The Islamic Republic of Iran as a Regional Power in 2018 and Beyond

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 4 SR on the 12th of March 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation wishes to promote peace and security in the Middle East and calls on the regional powers to pursue these aims. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one such power that has the ability to drive regional change. Iran continues its pursuit of regional dominance in competition with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this has an undoubted influence on the politics of the Middle East. Despite their rivalry and their precarious diplomatic relationship, the Next Century Foundation hopes and believes that the two powers can take progressive and peaceful steps towards reconciliation with one another. If they did so they could then actively work in cohesion to facilitate stability in surrounding nation states, such as the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Yemen where civil war is still ongoing, and the Kingdom of Bahrain where tensions remain acute.

The Syrian Civil War has become an international conflict in which many nations have had some level of involvement. The Republic of Turkey, the United States of America, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Russian Federation are all powers that have a presence in Syria. As a nation in such close proximity to the conflict, Iran has the potential to contribute significantly to the possibility of a peaceful future for Syria by working closely with other members of the international community, particularly their regional neighbours, in promoting security, stability and peace. It can lead in taking the steps towards peace. The Syrian Civil War has been a direct cause for the refugee crisis witnessed in Europe in which so many people have been rendered displaced.

Similarly, the civil war in Yemen persists with the human cost mounting. Thus far, 20 million people are estimated to be displaced and almost three quarters of the population are in need of aid. A conclusion and resolution to the conflict is paramount in Yemen for the sake of the people and regional stability.

In Bahrain too, Iranian involvement, though less belligerent, has an effect. Undoubtedly there would have been fuller participation in the 2014 national elections in Bahrain had Iran not encouraged prominent opposition leaders to back down on full participation. It is to be hoped that Iran will be more constructive when it comes to promoting full engagement by all communities in the forthcoming Bahrain national elections later this year.

Iran’s position on the global stage is incredibly important but their role in promoting a peaceful future for the Middle East is paramount. It is a role they must not shirk.

Elisabeth Kendall on Al-Qa’idah, Jihadi Poetry, and Yemen

Elisabeth Kendall of the Faculty of Oriental Studies at Oxford University talks on the situation in East Yemen, Poetry, and Al-Qa’idah. Professor Kendall has remarkable insights given her regular visits to Yemen and her life with the tribes. Cut from the same cloth as the great female explorers of bygone eras like Dame Freya Stark, this rare interview with a unique and inspiring woman is of particular interest.

Charles Bennett on the Indo-Pakistani Nuclear War, Somaliland and Yemen.

Charles Bennett, Director of the European Atlantic Group, argues that there is a serious risk of nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan. He also believes that the absence of recognition of Somaliland exasperates the situation and its relationships, especially with Britain. Finally, Mr Bennett urges the international community to focus its attention on Yemen, what appears to be the world’s forgotten war.

The Immolation of the West?

There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:

Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:

We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).

We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.

The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.

It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.

There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.

This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.

Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.

The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).

In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.

This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.

We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.

Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it.  It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.

For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.

The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.

Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.

The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.

Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.

So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.

[Tim Pendry is Chairman of TPPR – and – but only writes on the Next Century Foundation blog in a personal capacity. He welcomes criticism.]



No end in sight: the GCC intervention in Yemen

A UAE warplane
A UAE warplane

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which began on March 2015, continues unabated, with no clear exit strategy in sight. The intervention force, which at this point mainly includes the Gulf Cooperation Council (with the exception of Oman) as its central active participants, has significantly ramped up its presence in Yemen in the past few days.

Although an intervention into Yemen’s chaotic civil war seemed good on paper, considering Saudi Arabia’s historic interests in Yemen and Yemen’s close proximity to the Gulf countries, the intervention has been mismanaged from the beginning. The current failure of the intervention in Yemen is not surprising considering this is the first such case where Saudi Arabia has spearheaded a coalition military campaign in a foreign country. A new, younger leadership in the Gulf is managing the intervention with the most prominent figure being Mohamed Bin Salman, the 30 year-old Saudi defence minister. Although the handling of the intervention has been shambolic, such as the unproductive and damaging Saudi naval blockade, which has caused a humanitarian crisis, the Saudi-led intervention force has been strategic enough to avoid significant military failure.

Recently however, the coalition decided to commit troops to help anti-Houthi fighters secure Aden and recapture lost ground, meaning they are likely involved in ground fighting against the Houthis. The risk of casualties naturally increased because of this move, and on September 4th, a single Houthi missile attack on a weapons storage depot in Ma’rib province killed 60 soldiers from the GCC, 45 from the UAE, ten from Saudi Arabia and five from Bahrain. These losses are highly significant; the casualties from the UAE alone constitute the country’s heaviest loss of life in a military operation, far eclipsing the six losses suffered during the 1991 Gulf War. Furthermore, the losses from the Saudi side confirmed that Saudi ground troops were operating in Yemen, something that hasn’t been confirmed up to this point.

The response by the coalition to these losses was swift, but mishandled. Coalition warplanes conducted its largest ever bombing campaign on the 6th of September, attacking Houthi positions and Houthi command centres across Yemen, but with significant civilian casualties reported. Moreover, contrary to a climb-down of Gulf troops in response to the tragedy, the campaign in Yemen has ramped up. According to an Al Jazeera report, 1,000 Qatari troops, supported by 200 armoured vehicles and 30 Apache helicopters, crossed the Saudi-Yemen border on the 7th of September. Although Qatar has mobilised a handful of warplanes for the intervention, this is the first such case of Qatar committing ground troops in Yemen. The Qatari contingent is headed towards Ma’rib governorate, the same area where the Houthi missile attack occured. More Qatari troops are expected in the coming few weeks to bolster the coalition forces, signalling an important shift in the Yemen war.

With an increase in coalition troop numbers in Yemen and with no signs of the war ending soon, the Arab coalition will have to be prepared to sink in even more money and blood into the Yemen conflict. The insistence of the collective GCC leadership to commit to even more potential troop losses indicates the mind-set of a new, more hawkish leadership in several Gulf capitals.

Russia’s Game in the Middle East

Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt
Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt

For Russia, the Middle East has historically been a region of strategic and economic importance. Russia is seen as an alternative to the Western ideological framework, granting it a special status in the area. Apart from being a consistent alternate power, Russia’s objectives and policies in the Middle East have always changed depending on its relationship with the Western powers.

In March 2012 Vladimir Putin returned to the Russian presidency as a different figure. Seemingly more anti-Western and disappointed by the failure of Obama’s RESET policy, the Libyan crisis of 2011 and the ongoing sanctions on Iran, he is more confrontational, unpredictable and assertive in his actions with the West. Interestingly enough, this was not the case under Dmitri Medvedev’s presidency, which focused on fostering relations with the West and as a result took a more hands-off approach in the Middle East. The current U-turn originates in what Putin sees as covert Western involvement in the Arab Spring of 2011, reminiscent of the colour revolutions that were inspired by the West in post-Soviet republics. For Putin, these red flags suggest that Russia’s presence in the Middle East is necessary to protect vital spheres of influence and sustain Russia’s image as a great power. For this reason, the world faces a reinvigorated return of Russia in the Middle East, albeit a confused return.

To contextualize Russia’s aims, one needs to look no further than the paramount diplomatic issue facing the country. The current crisis in Ukraine consumes almost all of Moscow’s financial, military and political capital away from the Middle East, justifying the lost long-term objective in the region. Rather than envisaging a definitive goal for Russia’s interest in the area, the agenda seems to jump from crisis to crisis. Looking at Russia’s cooperation with the Middle East on an individual basis, a pattern of cautious engagement starts to appear.

Russia’s relations with the GCC countries is one that avoids politicization. Instead of condemning various monarchies on their human rights record and lack of democratic progress, Russia takes a pragmatic stance. It vehemently believes in non-interference in internal affairs and taking a position on these issues would be an unusual precedent. Establishing democracy in Qatar or Saudi Arabia is not important. In fact, this would almost certainly be disadvantageous to Russia.

In Riyadh, those on the upper echelons of power are loyal to the U.S.-Saudi alliance so the recent secretive deals between high-ranking Russian and Saudi officials seem out of place. Putin and the Deputy Crown Prince, a less pro-Washington figure in the Saudi leadership, met in St. Petersburg in June 2015, indicating King Salman’s change of policy with Russia. There are unconfirmed talks of investing in the construction of nuclear power plants, increasing arms sales, and negotiating oil prices. This is understandable, considering the fact that the current Saudi leadership is disillusioned with Obama’s policy in the Middle East, especially regarding Iran, and thus aims at cementing bilateral ties with the Russian leadership. The Saudi objective is to dissuade Putin from his unwavering support of Assad, whereas Putin’s is to reduce Saudi’s overwhelming influential oil production, in order to spike global oil prices. Although Russia takes advantage of its position as an alternative power when cracks appear between Arab countries and the U.S., the recent Saudi-led bombing of Yemen, puts Russia in an awkward position.

Russia’s key concern over Yemen is Saudi Arabia undermining the authority of the UN Security Council and bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen without prior authorization. Apart from lucrative trade deals and opportunism, Russia is keen on maintaining the international world order and makes enormous use of the UNSC for political leverage. In a sign of dissatisfaction, Russia abstained in a vote on UNSC Resolution 2216, a vote that Saudi Arabia heavily lobbied Russia for, which called for a withdrawal of Houthis from Sanaa. With the situation in Yemen rapidly deteriorating and the recent rise of ISIS fighters, Moscow’s concern for the Gulf area is uncommonly high. Comments from the Russian Foreign Ministry echo a need for all Yemeni political forces to start a “full-fledged national dialogue under the auspices of the UN”. The nature of the situation means that Russia is intent on keeping third-party players strictly outside the political resolution.

Concerning Iran, Russia plays a balancing act due to its cordial ties with Israel. Under Putin, the current relations with Tehran suggest a positive step towards reintegrating Iran into the international arena. This is demonstrated by Russia’s decision to lift the ban on a weapons trade deal with Iran after making progress on the P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear programme. The sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles goes back to 2010, but was temporarily halted due to intense lobbying by Israel and the West. Although Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, emphasizes the defensive nature of the deal, the missile system can be used to shoot down jets and other missiles, increasing Iran’s capacity to subdue a threat to its nuclear facilities. This is a concern for Israel, which has been the most vocal advocate against the Iran nuclear deal and has warned of sanctions relief as a chance for Iran to engage in ‘sanctions for arms’. Another factor that Russia has in mind when dealing with Shia Iran is that twenty percent of Russia’s population is Muslim, of which ninety percent are Sunni. Keeping a delicate balance of not frustrating one side too much is a long-standing talent that Russia holds.

In Tel Aviv, Russia’s relationship is more complex than the other Middle Eastern nations. This is partly due to the huge Russian émigré population. There are around one million Russian speakers in Israel, with direct economic and cultural ties to Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union. Russian ties range from military collaboration to oil supply contracts and visa-free agreements. In the scientific sphere, Russia has numerous nuclear, space and technological agreements that it does not have with other Middle Eastern countries. In fact, the countries are so closely linked that the Russian President and the Israeli Prime Minister have encrypted communication lines to guarantee no eavesdropping. With this in mind, Russia has a stronger cultural connection to Israel than it does to any other Middle Eastern country. Moscow is also hoping to establish a long-lasting friendship that will lessen Israel’s dependency on the United States. There is potential for this to happen, as Israel recently decided to cancel its drone sale to Ukraine in the midst of the crisis.

The situation with Assad differs greatly. The problem with Syria is that after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Russia neglected to support and continue the well-established links with the remaining pro-Russian political base. This was indicative during the leadership change from Hafez al-Assad to Bashar al-Assad in 2000, whereby now the Russian security services are hastily trying to revive those connections in order to cement Russia’s position in Syrian politics no matter the political outcome of the civil war. In terms of the Syrian war, Russia, along with Iran, continues to sell arms to Assad. Putin is intent on keeping Assad in power and sees no better alternative to him. A repeat of Libya, where a bloody power vacuum was created after the toppling of the regime, is a worst-case scenario for Russia, considering Syria’s proximity to its borders. Bearing in mind that there are 1,500-2000 Russian foreign fighters in Syria, of which 500 have declared allegiance to ISIS, the question of their potential return to Russia is of great seriousness. Russia’s priority in Syria is for stability in the area, in order to stem the draw for violent Jihadism, as well as allowing resources to be focused on more pressing issues, such as Ukraine. Russia takes an opportunistic stance with the war in Syria, whereby it advocates peace negotiations with all sides, whilst selling arms to Assad. It has capitalized on taking on the role of a peacekeeper. Some argue that the message sent from the Kremlin to the West is one that follows the line of ‘you need us for stability in the Middle East’, which serves as a warning against intensifying the situation in Ukraine. In fact, Russia has facilitated numerous forums, talks, and conferences between the Syrian leadership and the opposition.

In the hydrocarbon sphere, Russia’s policy remains the same. That is to maximize Russian revenue from natural resource extraction and deals. Although the region is a serious challenge to Russia’s dominance of the European energy market, Russia is intent on either minimizing Middle Eastern involvement, or if unable to do so, have a stake in Middle Eastern hydrocarbon enterprises in Europe. This has been demonstrated by the activity of Russian oil companies in Iraq. Lukoil continues to work in unstable provinces, regardless of the threat of terror. During the ISIS surge in the summer of 2014, BP and ExxonMobil evacuated their personnel, whereas the Russian plant had evacuation plans but continued to operate in the West Qurna Field. Russian arms producers have increased their revenues as well, with Iraq being one of the main importers of arms.

A key aim for Russia is avoiding international isolation, as is the current case with the U.S. and Europe. The Middle East provides space for this isolation to be offset, as seen in Russia’s increased agricultural trade with the region. This has mitigated the effects of the self-imposed food sanctions of August 2014 by replacing agricultural produce with imports from Iran, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. In return, Russia exports wheat, barley, and rye to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Except for agricultural produce, Russia is mostly known for its arms sales in the region. In 2013 Russian arms sales to Syria and Egypt totaled USD$1.5 billion. In a limited sense, Russian foreign policy in the Middle East can be described as Kalashnikov diplomacy. Its policy does not have a lot of capacity and lacks a long-term goal. Much of its policies are determined by the failure of policies by the West. Furthermore, the agenda lacks any clear objective in the region.

Looking at relations as a whole shows Russia’s willingness to work with anti-Western nations but its incapacity to fulfill its promises. Whether this is due to Russia not seeing the Middle East as a priority for its foreign policy or because of resource drainage in Ukraine, this predicament is here to stay. With this in mind, there is still a pattern that can be seen from Russia’s relationship with the Middle East. Firstly, Russia continues to reject military intervention by third-party players as a way to resolve internal political issues. Secondly, it supports the current borders and advocates for stability in the region. Finally, it continues to capitalize on the desire of Middle Eastern countries to have an alternative power to work with.

Russia has a relatively pragmatic and flexible foreign policy regarding the Middle East, where Russia is keen on working with countries willing to cooperate, whilst upholding ‘red lines’ on regime change. It has learned from the mistake of allowing the Libyan no-fly zone morph into a NATO campaign to overthrow the Gaddafi government. It is keen on maximizing its revenues from the region whilst providing stability to the area. However, Russia lacks a concrete plan in the Middle East and seems to be improvising policy as it goes. Although useful at times, it is unsustainable both for Russia’s aim of remaining a credible international power and for stability in the region.

Yemen’s ISIS Crisis

ISIS Yemen Image

Since the start of Ramadan, there has been a large spike in attacks carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) “wilayats” (so-called provinces) operating in Yemen, a disturbing sign of things to come if the diplomatic stalemate in Yemen is maintained. On June 17th, the eve of Ramadan, ISIS claimed responsibility for four car bombs that detonated near two Zaidi mosques and the Houthi headquarters in Sana’a which killed and injured many civilians. Another vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) was used on an ISIS-claimed attack on June 19th near the Qiba al-Mahdi mosque in Sana’a which killed two and wounded six others. Even though it is a possibility that a different terrorist group such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) perpetrated these attacks, ISIS has committed coordinated mosque bombings earlier this year and was quick to claim responsibility. This new high frequency of attacks, bombings that specifically target Shi’a sites of worship, could be a sign of things to come from the ISIS group in Yemen for this month of Ramadan.

The Yemen affiliate of ISIS emerged towards the end of 2014 and has grown significantly since then, with the aim of eventually eclipsing AQAP, in line with its strategy to become the foremost global jihadist movement. Yemen is a key pillar of ISIS’s global strategy of fostering various affiliates and fuelling sectarian tensions in large part because of the serious security vacuum in the country since the start of the civil war which has proven to be fertile ground for radical extremist groups. Furthermore, ISIS’s central strategy is the need to constantly expand, which means expanding not only in Syria and Iraq, which is now harder to do because of the U.S.-led coalition air campaign in those countries, but to other areas of the disaffected Arab World such as Yemen. Yemen is also important to ISIS because it has historically been a major source of foreign fighters to other areas of the Middle East (Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria). ISIS would like to capitalise on this lucrative recruiting pipeline in order to bolster its forces at home.

The swift Houthi takeover in Yemen has pushed some of the local tribes in the centre and south of the country to work with AQAP, currently the most powerful terror group operating in Yemen with control of about 15% of the country and control of al-Mukalla, an important provincial capital. The ISIS groups in Yemen are trying to imitate this AQAP strategy of allying with some of the local Sunni tribes of the country and combining it with its own strategy of inflaming sectarian tensions through targeting Houthi-affiliated individuals and Shia mosques to stir popular mobilization and support along sectarian lines. In an indication of ISIS’s appetite to compete with AQAP, ISIS attacks are occurring in select areas where AQAP is operating, however, so far AQAP appears unswayed by ISIS pretensions and gains.

Although it is certainly true that the presence and power of ISIS “abroad” pales in comparison to their influence within Syria and Iraq, the ISIS presence in Yemen has swelled steadily. It has grown proportionally to the gains made by the Houthis in their southward offensive earlier this year. Pro-ISIS groups have proclaimed themselves “wilayats” of the ISIS caliphate and there are now seven known ISIS groups in Yemen which are operating along the frontlines of the civil war. Although AQAP is the most dangerous al-Qaeda group with the capability to commit terrorist attacks abroad in Western countries, ISIS remains significantly more extreme in its tactics and its rise in Yemen will lead to further radicalisation.  For example, AQAP still strive to respect the wishes of its tribal allies and acts with a degree of restraint, such as its apparent refusal to bomb mosques, which is in marked contrast to the ISIS strategy.

Yemen is of great strategic importance to the Middle East. The stability of the Gulf states and its subsequent effect on the world’s energy security, the cost and security of every cargo and combat ships that goes through the Suez Canal, the economic stability of Egypt, and the security of Saudi Arabia’s key non-Gulf port at Jeddah are all at stake if the current trend towards chaos is maintained within Yemen. What makes the conflict even more dangerous is Yemen’s incredible poverty. With a lack of developed industries and sky-high unemployment, coupled with one of the highest population growth rates in the world and nearly 63% of its population under 25 years old, Yemen is the world’s most fertile ground for political extremism, terrorism and sectarian violence.

Yemen could very well turn out like war-torn Syria, with over half the country carved up between Al Qaeda and ISIS affiliates, if key international powers do not make comprehensive changes to their hands-off approach on Yemen. Firm Western leadership is needed on the issue instead of allowing Saudi Arabia to lead a brutal and mishandled air campaign and blockade as part of its proxy war with Iran, which exacerbates sectarian tensions. In addition to reining in the Saudi-led coalition, the U.S. and other leading Western powers need an overall ISIS strategy that seeks to destroy the terror group as an organisation and not just to root out their influence within specific countries or regions. The growth of ISIS in Yemen is a key sign that the U.S.-led air campaign against the group is not effectively stemming its expansion. In addition to Yemen, ISIS has thus far successfully extended into Libya and the Sahel. However, in a sign of ISIS’s lack of universal appeal, it has so far failed to make significant inroads in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which suggests that the expansion of ISIS certainly isn’t impossible and can be dealt with. Nevertheless, with frozen peace negotiations and no end in sight to the Houthi conflict, there is a certainty that more will be heard of ISIS in Yemen in the near future.

Unnamed U.S. Government officials meet with Huthi administration in Muscat


Recently, an Omani government aircraft transported representatives of the Huthi administration in Yemen from Sana’a to Muscat where they reportedly met with unnamed U.S. Government officials. It is said to have been at the request of the United States.

Sources tell us that Iran may also have participated in the Muscat talks, although it is not clear whether or not this was in the presence of the Americans.

The principal reason for these discussions was to explore ways to end the current fighting between Saudi Arabia and the Yemenis. It is believed that Oman endeavored to have representatives from both Saudi Arabia and the internationally recognized government in Riyadh attend these talks, as well, but that both of these parties had declined.

Oman and the U.S. are reportedly trying to find a face-saving way for the Saudis to cease their air campaign and blockade. However, intransigence on both sides is making progress on reaching this goal glacial.

On a related note, UN special envoy to Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, is said to be continuing his efforts to set a new date for Yemeni political factions to meet in Geneva for peace talks. The previous talks were postponed at the request of President al-Hadi, apparently with strong Saudi backing. The Huthis have indicated their willingness to talk, although it is not known what preconditions either side is still insisting upon. Such preconditions to peace talks inevitably create delays and, to some extent, can lead to a standstill in the peace process entirely. They have often proven to be important obstacles, which in most cases can be difficult if not impossible to overcome.

A second but less central issue raised by the U.S. concerns the status of five American citizens who remain in custody in Yemen. One of these, Sharif Mobley, was first detained by the previous government in 2010 on terrorism charges and is believed to be a ‘person of interest’ and wanted for questioning by the FBI for his supposed linkages to “al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula.”

The other four have not been publicly identified. The U.S. has repeatedly called for their release. They are believed to have been heldin a prison, which has been the target of repeated Saudi Air strikes.

Night bombing continues as the Yemen war grinds on

This comes in from a Senior Board Member of the Next Century Foundation:   Untold hundreds of innocent Yemeni civilians are being caught in the cross-fire of regular bombing runs.

There is no viable end game in the Yemen war.

At a time when the Yemen war against the Huthis is escalating, the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) — which promises to liberate Mecca and Medina from “the Saudi snake” — is gaining in both Syria and Iraq, while “al-Qa’ida” is consolidating its gains in Yemen.

Washington is deeply involved in supporting the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). Without US help, the Saudis could not sustain their air campaign. They depend on U.S. and British corporate support to maintain their aircraft; they need intelligence to find their targets; and they need resupply to replace their expended munitions.

Yemen Crisis continues to escalate

Earlier today (24th April), an Iranian flotilla bound for Yemen, suspected of carrying weapons for Houthi rebels, averted its course and turned back. According to U.S officials, Iranian cargo ships, accompanied by two Iranian warships, shifted course as a U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS Theodore Roosevelt moved within 200 nautical miles of the flotilla. This move averted a potential confrontation between the Iranian and American warships. Following this incident which took place in the Gulf of Aden, officials claim it is still too soon to tell if a crisis has been averted.


The conflict has sent tensions soaring between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran, raising fears that Yemen could become a new front in what some believe to be proxy war between Middle East powers. Yemen’s Foreign Minister Riyadh Yassin accused Tehran of trying to break a naval blockade on his country, describing the war as an “Iranian plot implemented by the Houthi militia”.

President Obama said that Iran has been warned to not challenge the United Nations arms embargo on the Houthis. He went on to say, “What we’ve said to them is that if there are weapons delivered to factions within Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem.”

After four weeks of ruthless airstrikes, more than a 1,000 civilians have been killed with over 4,000 injured and 150,000 displaced in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has destroyed many of the Houthi rebels’ sites and weapons but with Iran’s support they seem to be surviving. The Saudis are nowhere near to restoring the Yemeni president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi who was driven into exile in Saudi Arabia.

The US has been helping Saudi Arabia with intelligence and tactical advice and by deploying warships off the Yemeni coast. However with the numbers killed rising and no resolution in sight, they are now urging them to end the bombing. The Obama administration seems to have realised that the Saudis appear to have no credible strategy for achieving their political goals, or even managing their intervention.

Saudi Arabia’s much-publicised creation of a Sunni coalition to fight “the Iranian and Shiite threat” in the Middle East took two major blows when Pakistan and Turkey opted out of the coalition after having initially indicated that they would join. Riyadh worries that Iran is emerging as a legitimate player on the regional and global stage and Washington no longer perceived as a reliably anti-Iranian force thus potentially jeopardising its relationship with the Americans.

The United Nations had previously led a diplomatic initiative which made some progress, but was not given enough support and attention and the official leading the negotiations, Jamal Benomar, resigned. Finding a political solution will not be easy. For one, it will require Saudi Arabia to accept the Houthis as part of the governing power structure if there is any hope of bringing some stability to the country.