MOSCOW, September 22 (RIA Novosti) — The Yemeni Prime Minister resigned on Sunday as a result of a UN-brokered peace deal between the government and Houthi supporters. Long ostracized from political and social life, the Shiite- affiliated group had been organizing for increased representation over the past decade. Although they officially deny it, it has long been thought that they act as Iranian proxies in the Arabian Peninsula. The recent events in Yemen, which on the surface may seem completely unrelated to the War in Syria, are actually quite important in altering the regional fundamentals dictating American and Saudi strategy against Damascus.
The inclusion of the Houthis into the Yemeni government and their speedy and skillful demonstration of force and influence over the past week place Saudi Arabia on the strategic defensive. Not only do they have to contend with the prospect of an Iranian-friendly government on their southern Shiite border, but taken in a regional perspective, it appears as though Iran is cementing its Shia Circle. All of this bodes well for Syria, as the Saudis are now faced with a conundrum over whether to aggressively pursue regime change in Damascus and risk domestic Shia destabilization, or to negotiate with arch-rival Iran and reach an agreement to mitigate overall tensions.
The Shia Circle
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a Cold War-like struggle for influence in the Mideast, with the former trying to lead the Sunni majority and the latter supporting the Shia minority. As part of this competition, each side has been jockeying for influence in all of the regional states. The Saudis have entrenched their influence over the Gulf countries via the Riyadh-led Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Iranians made gains in the so-called Shia crescent between Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Had this been the only geopolitical configuration in the Mideast, regional influence would have been relatively evenly divided, with neither side having an advantage over the other. However, Iran has been able to mobilize Shia influence ‘behind enemy lines’ in Bahrain, eastern and southern Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. This reverse Shia crescent, when combined with the existing one, creates a Shia Circle of Iranian influence around Saudi Arabia to counter the Saudi-supported Sunni insurgents fighting in Syria and Iraq.
Yemen as the Backdoor to Saudi Arabia
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has long been a center of destabilization for the area. It is a heavily divided society composed of many competing interest groups, ranging from the Shiite Houthis and Ansarullah to Sunni-affiliated Al Qaeda terrorists and South Yemeni separatists. The unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 was premature, as the South had cold feet and attempted to once more secede during the Civil War of 1994. After the North’s victory and the preservation of a unified Yemen, the weak government continued to mismanage the country, and Yemen remained a hotbed of instability.
The Houthis began their uprising against the authorities in 2004, and since then, Saudi jets have occasionally bombed their positions near the joint border. The Saudis fear that the Houthis, whom they suspect of being under Iranian influence, could spread their influence, arms, and fighters into the abutting Shia region of southern Saudi Arabia, further destabilizing the Kingdom and expanding their rival’s reach in a vulnerable rear flank. The Arab Spring events increased this trepidation, since the majority Shia began to rebel in Sunni-led Bahrain, and it was only due to massive Saudi military involvement that the protests were violently squelched, although they still continue intermittently to this day. Furthermore, Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia scared the monarchy into thinking that Iran could directly influence events within its borders, so it quickly increased the amount of government handouts it provided to its citizens in order to buy their passivity.
Last Week’s Events
Throughout all of this, Yemen remained a vulnerable oversight in the Saudi strategy. Although Riyadh lost relative influence when long-time president and Saudi ally Ali Abuddlah Saleh resigned in November 2011 after wide scale protests against his rule, his vice president quickly assumed leadership and largely continued the friendly pro-Saudi policies of his predecessor. The main fallacy of this strategy, however, was the continuity in anti-Houthi activity by Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the new president, and his underestimation of their political will, strength, and influence. The Houthis continued their rebellion for more rights and representation, and taking advantage of new fuel price hikes that increased anti-government sentiment, they speedily made their move on the capital in the past week. They blamed the current unrest on the Prime Minister, who has now resigned, and underscored that they wanted to work with Hadi and not overthrow him. This gained the support of the military, which was important in preventing major bloodshed. The UN then brokered an emergency peace deal that mandates the creation of a more inclusive government, with Houthi, Ansarullah, and Southern representatives.
Lines in the Sand
The Houthi victory in Yemen is actually a victory for all underrepresented groups, although it can be seen as a strategic defeat for Saudi Arabia. By demonstrating their ability to quickly change political events in the country and garner implicit support from the armed forces, they have shown Saudi Arabia that they are a serious force to be reckoned with. Additionally, the peace deal institutionalizes their influence in the country’s government, thereby meaning that sporadic airstrikes in the northern desert will no longer be sufficient in containing them. Thus, the proxy lines have been drawn in the sand, so to speak, between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Tehran having scored an indirect victory through the Houthis’ astounding success over the weekend.
By becoming a legitimate force (among the most important ones right now) in Yemen and commanding influence over its military, the Houthis (and to an extent, Iran) have opened up a strategic rear flank of uncertainty against Saudi Arabia. Riyadh now faces the risk that Houthi influence and forces could theoretically move over the empty border with Yemen and into the Shia-populated areas there. What’s more, any Shia uprising in southern Saudi Arabia would open up a window of opportunity for the Shia in the eastern part of the country to resurrect their own uprising, potentially leading to a chain reaction of destabilization within the Kingdom. Of course, this scenario does not have to happen, and it could be avoided if the Saudis (covertly) go to the negotiating table with Iran.
A Grand Bargain
Iran’s immediate interests in this context are in safeguarding the security of the democratically elected government in Syria, not in overthrowing the Saudi monarchy, and the Saudis are interested in securing their country and its borders above all else. When faced with the specter of a Shia- and Iranian-influenced domestic uprising as payback for its militant support of the Syrian insurgents, the Saudis would obviously be threatened, and the flimsy stability that their governing legitimacy depends on could collapse into civil warfare. Understanding this, the Saudis would rather enter into a deal with their hated foe, Iran, than lose their power or lives. This means that the circumstances are set for the regional rivals to sit down at the negotiating table and hammer out a tentative détente.
Should this transpire, it is not known exactly what the details would entail, but most certainly, Iranian influence on Saudi Arabia’s Yemeni backdoor and Saudi support of the anti-government militants in Syria would be high on the agenda. One could postulate that although both sides would never stop supporting their regional allies entirely, they may place a short-term ceiling on their support in order to move forward in other regards. For example, Saudi Arabia won’t realistically rescind its de-facto support of terrorism in Syria and Iraq, but it could redirect its proxy militants there back towards the southern and eastern provinces, the Yemeni border, and perhaps re-infiltrate back into Yemen itself as a ‘security buffer’. Iran, for its part, would leave its support for the Houthi-involved government at its current level, happy with institutionalizing its influence and not ‘rocking the boat’. In this case, both Saudi Arabia and Iran pivot vis-à-vis the other, all the while Riyadh refocuses on more pressing domestic (and possibly existential) matters than regime change in Syria.
The weekend’s events in Yemen took many off guard, but in hindsight, it should not have come as a surprise. The Iranians, boasting a four-thousand-year-old history, are experts in asymmetrical responses to conventional threats, and the pseudo-coup in Yemen should be seen as a counter to the developing anti-Syrian coalition and the fulfillment of the Shia Circle. The Houthis’ lightning-fast rise from political and social obscurity to one of the dominant factors in the new Yemeni government places the Saudis on the strategic defensive and may result in a recalibration of their foreign policy priorities. Pivoting from offensive regime change in the north to defensive posturing in the south will relieve pressure on the Syrian Arab Army and severely weaken Obama’s Syrian regime change coalition. Of course, the Saudis will never fully abandon their support of Islamic militants in Syria, but if Iran uses its support of the Houthis in Yemen to pressure the Monarchy, it could result in a grand regional bargain that may buy more valuable time for Syria’s survival.
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