Analysis: Sunni-Shi’ite wars going global

Saudi Arabia garnering support from regional Sunni states to counter encroaching Iranian influence.

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March 27, 2015 04:03
3 minute read.
 Sunni-Shi’ite wars going global

Sunni-Shi’ite wars going global. (photo credit: NABEEL QUAITI/REUTERS)

 
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Feeling that its back was against the wall as Iranian-backed Shi’ite Houthi forces moved to take over neighboring Yemen, Saudi Arabia has lashed out with its own Sunni coalition, threatening to take the sectarian conflict to a new level.

Reports that the Pakistanis and Egyptians are sending troops and that the Turks are also on board, have set the stage for a major expansion of the regional Sunni-Shi’ite struggle.

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Iran said that it would not directly intervene in Yemen, but if it does, what would that mean for the escalation of regional tension? “The Saudi-led GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] intervention in Bahrain, the participation of UAE and Qatar warplanes in the NATO operation against [Libya’s Muammar] Gaddafi, and more recently, the Egyptian bombings against the Islamists in Libya (and an earlier air raid of UAE warplanes from Egyptian territory), all mark enhanced assertiveness by the conservative Sunni states,” Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a principal research fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and a contributor to The Jerusalem Report, told this paper.

In addition to the Gulf states and Egypt, even Morocco and Sudan are making symbolic contributions to the effort, probably to get on the good side of the Saudis, said Maddy- Weitzman.

The Gulf states have greater capabilities than in the past and recognize that they can’t solely rely on the US for their security anymore, he asserted.

The Sunni states are worried about a US tilt toward Iran as Washington seeks to finalize a nuclear agreement, added Maddy-Weitzman.

David Andrew Weinberg, a specialist on Gulf affairs and a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Post on Thursday that such an invasion puts to the test the new Saudi defense minister, Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the 35-year-old son of King Salman.

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“The Gulf states’ contribution to the US-led coalition against Islamic State is pitiful,” said Weinberg, adding that the idea that on top of this commitment the Gulf states are now going to reconquer Yemen, “stretches the imagination.”

Whichever way this war works out, “it won’t go smoothly,” he predicted.

The Egyptians got involved in a Yemen civil wars in the 1960s when then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser backed one side and the Saudis the other, but the fact is that “the Egyptians look at that conflict as their ‘Vietnam’ – a dramatic, drawn-out entanglement that went poorly for them.”

Regarding Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who took refuge in the kingdom on Thursday, Weinberg sees this as a sign of how weak his position really was.

Asked why the Saudis are making such a tremendous military effort to counter the Shi’ite axis in Yemen, but not elsewhere, Weinberg drew attention to a comment by a Saudi security expert, who pointed out that the Arabian Peninsula is a redline for them.

For Riyadh, Iran’s encroachment on Yemen is a much more serious matter than its involvement in Syria.

“The Saudis are trying to orchestrate a united Sunni front against the Shi’ite axis,” added Weinberg, noting that it is even willing to overcome its enmity with the Muslim Brotherhood movement and its state sponsors, Qatar and Turkey, in order to unite Sunni powers.

Oren Adaki, a research analyst of the Arab world at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who closely follows Yemen, told the Post that despite the US’s intelligence and logistical support for the Saudi-led coalition, it is definitely taking a back seat in the conflict.

Hadi’s government had been an important regional counterterrorism partner in the battle against al-Qaida, and the US government could have done much more to prevent what ended up being a Houthi takeover, argued Adaki.

Iran has capitalized on this situation – expanding economic ties with the Houthis and even pledging to provide them with one year’s worth of oil, he said.

“The real problem here is that American inaction on Yemen has sent a message to the entire region to not rely on American power and prestige as they did in years past,” Adaki said.

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