A Young Prince May Cost
Syria and Yemen Dear  

As the US and Iran reach accord,
Saudi Arabia endangers the status
quo in the Middle East

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent
April 5, 2015

Protestors in Washington march
near the White House last week.

A succession of crucially important military and diplomatic events are
convulsing the political landscape of the Middle East. The most significant
development is the understanding between the US and five other world powers
with Iran on limiting Iran’s nuclear programme in return for an easing of
sanctions. But the muting of hostility between the US and Iran, a
destabilising feature of Middle East politics since the overthrow of the
Shah in 1979, may not do much to stem the momentum towards ever greater
violence in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

In any case, the benefits of a US-Iran agreement may be slow to come, if
they come at all, as the Republicans in Congress, the Saudis and Israel try
to torpedo it. And even if an accord is ratified and implemented, President
Obama could be hedged in by its opponents from further co-operation with
Iran in other parts of the Middle East. In contrast to this snail’s pace
rapprochement, the crises in Yemen and Syria are getting worse by the day
and, in Iraq,for all the government’s claims to have captured Tikrit, its
forces are still only nibbling at the outer defences of Islamic State

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies have the greatest self-interest in
maintaining the status quo in the region, something they have been fairly
successful in doing in the past. Who would have predicted in the late 1950s
that Arab nationalist and socialist movements would pass away but Saudi
Arabia would remain the theocratic absolute monarchy it has always been?
What is striking about developments in the past few weeks is that it is
Saudi Arabia that is seeking radical change in the region and is prepared to
use military force to secure it. In Yemen, it has launched a devastating air
war and, in Syria, it is collaborating with Turkey to support extreme jihadi
movements led by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate that last week
captured its first provincial capital.

The Saudis are abandoning their tradition of pursuing extremely cautious
policies, using their vast wealth to buy influence, working through proxies
and keeping close to the US. In Yemen, it is the Saudi air force that is
bombarding the Houthis, along with Yemeni army units still loyal to former
president Ali Abdullah Saleh who was once seen as the Saudis’ and Americans’
man in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. As with many other air campaigns, the
Saudis and their Gulf Co-operation Council allies are finding that air
strikes without a reliable military partner on the ground do not get you
very far. But if Saudi ground forces are deployed in Yemen they will be
entering a country that has been just as much of a quagmire as Afghanistan
and Iraq.

The Saudis are portraying their intervention as provoked by Iranian-backed
Shia Zaidis trying to take over the country. Much of this is propaganda. The
Houthis, who come from the Zaidi tribes in Yemen’s northern mountains, have
an effective military and political movement called Ansar Allah, modelled on
Hezbollah in Lebanon. They have fought off six government offensives against
them since 2004, all launched by former President Saleh, then allied to the
Saudis. Saleh, himself a Zaidi but drawing his support from the Zaidi tribes
around the capital, Sanaa, was a casualty of the Arab Spring in Yemen but
still has the support of many army units.

Why has Saudi Arabia plunged into this morass, pretending that Iran is
pulling the strings of the Shia minority though its role is marginal? The
Zaidis, estimated to be a third of the 25 million Yemeni population, are
very different Shia from those in Iran and Iraq. In the past, there has been
little Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Yemen, but the Saudi determination to
frame the conflict in sectarian terms may be self-fulfilling.

Part of the explanation may lie with the domestic politics of Saudi Arabia.
Madawi al-Rasheed, a Saudi visiting professor at LSE’s Middle East Centre,
says in the online magazine al-Monitor that Saudi King Salman’s defence
minister and head of the royal court, his son Mohammed bin Salman, aged
about 30, wants to establish Saudi Arabia as absolutely dominant in the
Arabian Peninsula. She adds caustically that he needs to earn a military
title, “perhaps ‘Destroyer of Shiite Rejectionists and their Persian Backers
in Yemen’, to remain relevant among more experienced and aspiring siblings
and disgruntled royal cousins”. A successful military operation in Yemen
would give him the credentials he needs.

A popular war would help unite Saudi liberals and Islamists behind a
national banner while dissidents could be pilloried as traitors. Victory in
Yemen would compensate for the frustration of Saudi policy in Iraq and Syria
where the Saudis have been outmanoeuvred by Iran. In addition, it would be a
defiant gesture towards a US administration that they see as too
accommodating towards Iran.

Yemen is not the only country in which Saudi Arabia is taking a more
vigorous role. Last week, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria suffered
several defeats, the most important being the fall of the provincial capital
Idlib, in northern Syria, to Jabhat al-Nusra which fought alongside two
other hardline al-Qaeda-type movements, Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa.
Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, immediately announced the
instruction of Shia law in the city. Sent to Syria in 2011 by Isis leader
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to create al-Nusra, he split from Baghdadi when he
tried to reabsorb al-Nusra in 2013. Ideologically, the two groups differ
little and the US has launched air strikes against al-Nusra, though Turkey
still treats it as if it represented moderates.

The Syrian government last week accused Turkey of helping thousands of
jihadi fighters to reach Idlib and of jamming Syrian army
telecommunications, which helped to undermine the defences of the city. The
prominent Saudi role in the fall of Idlib was publicised by Jamal Khashoggi,
a Saudi journalist and adviser to the government, in an interview in The New
York Times. He said that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had backed Jabhat al-Nusra
and the other jihadis in capturing Idlib, adding that “co-ordination between
Turkish and Saudi intelligence has never been as good as now”. Surprisingly,
this open admission that Saudi Arabia is backing jihadi groups condemned as
terrorists by the US attracted little attention. Meanwhile, Isis fighters
have for the first time entered Damascus in strength, taking over part the
Yarmouk Palestinian camp, only ten miles from the heart of the Syrian

Saudi Arabia is not the first monarchy to imagine that it can earn patriotic
credentials and stabilise its rule by waging a short and victorious foreign
war. In 1914, the monarchs of Germany, Russia and Austro-Hungary had much
the same idea and found out too late that they had sawed through the branch
on which they were all sitting. Likewise, Saudi rulers may find to their
cost that they have been far more successful than Iran ever was in
destroying the political status quo in the Middle East.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia
Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.
He regularly reports on the Middle East
for the British newspaper, The Independent. He won the Martha Gellhorn
Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006 and the Orwell Prize
for Journalism in 2009. His latest, The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New
Sunni Uprising
, published by OR Books, is available at orbooks.com

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