Gen Mirza Aslam Beg
Monday, April 06, 2015 – Yemen has remained a ‘Crisis Zone’ of the Middle Eastern Region for the last half a century. In 1962, Gamal Abdul Nasir of Egypt having swept across Middle East invaded Yemen, putting the fear of God, into the hearts of the monarchs from Baghdad to Sana’a. He engineered a revolt in Sana’a using the Houthi tribesmen, and overthrew the monarch. Luckily for Yemen and other monarchies, that Egypt faced defeat at the hands of the Israelis, in the 1967 six days war. Something very similar is now happening in Yemen, as Iran having gained influence from Damascus to Baghdad to Sana’a, is supporting the Houthis, in Yemen. These Houthis engineered a successful revolt against President Hadi, and continue to thrust forward capturing a swathe of territory, including the presidential palace in Sana’a and the strategic port of Bab-el-Mandeb, despite the intensive aerial bombing by the Arab Coalition. Yemen conflict, thus is posing a serious security threat to Saudi Arabia. What are the causes that have brought about this crisis are not difficult to identify.
The past is haunting both, the Saudis and the Yemenis, who had been at odds with each other for the last over hundred years. The present day regional geo-politics has added new dimension to the past. The Arab Spring is a cause, which swept the region toppling monarchies and helped Iran to “deftly maneuver among wreckage of the Arab Spring, in an effort to construct a Shiite axis, extending from Tehran to Sana’a,” something very similar to Gamal Nasir’s ambitions, to spread the Arab revolution from Cairo to Sana’a. So far, Iran is jubilant about their successes, but in fact, their over reach in Syria, Iraq and now in Yemen, may turn into a long protracted war, which could wear down the Iranian forces.
There lies the American conspiracy, to sharpen the Shia-Sunni divide. During the Iran-Iraq war of the 80, many sectarian riots, were contrived in Pakistan, which created several militant groups such as Sipah-e-Shaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Mohammed. In 2003, when Iraq was invaded, bloody sectarian riots again erupted, both in Iraq and Pakistan. For the last three decades, Iran has been demonized as a great threat to the Sunni countries in the region, who, out of fear have purchased military hardware from USA, worth over two hundred billion US dollars. Resultantly, Saudi Arabia and GCC militarily intervened in Bahrain in 2009, to crush Shia upspring there. Now the Shia and Sunni countries are pitched against each other in Syria and Iraq against ISIS, and now in Yemen. The venom of sectarian hatred thus has seeped, into deep recess of minds, that the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, in his recent Khutba, has decreed total war against the Shias, which is rather unfortunate.
The US is now stoking the sectarian divide at both ends. It has lifted the ban on military aid to Egypt, and is rushing military hardware to Arab Coalition. At the other end, a big favour has been done to Iran, on the Nuclear Deal Framework, which would lead to lifting of sanctions and embargos, and will energize Iranian economy, to support their military adventures beyond their borders. The sectarian divide, thus is threatening the security of the Muslim world.
Being a close neighbor and friend of both, Iran and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan has a responsibility, in that, it must take a dispassionate look at the crisis in Yemen, to identify the real threat to Saudi Arabia. Fortunately for us both, the 1991 Gulf war and the Yemen crisis provide clear indicators to determine a viable course of action. In 1991, US deployed large forces in Saudi Arabia, against the impeding threat from Iraq. Over 15,000 Pakistani troops, including an armoured brigade were already stationed there. Pakistan government wanted our troops to be placed under the command of the Saudis, to provide defense against Saddam forces. I disagreed with the decision, because I was quite firm in my mind, that the Americans were there “not to defend Saudi Arabia, but to destroy Saddam forces”. Saddam was thus bated to invade and annex Kuwait, and as Saddam forces moved out towards Kuwait, into open desert, the American airpower destroyed them, piece by piece. With mission accomplished, the war ended and Saudi Arabia sent our troops packing to Pakistan.
During the war, I visited my troops in Saudi Arabia and also called upon General Showarteoff, in his command headquarters – a massive underground complex built by Pakistani engineers. I had an interesting discussion with him. He made the remark “the Pentagon seems to have shifted the goal post for me”. “What do you mean by that?” I asked. He replied “you will see it happen”. And it did happen, as we saw Saddam forces decimated in the desert. That was Desert Storm and now the Decisive Storm.
It is a precarious situation for the Saudis because Houthis success in Yemen poses serious threat to Saudi Arabia’s national security in several ways. The defense of a long border of over 1700 kilometers is a well-nigh impossible task against intrusions, into the border region, which is mostly inhabited by the Shias. These are the areas where the main oil wells are located. Hence a state of panic prevails in Saudi Arabia, who also knows the reality that the Houthis are hardened fighters and with tactic support of Iran, the Arab forces would find it extremely difficult to stand-up to them, hence the option of aerial bombing, which also has failed to create the desired effect. Yemen is swarming with militants of all sorts. There are the Mujahideen from Afghanistan war of 80s whom, former president Saleh employed to defeat South Yemen rebels in 1991-1994, and united the country. The UN report says, there are over 25,000 Mujahideen from 80 x countries, who are supporting the ISIS in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. In fact Yemen is another Libya in the making, or perhaps worse than that.
At the moment, the threat to Saudi Arabia, is real, which is mainly from within. The Saudi Wahabi dissidents, numbering over 10,000 are the second largest component of ISIS in Syria/Iraq. Their only mission is to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. The southern region of Saudi Arabia is also vulnerable to Yemeni militants. There is no military threat to Saudi Arabia as such, nor there is threat to the House of God.
In this situation, how can Pakistan help Saudi Arabia, is the moot question. Pakistan should help actualize King Salman’s initiative: “Hold peace talks under the auspices of GCC, to restore Yemen’s territorial integrity and remove security threat to neighboring countries.” Therefore Pakistan need to launch, very aggressive diplomacy to achieve these objectives and has already joined Turkey to provide Logistic Support to Saudi Arabia. Logistic Support, in its wider sense means, that both Pakistan and Turkey could help Saudi Arabia ensure territorial and internal security. The option to launch ground action into Yemen is fraught with danger, because to fight a protracted asymmetric war is beyond capability of coalition armed forces. Let Iranians burn their fingers in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, if Gamal Nasir’s adventures they choose to forget.
—The writer is ex-COAS, Pakistan.