Escalation in Yemen

15 April 2015
The fighting in Yemen no doubt reminds Turks of a beautiful but sad folk song (Lament of Yemen) mourning the loss of thousands of Turkish soldiers in this far away part of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Its refrain goes;

“… Those who go there do not return, why…”

They did not return because there was no way that the Ottoman Empire, in steady decline for centuries, could hold on to Yemen. It was a lost cause. As a matter of fact, the end of the First World War also marked the end of the Empire and the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence under the leadership of Atatürk.

Pakistan’s Parliament voted unanimously and wisely last Friday not to get involved in the conflict in the far away Yemen. Instead it called upon the Nawas Sharif government to engage in diplomacy to end the fighting. Indeed, this could only have been the “wrong war” for Pakistan.

Some have seen this as a setback for Saudi Arabia. Since Riyadh traditionally pursues discreet diplomacy and enjoys a very close yet complex relationship with Pakistan it is difficult to know exactly what was discussed between the capitals. Islamabad may still try finding not too obvious ways of avoiding utter disappointment in Riyadh. What may be said about this relationship is that neither Saudi Arabia’s financial/political support can resolve the problems Pakistan faces on different fronts nor Pakistan’s military support can fundamentally change the military situation in Yemen. Both countries would therefore have to recognize the constraints of the other.

The resolution adopted by the Pakistani Parliament says that the crisis in Yemen could plunge the region in turmoil. The reality is that the region is already in turmoil. Widening the frontlines would serve nobody’s interest. It would risk turning Yemen into another Syria with new opportunities for terrorist organizations.

Yemen is a poor country and in this respect strikingly different from other Arab peninsula countries. According to the UNDP, Yemen’s human development index (HDI) value for 2013 is 0.500— which is in the low human development category—positioning the country at 154 out of 187 countries and territories. UN officials say that roughly a third of those involved in the fighting are children and continuing conflict means increasing malnutrition levels and a slump in education. Yet, all we have heard from regional leaders so far is mostly about regional status, hegemony, supremacy, domination and competition.

According to some observers the conflict in Yemen risks derailing the Iran nuclear deal. Others believe that it is the prospect of a deal that has emboldened Iran. Since the nuclear deal has become a highly controversial issue both in the US and the Middle East, the Saudi-led intervention has put US diplomacy in a delicate position. For now Washington seems to stand by Saudi Arabia but further escalation may paradoxically urge Washington to engage Iran. The Middle East remains a region of shifting interests and alliances.

I have always held the view that the only way to contain if not end the Middle East turmoil is a collective effort by regional countries to engage in dialogue. Yemen could be a starting point because the situation there is not yet as bad as it is Syria. Saudi Arabia whose relationship with Yemen has a controversial history needs a graceful exit to avoid negative internal and external repercussions. Restoring President Hadi to power is a remote possibility. Iran may have provided support to the Houthis but Yemen is not Syria and Iranian involvement not as deep. Egypt receives substantial economic support from Saudi Arabia but has huge problems of its own and would not wish the Yemen conflict get out of control. And Turkey may hopefully choose to be part of the solution rather than the problem this time.

Pakistan’s Parliament had asked the Nawas Sharif Government to initiate steps to move the UN Security Council and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to bring about an immediate cease-fire in Yemen. Yesterday’s Security Council resolution (2216) calling for an immediate and unconditional end to violence is only a first step and needs to be followed up. Since the OIC has remained totally invisible despite continuing Middle East chaos it is now regional countries’ turn to find other ways of rising up to the challenge.

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