support he would get. In spite of continuing fighting this is a time of intense closed door diplomacy. It appears that Oman is active behind the scenes. In the meantime Yemeni loss of life in the past month has reached 1,000 with 4,000 wounded and 150,000 internally displaced. The UN officials have once again started to warn of a humanitarian disaster. The tragedy is that wars are not exactly over even when the fighting ceases. It would take decades of suffering for the peoples Syria, Libya and Yemen to rebuild their lives and learn to cope with the trauma of the years of turmoil.