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Around the halls: The developing situation in Yemen

Daniel L. Byman, Kenneth M. Pollack, Bruce Riedel, Salman Shaikh, Suzanne Maloney, Shibley Telhami, and Tamara Cofman Wittes

In the wake of continuing chaos in Yemen, and the decision of a ten-country coalition—led by Saudi Arabia—to conduct airstrikes against Houthi fighters in Yemen, Brookings experts had a candid dialogue about the developing situation. Below is an edited version of that conversation.

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Tamara Cofman WittesSenior Fellow and Director, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy program:
This is an extraordinary step:

  • A direct attack by Sunni Arab states on an Iranian-backed militia;
  • The first time the GCC has taken military action outside its own membership; and 
  • The return of Egypt to fighting on Yemeni territory. 

By the way, Bruce, didn’t we have a conversation just recently about the prospect of Egypt providing an expeditionary force for the GCC states? It feels momentous for the trajectory of the region. Some questions:

  • Could this campaign distract Sunni governments, and perhaps the United States, from the fight vs ISIS in Iraq and Jordan? 
  • Will Iran double down on the Houthis?
  • What will AQAP do?
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Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy and Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence and Director, Intelligence Project, Foreign Policy program:
Air strikes will not defeat the Houthis, and they are too late to save Aden. Are the Saudis prepared to put boots on the ground? Is Cairo?

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Kenneth Pollack, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy program:
That’s the danger! Their boots on the ground won’t solve the problem either—it will just bog them down in a Yemeni quagmire.

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Bruce Riedel:
What are the implications for a nuclear deal? Can you sign a deal with Tehran while your Sunni allies are at war with Iran’s proxy in Yemen? And you are giving their Iraqi Shia allies air support in Tikrit?

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Tamara Cofman Wittes:
President Obama last August cited Yemen as a model for the United States’ intended counterterrorism approach in Iraq. Maybe the “Yemen model” has a different meaning now: cede the territory to those most willing to bleed for it.

I really wonder how AQAP plays this. Saudi intervention seems like a golden opportunity for them.

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Daniel L. Byman, Senior Fellow and Director of Research, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy program :
I’ll add to this only that I can’t figure out what the Islamic State presence is in Yemen. If big, AQAP has a problem in that the Islamic State will push the sectarian button better, so AQAP will have a serious local rival.

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Salman Shaikh, Fellow, Director, Brookings Doha Center and Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy program:
I’ve said that the United States has the difficult job, like it or not, to play both referee between Saudi and Iran and ally to its traditional friends in the region. Not easy, I know, but there should have been a much greater effort earlier to push back on Iran’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Saudis and others have been warning for quite some time. Instead, the United States is yet again a “reactive” Middle East power, supporting different (opposing) folks in different places.

I also wonder how secure is Saudi Arabia? Houthis may carry out their threats to attack Saudi. If this carries on, we must keep an eye on dissent within Saudi.

Neither do I rule out Sunnis dissent within Iran’s western regions. There have been signs of that recently.

Saudi, I was told, is looking to build a very broad regional coalition to counter Iranian expansionism, which includes Pakistan, Turkey, and Egypt.

I also see that 10 countries have pledged support to the Saudis for Yemen, including Jordan, Sudan, Morocco, in addition to Egypt and Pakistan. The Saudis will have to pay for them all.

The Yemeni conflict is now clearly part of a broader regional conflagration. For that reason there is an urgent need to plug the Syrian volcano. Renewed focus on a Syrian a Syrian political transition can contribute to de-escalating regional tensions.

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Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy program:
I take a different position than Salman, both with respect to the characterization of Iranian ambitions and the criticism of the Obama administration. As Bruce Riedel has written, Iran’s involvement in Yemen is marginal and opportunistic. They didn’t invent the Houthi uprising and their investment has been relatively small scale in comparison to other conflicts. Which is why you have never seen a Qassem Soleimani selfie from Aden or anywhere in the vicinity, and you never will. Tehran’s real interests lie elsewhere, in Iraq and Syria. I would imagine they will aim to continue to exploit what is likely to remain a very unsettled situation in Yemen. But that hardly qualifies as hegemonic.

As for the United States, I don’t know of an American administration that has been anything other than reactive vis-à-vis Yemen. Unfortunately (especially for Yemenis) I think Yemen will simply never rise to the level of a priority that commands proactive American intercession—except if the threat of AQAP is resurgent, which of course may be an inadvertent outcome of the GCC strikes.

My guess is that the Obama administration sees a net benefit in enabling the Saudis to flex their muscles on an issue which is existential, or close to it, for Riyadh but relatively low-priority for the rest of the world. Heck, Washington may have even encouraged this outcome: let the Gulf vent its spleen about the cozy conversations between Secretary John Kerry and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an arena where they cannot do much additional harm to core United States interests in the region. Meanwhile, the nuclear talks will go on—even if the Iranians can’t close the deal—and Washington will focus its energies on IS and Iraq, in parallel to Iran’s campaign there.

In my view, the real problem is that Saudi interventions across the region—military and financial—are no less forceful than those of Iran, and they are not inherently stabilizing, except perhaps in the short run.

I can’t yet puzzle out how this is likely to impact the Iranian nuclear talks. I’m tempted to say not at all; the negotiations are really silo-ed on both sides, and if they can finally get to a credible formula, I think that producing a somewhat general, possibly unwritten “political framework” is not a terribly high hurdle. There would still be plenty of time for this to crash and burn before June 30th. On the other hand, the Iranian leadership sees the nuclear issue as firmly enmeshed within a broader web of United States efforts to undermine the regime, and it seems conceivable that the United States-sanctified Saudi attack on an Iranian client/ally — undertaken at the precise moment that Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani had to yield the Tikrit battle to United States air strikes would intensify Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s hesitation about accepting a deal that the hard-liners in his security bureaucracy will see as a capitulation to the West.

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Shibley Telhami, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Center for Middle East Policy, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Foreign Policy program:
One thing though to keep in mind, separate from the big unknown (and potentially disastrous) consequences for Yemen. This is a huge development for Arab politics that will test the bargain that the Saudis sought at the outset of the Arab Uprisings: luring Morocco and Jordan into a support relationship with the GCC: money for security support. That now includes Egypt (and a lot of symbolic Sunni countries such as Sudan, Pakistan, and the Palestinian Authority). There is no doubt the Saudis took the lead on this, that they consolidated the support of GCC (with the exception of Oman) which has propelled them into uncharted leadership territory. Regardless of how it all ends in Yemen, the path will be bloody with a lot of unintended consequences. If ground forces will ultimately be needed from Egypt and Jordan, this could obviously have consequences well beyond Gulf.

The Iranian issue will become more prominent, although I doubt Iran will do any more than provide some backing from the outside in the early stages. But it sets up a tone in the Saudi-Iranian competition that will have impact elsewhere.

The Saudis may also feel that they need to start showing that they are a serious military player; despite investing tens of billions on arms, few people in the region take their power seriously and many wonder what they have done with these resources. They may feel this is an opportunity to register their arrival— but if they are seen to fail, they stand to lose a great deal.

As far as the Egyptian role, it is already generating a heated discussion among Egyptian commentators, for and against, with comparison to Egypt’s intervention in the 1960s.

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Bruce Riedel:
The Saudis have told me the coalition includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan and Pakistan. Notably absent is Oman, which has a border with Yemen.

Aircraft from Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Sudan, Morocco and Jordan are part of the air coalition with RSAF. Absent are Pakistan and Egypt so far.

Saudi sources are adamant they don’t need foreign ground troops, they can do the ground war alone; 150,000 Army, SANG and MOI troops available they claim. Of course, they don’t want to admit Pakistan turned them down two weeks ago.

Operational command of the coalition is in the hands of the Minister of Defense Prince Muhammad bin Salman, 34, the King’s son. He toured the Saudi border provinces over the weekend to prepare the operation.

Among the many odd aspects of this story is the Saudi announcement. Has any country ever announced it is going to war using as its spokesman an ambassador stationed in a foreign country thousands of miles away? Why not the King, Crown Prince or Foreign Minister speaking in Riyadh to the Saudi people? So far they have not spoken.

The Omani absence is also driven by the Sultan’s health question. Although he returned to Muscat on Monday after months in Germany, he has yet to speak to the Omani people. Reports that his health is fully restored and he is cured of cancer are probably wishful thinking.

Pakistan’s absence is also notable. Officially the Pakistani government is “considering” the Saudi appeal for assistance. Like Oman Pakistan shares a border with Iran and is more cautious about how far to jump on the Saudi bandwagon.

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