Cover Your Eyes, Yemen Is Dying

A view from Turkey on the new conflict that is not only shaking the map of the Middle East, but costing the lives of innocent victims.

Digging graves after a Saudi airstrike in Yemen's Bani Matar district on April 4
Digging graves after a Saudi airstrike in Yemen's Bani Matar district on April 4
Fehim Tastekin

ISTANBUL — Now that Saudi Arabia's attack on Yemen has the support of Turkey and a large part of the international community, feel free to be deaf and blind to what will actually happen to this country.

Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan claimed that Iran has Yemen under its control and ordered their withdrawal. From this moment, Turkey will not bother with questions such as who are the rebelling Houthis in Yemen, who is fighting whom, what is really driving the Saudis or even the alleged "Iran factor" itself. And do not bother to ask about the civilian losses either. Nobody cares about the 40 people dead and 200 wounded at the al-Mizrak refugee camp on March 30. Who will ponder the numbers offered by Amnesty International either?

  • 14 people, four of them minors, burned to death by the Saudi Attacks in three days
  • 20 civilians, three of them minors, killed in Kitaf on March 27
  • The March 31 bombing of Sanaa killed 25, including six under the age of 10

This is a war and the list of causalities will increase. It is also meaningless to see these as attacks “against the Houthis.” At the end of the day, it is Yemen being hit, and the people pay the price. Furthermore, the operation does not seem to be pushing back the Houthis and the military groups acting alongside them. The area controlled by the Houthis has expanded since the bombardment began, and they have even reportedly captured a base at the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which may allow them to threaten the oil tankers which transport 8% of the world's oil.

The Saudis plan is to cripple the defense forces of Yemen and force the Houthis to retreat, but they may be forced into a ground operation — which would be a huge gamble for the alliance. The Saudis experienced war with the Houthis in 2004-2010 during six operations led by the dethroned Yemen leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. As a retaliation to the airstrikes of Riyad, Houthis crossed mountain terrain to penetrate 30 kilometers deep inside Saudi Arabia territory and terrorized their army. The resistance front may get even stronger since a ground operation would be observed as an invasion. Yemen may wind up as the Vietnam of the Arab alliance.

The trap is calling you

So, why are our leaders in Ankara so willing to enter such a game of traps? Three driving factors seem evident: the rage felt against Iran for spoiling Turkey's plans in Syria and Iraq; the need for investment from the Gulf countries; and ultimately the chance of fulfilling the dream of transporting the power of a joint Arab intervention into Syria.

However, as Turkey steps up to play the spokesperson of this war, it risks destroying relations with Iran — and failing to see its new place on the Arab map. Rather than listening to the compliments made on the red carpet for the sake of an alliance against Iran, Turkey must understand that many Arab countries today actually believe Turkey is playing a dangerous games. Indeed, it is a troubling reminder of Turkey's strategy with Syria, while the geopolitical game in the Middle East is now firmly in the hands of the new Saudi ruler, King Salman.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia — Photo: Secretary of Defense

Barbara Bodine, former US Ambassador to Yemen has said the Saudis are exaggerating Tehran's influence in the Yemen. “The idea that the Houthi are an Iranian creation is ahistorical," she said.

Of course, Iran supports the Houthis, but the Saudis are exploiting this situation to suppress the poor and powerless people of an entire country. In fact, the Saudis are the main reason Yemen now has such a strong Salafi presence, with their religious ideology injected to this country after the 1970s under the cover of financing Yemen's Ministry of Education. Sunni Shafi'is and Shia Zaidis were living together in harmony for centuries before the ideological intervention of the Saudis that encouraged radicalism.

The Sunnis and Shias of Yemen were as close as being able to pray at the same mosque; Sunnis could pray at mosques where the call to prayer is sung in the Shia way. The people of this country used to take pride in that. This oasis of tolerance is being destroyed step by step. In parallel to the radicalization of the Sunni side, the Shia Zaidis are experiencing an ideological change through the Houthis.

The Iranian influence can be traced in the Houthi leaders, many of whom were educated in Iran's holy city of Qom. But to conclude that "Iran is taking control of Yemen" only serves the needs of the Saudis. Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was also a Zaidi, used this tactic to obtain financial support from the Saudis. He also liked to accuse Iran of being behind the Houthis.

Today, the Saudis are doing everything they can to prevent a potential ally of Iran to have influence in their backyard. Yemen shifting under the influence of Iran is as worrisome as it is important that the dark shadow of Saudi Arabia (which intervened in Yemen for decades by bribing the tribes) be lifted from hanging over this country. One is a fear about the future while the other has been a fact for decades. It is noteworthy that the Yemen people who refuse both the Iranian influence and the Saudi intervention have started a campaign with the #Kefayawar hashtag. What they say is that Yemen had enough war because they want peace, food, water, education, health institutions and infrastructure.

The al-Qaeda militants sent by the Saudis, wars with the Houthis and unending social conflict since 2011 have taken almost everything from Yemen. Now, the Saudi operation is destroying what is left, with the aim of forcing Yemen to kneel.

Now, these questions should be asked:

  • Can Turkey be a friend to Yemen by supporting a policy of destruction?
  • Israel is the secret and happy partner of this coalition. Is the Ankara government happy being part of that?
  • This war increases the price of oil. The oil barons are happy. What about Turkey?
  • Playing to "Shia phobia" is the favored tactic to compete for the leadership of the Arab world. But what does Turkey actually hope to gain from this apart from hurting the fragile domestic situation of its own Sunni and Shia sects?
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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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