The region is one constituency, and its wars are linked to each other no matter what the distance between them. This has been the case since revolutions erupted at the beginning of 2011. Fighting erupted and has spread widely in Yemen since mid-2014, after the Houthis took over the city of Imran and occupied the capital Sanaa. The situation escalated into all-out war after the Houthis besieged the legitimate president and his government.
Fighting in Yemen is a result of regional crises involving Iran, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where it is fighting in defense of its allies. This war began in the streets, then developed into geopolitical confrontations between an Iranian axis and an Arab Gulf axis. Iran has sacrificed men, and provided arms and funds, out of fear for the survival of the Assad regime, its ally in Syria. It has done the same in Iraq to save its allies.
In order to defend itself and further pressure Iran, Riyadh will need to support Syrian opposition groups more
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia had to militarily intervene in its southern neighbor Yemen after the Iranians sought regime-change via their Houthi allies and isolated ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Iranians think that keeping Riyadh busy in Yemen helps prevent confronting their activities in Iraq and Syria.
Yemen is a big country, far larger than Syria. Yemen’s land is more rugged than Syria’s, and there is no central system that can easily be eliminated. Weakening Saudi Arabia in the south will mean weakening the Gulf in general so Iran can fulfil its regional aspirations.
Altering the map
It is due to this geopolitical connection that the war in Yemen is part of the war in Syria. Another chapter of Iran’s plan is to alter the map by exploiting the chaos that resulted from revolutions. It seeks to place its main rival Saudi Arabia between pliers, threatened between Iraq and Yemen, and Iraq is a natural and political extension of Syria.
In order to defend itself and further pressure Iran, Riyadh will need to support Syrian opposition groups more. It is difficult for Iran to win the Syrian war, but Saudi Arabia is more capable of winning in Yemen. Most Syrians oppose the Assad regime, and revolted against it and its ally Iran four years ago. Most Yemenis have had a strong relation with Saudi Arabia for many decades now.
Riyadh has a special, long-term relationship with most Yemeni components, from north to south – with its tribes, community leaders and businessmen. Iran has previously entered Yemen in an attempt to influence it, but failed. However, it has invested in its religious and political relation with the Houthis, a group that is not that big by Yemeni standards but that has managed to exploit chaos resulting from the revolution and ally with the ousted regime.
Since Iran failed to break the siege imposed on the Assad regime – on whose behalf it has been fighting for two years now – it wants to impose a siege on the legitimate Yemeni government by supporting rebels. I expect this support to double so as to threaten Saudi Arabia from the south.
Although Iran’s allies succeeded at ousting the government from Sanaa, and pursuing and besieging it in the temporary capital of Aden, the Saudi militarily intervention and its efforts to create supporting blocs across Yemen will thwart the pliers attempt. However, the chaos that Iran has created in Yemen may keep the Saudis busy from defending their regional interests.
This requires Gulf states to provide more support to the Syrian revolution. The aim is to besiege the Assad regime and force Iran to accept a regional solution that makes it respect present entities and end its destructive activity, which has been ongoing since the beginning of the 1980s. This destructive activity is responsible for instability in Lebanon, for Palestinian divisions, for sectarian disputes in Iraq, and for chaos in Bahrain.
This is all one story that expresses Iran’s regional activity, which will increase ahead of the Camp David conference that the American president has pledged to organize in order to bring rival regional parties to the negotiating table.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on April 13, 2015.
By Abdulrahman al-Rashed is a veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist.