Yemen and Lebanon: Testing grounds for regional and international intentions

The radar of crises and settlements recorded this week an instance of Turkish-Iranian coordination to resolve crises in the Middle East through “gradual steps”

Raghida Dergham

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The radar of crises and settlements recorded this week an instance of Turkish-Iranian coordination to resolve crises in the Middle East through “gradual steps”, especially in Syria. Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu communicated to Tehran his country’s willingness to help broker Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, wishing at the same time upon Iran to help de-escalate Russian-Turkish tensions, especially with regard to Syria. At the same time, Turkey has sought a controversial deal regarding curbing the flow of Syrian refugees crossing its territory in return for expediting EU accession talks and exempting Turkish nationals from entry visas to European countries.

The radar also recorded a breakthrough in Yemen, with a Houthi delegation visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time since the Saudi Arabia-led Arab coalition intervened in Yemen against Houthi rebels and forces loyal to deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, amid the optimism over this breakthrough concerning negotiations on a ceasefire along the Saudi-Yemeni border, Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, suggested Iran could support the Houthis in a similar way it has backed President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria, by sending military advisers to Yemen.

Iran’s roles in Syria and Yemen lead to the third issue this week, namely, Lebanon. Lebanon is a hostage to regional powers on the one hand, but on the other, has become a basket case of a corrupt political class amid polemics and policies that seem to abide by no ethical limit – from drowning the country in garbage, the prevention of the election of a president, and the deliberate assassination of downtown Beirut to implicating Lebanon in others’ wars, and childish gambits by most leaders that are further destroying the country.

Let’s start with Yemen. An understanding there would have implications that go beyond the scope of the war there. Practically speaking, Yemen would be a testing ground for the intentions of regional and international players. UN envoy, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, has been working on arranging meetings and direct face-to-face negotiations between the Saudi Arabia-led coalition and the Houthis. He has relied on the Omani channel repeatedly to facilitate and secure agreement on pushing forward negotiations towards a political settlement in Yemen, which the parties seem to be ready for now more than any time before in the past.

Peace overtures

The Iran-backed Houthi group sent a delegation to the southern Saudi Arabian border to negotiate with Saudi leaders on ending the war “once and for all”, according to the Yemeni Information Minister Mohammed Qubati. This was the first visit of its kind and coincided with relative calm along the Saudi-Yemeni border and a reduction in the number of strikes carried out by the coalition in Sanaa.

According to an official in the Houthi delegation, the visit was at the invitation of Saudi officials, following secret week-long preparatory talks. The purpose of the visit was to negotiate a ceasefire along the border but without a ceasefire applying to cities. As for the direct negotiations the UN envoy hopes to restart, they are set to be held in Geneva between March 24 and 26.

A short while ago, signs emerged of increased US and Russian keenness on paving the way for a strategy to end the Yemeni war, based on the priorities of Saudi national security along the border with Yemen. Both powers have helped the Saudi-led coalition with crucial intelligence. But both fear the war could allow al-Qaeda to regroup and regain its influence in Yemen, and also ISIS to capitalize on the chaos to gain a foothold in Yemen.

Neither Washington nor Moscow accept for Saudi Arabia’s national security to be threatened through Yemen. They do not share the view of the hardliners in Tehran and their partners like Hezbollah, whose secretary general recently vowed not to remain silent in Yemen and to “continue” what he is doing there, in reference to his continued involvement in the war alongside the Houthis in Yemen.

Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri’s remarks to the Tasnim news agency regarding the possibility that Iran could send advisers to assist the Houthis is very serious, because it is an implicit acknowledgement of what Iran is doing militarily in the Yemeni war. He said Iran feels it is its duty to assist the Yemeni people in any way possible and at any level needed. This was in response to a question about Tehran’s willingness to send military advisers to assist the Houthis in the war.

The Iranian general’s remarks coincided with the Hezbollah chief’s public escalation last week. So either this is the position of the Islamic Republic that made Hassan Nasrallah volunteer his declaration without hesitation, or this is the position of the hardliners in the Iranian regime, offset by the official silence on the important negotiations taking place under international auspices amid a US-Russian keenness on having them succeed.

New direction?

Regardless of which possibility is closer to reality, it is time for the ruling class in Iran that claims to be moderate and to be pursuing a new direction to adopt positions that rein in the hawkishness of hardliners, especially in Arab arenas. Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles and warnings to the “enemies of the revolution” is to remind everyone of the strength of the hardliners and their intention to escalate on all levels, to reassert their position and influence in the regime in Tehran.

It is possible the decision to escalate against Saudi Arabia out of Lebanon was made by this front. If the moderate front is serious, it must prove this in both the Yemeni and Lebanese arenas, especially since the Syrian and Iraqi arenas are more difficult because of the insistence of the Revolutionary Guards and their allies to make gains on the ground there no matter what.

It may be that Yemen will be a stop for Saudi-Iranian accords that would gradually de-escalate conflicts in the region, the price for which is being paid by the Arab states and peoples. It may be too that moderate forces will be able to rein in the escalation undermining Lebanon’s stability and economy. If the Yemen stop proves difficult, then Lebanon may be more amenable for Saudi-Iranian confidence building measures.

While the international decision, especially the US-Russian decision, may be to help end the war in Yemen, the decision by these countries to prevent a military conflagration in Lebanon may not be enough. Instead, they must immunize it against regional and local escalation, rather than leaving Lebanon prey to it.

Clearly, most leaders in Lebanon have lost regional and international respect over their childish political games. It is time for these leaders to quit their greed and insolence. Their beautiful country, blessed by God with a dazzling natural landscape, has become the subject of ridicule around the world. How is it possible to explain the scandals and fraud in the waste management issue, and the farce of the presidential elections, not to mention the declaration of war by a local militia against a major Arab country after it fought proxy wars on behalf of Iran in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen?

Not long ago, downtown Beirut was a testament to rebirth from ruins. It was a place for children’s laughter and grownups’ hopes, and for youthful passion for opening cafes and restaurants and charting out a prosperous future. But today, it is a fortified military zone allegedly for the protection of parliament from protesters against the garbage crisis. But how can the crime of killing Beirut’s commercial heart be justified using the pretext of protecting parliament, which is illegitimate to begin with?

Indeed, the Lebanese deputies had renewed their own term, yet they refuse to attend sessions to elect a president, citing a so-called constitutional right to boycott the vote. It is therefore a lie to claim that the reason for killing Beirut’s city center has to do with security. It is a willful decision, but a decision by whom and for what purpose? Those behind it know the answer very well.

Any Lebanese deputy who walks on the streets of Beirut without feeling guilty has no conscience. People’s livelihoods have been crushed, the economy has been strangled, and the dreams and ambitions of youths have been deliberately destroyed. Enough corruption. But it is also time for the parents of young protesters to stop criticizing them for having been infiltrated by political parties, which discredited them. It is time for parents to quit their complacency and their concern for their privileges, and rise up instead of bowing down to leaders while complaining about the failure of their children to challenge these types that are making the country rottener.

Neither Washington nor Moscow accept for Saudi Arabia’s national security to be threatened through Yemen. They do not share the view of the hardliners in Tehran and their partners like Hezbollah

Raghida Dergham

The sin in Lebanon is not purely Lebanese; it is also regional. If the dash to rearrange regional and international relations is truly serious, Lebanon must not be forgotten. We are being told that the US-Russian decision is pushing for de-escalation in Syria through a ceasefire. Some are saying it is tactical and provisional, while others are hoping for the decision for a political settlement to be serious. What we are witnessing on the level of Iranian-Turkish relations indicates that the two countries want to benefit from US-Russian partnership in Syria to reconsider their relations both in strategic terms and in terms of the situation in Syria.

The visit by the Turkish prime minister to Tehran last week sought to enhance security, political, and economic cooperation between the two countries, and to promote bilateral understandings in light of talk of federalism in Syria and the two countries’ concerns regarding a possible Russian and US reward to the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, which would no doubt affect Kurds in Turkey and Iran.

Ankara finds itself in a confrontational relationship with Moscow due to their deeply conflicting policies in Syria but also for other bilateral issues. Tehran welcomes what it sees as a change in Turkey’s approach to the Syrian crisis, in light of the clarity of a US-Russian partnership on the Syrian issue.

Al-Hayat’s correspondent in Tehran, Mohammad Saleh Sedkian, quoted an informed Iranian source as saying that Davutoglu’s visit will help steer the climate in the region towards more stability and security, noting that Tehran wants balanced relations with all neighbors. The source said Davutoglu asked Tehran to mediate to help mend relations with Moscow, in return for Ankara doing the same for Iranian-Saudi relations.

Apparently, Iran is fine with both. This is interesting, especially if we take into account the remarks by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir during the Gulf Cooperation Council meeting, stating that Riyadh was ready for rapprochement with Tehran as a neighbor, if it changes its aggressive behavior.

Informed sources attributed this to the coming turn in Saudi-Iranian relations, based on separating pressure on Iran from pressure on Hezbollah, and separating developments and escalations with Hezbollah from normalizing relations with Tehran based on the latter changing its behavior in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, or Lebanon. In other words, the Gulf decision is to ignore Hassan Nasrallah’s invitation to a duel, and to bypass it by reining it in another place unrelated to the countries concerned, Lebanon or Iran.

The radar of settlements has recorded noteworthy movements on crucial regional issues and relations. As for the radar of crises, it has recorded a blow after blow to Lebanon, which have ostensibly regional causes but have come from the Lebanese soil fundamentally.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Mar. 11, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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