Yemen action to inflate Saudi esteem but at what cost?

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A week ago, the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, had a free run of Yemen. In Tikrit, Iraq, the Shia militia, led by Iranian officers, and helped by the largely Shia Iraq army, had cornered the ISIS in Saddam Hussain’s palaces. The fall of Tikrit would add to the halo on the Iranian-led Shia fraternity.

In the Syrian north, Bashar al Assad’s army was scoring victories. This development also favoured the Iranians.

Soon, the US would sign a nuclear deal with Iran. That would crown Iran as a legitimate player in the new West Asian balance of power. Viewed from, say, Riyadh, Iran was becoming too big for its boots.

As it is, Jerusalem and Riyadh had been throwing a ginger fit even at the prospect of a deal looming in the distance. Now, that it was about to be signed, there was panic in Jerusalem, Riyadh, Cairo, Ankara.

Each one of these regional powers had for a while been fretting on another count: they were visualizing life without the US which had given notice of its pivot to Asia, where China’s rise would be its primary focus.

An overextended superpower which no longer had the capacity to remain engaged in several theatres would encourage regional powers (proxies) to manage the new equilibrium. A sense of being abandoned was in the air. Saudis needed their shattered self esteem to be restored.

With this intent, the restless but rich Saudis were allowed to lead the attack on the poorest country in the Arab world. This one fact – along with so many others – will plague the Saudis.

The Monarchies, Sheikhdoms and others in the region have not yet digested the cardinal truth: the Arab Spring was an expression of popular resentment with Arab rulers. This anger will not go away by assertive state power. And the superpower which helped maintain the status quo is eager to disinvest and depart.

In the immediate aftermath of the Yemen airstrikes, the Saudis, at the head of a “Sunni” coalition, may momentarily look muscular for having thwarted Shia Iran in the region. But at what cost?

Likewise, Iranian officers and Shia militia were stopped by the Americans from “finishing” the Tikrit operations against the ISIS. Apparently, the Saudis wanted some of their assets embedded with the ISIS to be given safe passage.

Also, the US and their Arab coalition partners were keen that Iran and Shia militia not be in the frontline of victors. In fact pressure was brought to bear on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad to “choose between the US and Iran” to conclude the endgame in Tikrit.

It must have been an incredible operation, a mixture of serious military operations and an open competition in trophy hunting between the Americans and the Iranians.

The Wall Street Journal reported: “Iraq began its attack without alerting the US or its partners. Instead, Iran played a leading role, commanding Shia militia and providing weapons.”

Beyond this point, there are two versions to the story.

The American version says the Shia advance on the ISIS got stalled prompting the Iraqi government to seek US aerial help.

The Iranian version blames the US for bringing pressure on Baghdad that they withdraw the Shia militia from Tikrit. Only then would the US launch airstrikes.

A senior US defense official gave the game away: “Iraq is going to have to decide who they want to partner with. We’ve been demonstrating all across the country and now in Tikrit, that we are a good and able partner.”

Was this hands on action by the Americans designed to reassure Arabs who feared that Americans may cut and leave?

There is a more sensible reason why the Americans inserted themselves just when the Iranian led militia was about to capture or kill ISIS soldiers: a Shia victory over the ISIS would aggravate Arab Sunni anxieties.

The third balancing act the US and its allies performed was to check Bashar al Assad’s successful drive to recover territories lost to the opposition during four years of the civil war: the provincial capital of Idlib was allowed to fall into the hands of the opposition consisting of Al Qaeda linked Nusra Front. Great liberal, democratic victory?

The Syrian accusation that Turkey helped the opposition front occupying Idlib is credible because the town is barely 20 miles from the Turkish border.

At a time when Iran is on a high, inching towards a nuclear deal, the effort is to deflate it somewhat. This is supposed to give heart to states who see a threat in Iran’s rise.

That is why actions in Yemen, Tikrit, Idlib, were launched simultaneously to calm nerves in the region about Iran’s rise. In doing so, the Americans may have encouraged the Saudi gerontocracy to go a little over the top in Yemen.

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