The war in Yemen must not be lost

There is a major difference between Arab and Iranian thinking in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The nuclear negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany (P5+1) may not conclude at the end of this month. Indeed, two main contentious issues have yet to be resolved, namely, how to verify Tehran’s pledges not to pursue a nuclear weapons program; and how to re-impose sanctions in the event Tehran fails to abide by its commitments. This delay does not mean the negotiations will collapse, even if the delay were to last months. The reason is that U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei are adamant about preventing this, the first to safeguard his legacy, and the second to safeguard his regime, which is in dire need for financial injections to strengthen its hand internally and regionally.

The other nations concerned with the negotiations, Russia, China, Germany, Britain, and France, while differing over some details, are all also in agreement that the negotiations must succeed at any cost. For this reason, these nations, which are supposed to be the guardians of international law and peace, are collectively burying their heads in the sand as they watch Iran violating international resolutions prohibiting Iran from exporting weapons and military personnel outside its borders. This reality should awaken the Arab nations as to the new situation in international relations, including Arab and Gulf relations with Tehran. Something major is taking place in the context of political and geographical transformations, and it is important to talk about this candidly without being sensitive about criticism. Let there be brainstorming sessions across the Arab region, not only to diagnose the problems ravaging the region but also to propose practicable solutions.

The theocratic regime in Tehran is not the only threat to the Arab region, albeit its expansionist ambitions are part of the threat. Turkey has its own ambitions and means to intervene in the Arab region to further its interests or its president’s own agenda. Israel has its own stubborn policies that reject the two-state solution and insist on continuing the occupation and building illegal settlements that undermine the project for Palestinian statehood. ISIS and similar jihadist groups are massacring Arab people and destroying their cultures, cities, and civilizations. Some Arab leaders, meanwhile, have decided that they are more important than their countries, and their obsession with power has led them to scorch their countries and dispossess their peoples. Other Arab leaders have made astonishing mistakes that will force generations to come to pay a lofty price if they do not quickly rectify their course. Last but not least, there are the major powers, which have for long manipulated the Arab region, its people, and its resources, in collaboration with local leaders.

Iraq needs Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries to play a coherent and calculated role to help it overcome the ISIS threat

Raghida Dergham

The crisis of confidence therefore is operating at local, regional, and international levels. The overall state in the Arab region is one of fragmentation, partitioning, and involvement in quagmires, bloodbaths, and wholesale destruction.

The United States has made up its mind. It has communicated to the Gulf leaders who met with Obama in Camp David last month that the nuclear deal and the ensuing bilateral relationship between the United States and Iran, is now a fait accompli that the Arab leaders have little say in. The Gulf leaders were told that it would be best for them to learn to coexist with this reality if they want to get the guarantees they are seeking from the United States, including guarantees of direct protection for these countries but solely in the event of direct military aggression.

Breaching Saudi national security

In other words, if the Gulf nations consider that Iran is breaching Saudi national security through Yemen, this in Washington’s view would not be an aggression requiring the activation of U.S. security guarantees. In effect, Washington differs radically with the Gulf over the Iranian role in Yemen, and does not agree that it is encroachment on Saudi national security. Regardless of Obama’s determination to protect the nuclear deal with Iran as a supreme national strategy and priority, the U.S. administration does not sympathize with the logic of the Arab coalition in Yemen, which sees the Houthis as a proxy of Tehran targeting Saudi Arabia.

For this reason, the Arab coalition is unlikely to receive U.S. military assistance in Yemen, regardless of the indications to the contrary issued previously by the U.S. administration. Accordingly, any military strategy that the Arab coalition pursues must rely on self-capabilities and not on U.S. promises.

The Arab coalition must make a choice: Pursue a qualitative military escalation, including a marine landing to secure major cities like Aden and Taez without relying on the United States or even Pakistan; or accepting that an exit strategy backed with a Marshall plan for Yemen means thwarting the Iranian project based on implicating the countries of the Arab coalition, led by Saudi, in a quagmire in Yemen.

It would be wrong to believe that air strikes alone are enough to weaken the Houthis and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, or that destroying the Yemeni army will empower pro-Saudi tribes. The mistake that was made was watching for many months as the Houthis and Saleh consolidated their grip on Yemen’s territory. A mistake was made by not securing pledges by the members of the Arab coalition and Pakistan to intervene on the ground before the start of military operations. Now, further mistakes must be averted. A strategy for a ground intervention must be developed relying solely on Gulf capabilities, if needed. There is a dire need for a comprehensive long-term plan with decisiveness instead of relying on successive tactics that change daily without a long-term vision.

Arab and Iranian thinking

Frankly speaking, there is a major difference between Arab and Iranian thinking in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. Iran’s strategy is based on allied ground forces that Iran supplies with everything they need. Saudi Arabia’s strategy is based on the air force and relying on tribes in a traditional manner. So there is a clear need for a reassessment now, towards serious support and full involvement, away from half-solutions and hesitation. Let Yemen be the first stop in such a qualitative shift in Arab strategic thinking.

But neither of the two options would be a blunder: qualitative military escalation with a maritime landing to secure cities; or accord with Iran. If the Saudi national interest requires accord with Tehran on Yemen, or as part of broader regional accords, then there would be nothing wrong with that.

Naturally, an accord means concessions by both sides. Yet any portrayal of accord as a defeat is shortsighted because the supreme interest must come above all else. Courageous leaders’ achievements are measured by how much they move their peoples forward, and not by doing what could lead to more destruction. This applies to Tehran before anyone else.

Tehran is reportedly seeking a deal with Riyadh based on the following: Let us act in Syria as we please, and we will leave you be in Yemen. It has been reported as well that Riyadh is opposed to such a deal, not willing to abandon Arab Syria and give Tehran the chance to build a “Persian crescent” to gobble up Arab countries – or parts of them – and impose its dominance on them, reducing the Arab weight in the regional balance of power.

There is a valid logic behind this. For the other point of view says: Let Iran become involved in Syria so that Syria can be its Vietnam. It is impossible for Iran to dominate and control Syria anyway. A bargain over Yemen and Syria is therefore rational. Yemen is very important in the Saudi backyard, and it is vital for it to be secure. On the other hand, Syria has become fragmented and Saudi Arabia will not be able to rescue it from fragmentation. It is possibly too late. Syria has paid the price and no one is innocent in what happened in this country. But if Iran is so desperate to get Syria, let it reap what it sowed there and let Syria be its own Vietnam.

Iraq’s fate would also be better in the event regional accords are concluded, including a Saudi-Iranian accord. Iraq is not ready to choose between the two nations. In Iraq as well, the difference is clear between the Iranian strategy based on ground forces and the Saudi strategy that has steered clear of Iraq, leaving a vacuum that was soon filled by Iran.

Coherent and calculated role

Iraq needs Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries to play a coherent and calculated role to help it overcome the ISIS threat and prevent Iran from unilaterally defeating ISIS on the ground. If a Gulf-Iran accord were to take place on Iraq, Iraq may be saved from the plans to partition it, which Iran is accused of sponsoring to further its plans for a “Persian crescent.”
All this does not mean that Iran is ready to enter into accords. Iran is on the verge of becoming an international partner in the

U.S. pivot to the east. It is also on the verge of being embraced by the European nations, and China, Russia, India, and Brazil with boundless eagerness. Any talk about isolating Iran belongs to the past.

Hence, the actors have no choice but to adapt to the new reality, in one way or the other, through accords or initiatives on the ground with a strategy for confrontation to let everyone know that the war in Yemen cannot be lost, and that the battle with Iran from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon is a fateful one.

Half-solutions are no longer useful, nor are half-wars.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 19, 2015.


Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine. She serves on the Board of the International Women's Media Foundation, and has served on the Advisory Council of Princeton University's Institute for Transregional Studies of the contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. She was also a member of the Women's Foreign Policy Group. She addressed U.N. General Assembly on the World Press Freedom Day when President of The United Nations Correspondents Association for 1997 and was appointed to the Task Force on the Reorientation of Public Information by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. She moderated a roundtable of 8 Presidents and Prime Ministers for UNCTAD at Bangkok in 1991. Dergham served as Chairman of the Dag Hammarskjold Fund Board in 2005. She tweets @RaghidaDergham.

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