April 14, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Saudi Arabia’s Regional Strategy

• Saudi Arabia’s Yemen campaign is not going to plan; a broken country is just becoming more broken

• In reality, however successful the Houthi may be in Yemen, they can offer Iran no real or lasting advantage

• Syria is a more determinant battlefield, and the time may have arrived for Saudi Arabia to encourage more direct Turkish involvement; Turkey might well agree

• The Iranians also have reasons to accept a negotiated departure for Assad, allowing all sides to focus on the extremist groups that have benefited from the conflict, as well as on the long-term consequences of the humanitarian crisis.


The war in Yemen gets no better for either side; only ex-President Saleh may see advantage from the increasing chaos. If Saudi Arabia calculated that coalition airstrikes would quickly bring Houthi ambitions to a halt, they have been proved wrong. Rather than pinning them down, Saudi Arabia has seen the Houthis both advance into Aden and launch lethal attacks on Saudi border posts. At the same time Pakistan has decided against committing ground troops to Yemen in support of the Saudi campaign, and the offer to do so by Egypt rings hollow. Without an available ground force to consolidate gains and stabilize the country, it is hard to see what the Saudi coalition airstrikes can achieve.

Against this background, the Saudis appear to be reconsidering their strategy. Despite all appearances and earlier statements from his UAE counterpart that would seem to contradict him, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said on April 12 that the Saudi-led coalition was not at war with Iran. The distinction between a direct and an indirect war with Iran is of course an important one, but the statement may indicate a shift of emphasis. Saudi Arabia may realize that even if the Houthi were able to consolidate control over Yemen, Iran would not gain much from a fragile and unreliable government facing endless difficulties of internal control and economic survival; Syria is a far more important prize.

The other advantage of focusing on Syria is that it is an issue around which the Sunni partnership can coalesce. King Salman is less obsessed with the Muslim Brotherhood than his predecessor, but more concerned with building a strong Sunni alliance that reaches out to non-Arab States, in particular Turkey and Pakistan. Pakistan is fully occupied at home, and it was always unlikely that it would send a fighting force to Yemen, and Turkey would not consider such a move. But Syria is different. Turkey seems increasingly ready to commit ground troops there if it can have the necessary air cover—something that the U.S. has so far refused to provide. If the Saudi coalition, with the tacit agreement and indirect support of the U.S., can provide the airplanes, it might allow Turkey to make a move across the border, initially on humanitarian grounds but poised to extend its role.

With Iranian militia preoccupied with the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, and Hizballah wary of taking on the Turks, all sides might then conclude that it is a good time to negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war that allows some part of the pro-Iranian regime to survive, but removes Assad and allows the Sunni majority to play a more dominant role. Iran has always made clear that Assad’s survival is negotiable, and Russia has done so as well. If it is possible to take his family and close supporters out of key positions without collapsing the whole edifice, that would be an objective worth striving for. Once achieved, all forces could then turn their attention towards the so-called Islamic State, and test their degree of influence over the extremist agendas of other groups.

The powers of the region are forced by geography to live together and there will always be friction, whether between states or communities, but the current free fall helps no one, and the region’s leaders realize this. State-to-state competition is far easier to regulate than the community tension apparent in the growth of vicious sectarianism. This can only further empower al-Qaeda affiliates and the Islamic State, which are the only parties to the various conflicts that have clearly benefited from them so far.

The Iranians may calculate that Arab military coalitions are by definition short-lived, but, as signaled by the supreme leader on April 9, there is still a long way to go in the nuclear talks, and Iran will need to assess its overall strategic strength before agreeing to a deal. Wars and uncertainty all around will not make that easier. A deal on Syria may therefore be in Iranian interests as well, and Iran is more likely to prefer a future Syria where Turkish influence is stronger, over one in which it has ceded ground to any other regional force. With the humanitarian crisis providing another long-term source of regional instability, all sides, except Assad, may conclude it is time to take more decisive action to put what remains of Syria back together again.


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