Proxy War in Yemen

17 May 2015

Sunday


yemen on the map

When we hear “proxy war” we think of the Cold War, but the idea of a proxy war can be extrapolated beyond the particular circumstances of the Cold War to apply to any war fought between two or more nation-states that is not fought on the territory of the nation-states in question. Yemen has become a battleground, a proxy war, within the larger de facto war taking place within Islamic civilization (which I have touched upon in The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization and The Problem of Islamic Terrorism). Yemen is, one might say (with a certain ruefulness), the “perfect” venue for a proxy war in the region. On the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, directly bordering on Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government is not strong enough to enforce an internal security regime, and is routinely referred to as a “failed state” (cf. Yemen and Warfare in Failed States).

Yemen-map-jpg

In a couple of posts on the developments in Yemen during the events following the Arab SpringDefinitive Ambiguity in Yemen and Saleh gives the Saudis the Slip — I discussed the murkiness of Yemeni politics. As we now see, the definitive ambiguity in Yemen has given way to civil war and proxy war. The situation in Yemen has calmed down for the moment, but it is the nature of proxy wars to pass through cycles of relative calm punctuated by flareups of spectacular violence. We should expect to see further such flareups.

Yemen has long been a primarily tribal society, and as such it has been an easy mark for outside powers, who can usually find a willing client among the many tribes. The country was split in two during the Cold War between North Yemen and South Yemen in an earlier proxy war. In more recent events, after the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the installation of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels, Shia backed by Iran, established control over a considerable portion of the country, sending Hadi packing, and Saudi Arabia responded by bombing Yemen to push back against Houthi gains. Interestingly, former president Saleh has sided with the Houthis (cf. Eyeing return, Yemen’s ousted Saleh aids Houthis).

Yemen_Topography

There is a backstory to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s proclamation of support for the Houthi rebels making progress in Yemen. During the Arab Spring (seems like a long time ago now, right?), when autocrats who expected (and attempted to enforce) a life tenure in office were falling left and right, the Saudis pressured Saleh into giving up power. Saleh, apparently a wily character, tried his best to hang on, and even slipped out of Saudi Arabia after receiving medical treatment in the Kingdom. One suspects that this current ploy is (among other things) an opportunity for Saleh to poke Saudi Arabia in the eye with a stick after they were instrumental in his ouster from power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, former President of Yemen, now backing the Houthis as a way to return to power.

So Yemen finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with Iran backing proxies and Saudi Arabia bombing the country. Iran, the contemporary representative of an ancient civilization derived from the west Asia cluster, Persia, possesses a dimension of prestige that extends to before the the advent of Islamic civilization. This might seem a bit recondite to enter into contemporary geopolitical hardball, but it is not far below the surface. The Financial Times quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, as saying, “Yemen is an independent country with an old civilisation, much older than Saudi Arabia.” The subtext of this message is that Iran is an independent country with an old civilzation, much older than Saudi Arabia.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

Yemen in the aftermath of the Saudi bombing campaign.

It has been argued that the conflicts among Islamic nation-states are not religious conflicts per se, assimilating conflict within Islamic civilization to conflict within the nation-state paradigm, and doing so where that paradigm is at its weakest, even as groups like ISIS seek to score ideological points by flaunting conventions of the nation-state, as in their pointed abrogation of territorial boundaries (cf. ISIS and Sykes-Picot).

It has also been argued that Iran and groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been for decades contesting for the title of vanguard of revolutionary Islam, with the idea being whichever can prove itself the more radical and ruthless will win the acclaim of the Islamic masses, and that this rivalry transcends the split between Sunni and Shia because it pits the Ummah against Dar al-Harb, and presumably unifies the Islamic masses against a common enemy. (One then wonders why ISIS, most recent representative of radical Islam, makes a point of mass executions of those they regard as infidels, most of whom are fellow Muslims, although not sharing the exact beliefs of ISIS.)

If both of these arguments are taken seriously, then we could safely ignore the Sunni/Shia split in Islamic civilization and proceed to predict the actions of agents in current regional conflicts in purely secular terms, without reference to Islam. At this point, we realize that this is a familiar argument and that we have seen it before. This is exactly the sort of thing that Sam Harris has criticized in his many books on the role of religion in public life: the moderate views of the many come to facilitate the radical views of the few, as the radicals are dismissed as not “really” representing the religious views of the community, therefore they can safely be ignored and treated as criminals, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever. All the while, unquestioned moderate religious beliefs are the backdrop that gives plausibility and prestige to radical views disclaimed by moderates. (In Hearts and Minds and Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind I called this the principle of facilitating moderation.) The Sunni/Shia split is embedded in the moderate representatives of Islam, and cannot be disentangled from regional diplomacy without falsifying events on the ground.

The illusion of a secular conflict in MENA, in so far as this illusion is perpetuated, will turn diplomacy into a sideshow unrelated to the reality on the ground, and ineffectual for that reason. The most recent message from Al-Khalifah Ibrahim, Ameer Al-Mu’mineen, Al-Sheikh Al-Mujaahid Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi, “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy,” takes pains to disavow any secular interpretation of the actions of ISIS:

O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war until Allah is worshiped alone. He (peace be upon him) said to the polytheists of his people, “I came to you with slaughter.” He fought both the Arabs and non-Arabs in all their various colors. He himself left to fight and took part in dozens of battles. He never for a day grew tired of war.

In the public discourse of the US, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran was primarily about delaying the eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to ameliorate the perception of an existential threat to Israel. Here in the west we have our own problems with mainstream religious moderates making excuses for religious extremists, who use their extremist credentials to establish their bona fides with the Christian masses. Thus the Israeli-Iran conflict plays well in the US press, and is uncontroversial because all political parties in the US support Israel. But the recent U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David (cf. More than Keeping Up the Facade: The U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David by Anthony H. Cordesman) reveals that there is much more going on in the deal with Iran than is part of the public discourse of ensuring Israeli security.

The US has long-standing security relationships with Sunni Arab states, and especially with Saudi Arabia (which spends six times more on its military than does Iran). The Gulf Sunni Arab states are worried that a US-Iranian rapprochement will mean that long-frozen Iranian assets will be made available to Iran, and, with the reintegration of Iran in the global financial community, Iran will have even more money to back its regional proxies, which have long been Iran’s most effective foreign policy tool. This is a legitimate concern on the part of the Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia itself knows all too well the soft power it buys with the money is spreads around; Iran does the same thing with far less money, but with hard power assets thrown into the deal), but this is not a concern that plays well in the US press, and no Saudi prince is going to receive an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, especially over White House objections. Moreover, there is an ideological overlap between the Salafist extremism actively supported by Saudi Arabia and the extremism of ISIS (an overlap that goes beyond their common Sunni beliefs), and, if this were to be widely discussed in the US press, Iran would look good by comparison.

The nuclear deal with Iran is as relevant, if not more relevant, to Saudi Arabia than it is to Israel. It is widely understood that Saudi Arabia partially funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the understanding that, if Saudi Arabia wants nuclear weapons, then they will be made available. Thus Saudi Arabia has access to nuclear weapons without having to host the industrial infrastructure of the nuclear fuel cycle on its own soil — a triumph of plausible deniability. The Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, while primarily about regime survivability, must also be seen in the light of Saudi Arabia’s deniable nuclear capability (which can be understood as an instance of nuclear ambiguity).

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Thursday


Ecclesiates' explicit denial of novelty in the world: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Recently Strategic Forecasting has been using the loaded phrase, “new cold war.” Here is one example, from Russia and the United States: Pushing Tensions to the Limit?:

In the past few years, Russia has been relatively successful in regaining influence in many of its former Soviet states. This brought Russian power back to its broader frontiers, especially in Central Europe, where the United States has staked a dominant position. Russia is not looking to control Central Europe, but it does not want the region to be a base of U.S. power in Eurasia. Washington sees Central Europe as the new Cold War line — a position previously held by Germany — that halts Russia’s influence.

And here’s another example, from a situation report, U.K.: Iran Could Start New Cold War — Hague:

Iran’s nuclear ambitions could prompt nuclear development in the Middle East and cause a “new Cold War” that lacks safety mechanisms, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, BBC reported Feb. 18. It would cause the most serious round of nuclear proliferation with the Middle East’s destabilizing effects, Hague said, adding that Israel is urged not to strike Iran.

The latter is of special interest as it quotes British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who used the phrase in an interview with the Daily Telegraph:

“It is a crisis coming down the tracks,” he said. “Because they are clearly continuing their nuclear weapons programme… If they obtain nuclear weapons capability, then I think other nations across the Middle East will want to develop nuclear weapons.

“And so, the most serious round of nuclear proliferation since nuclear weapons were invented would have begun with all the destabilising effects in the Middle East. And the threat of a new cold war in the Middle East without necessarily all the safety mechanisms… That would be a disaster in world affairs.”

When an official at this level of government service makes this kind of public pronouncement, it is intentional. Such statements have consequences. They also have implications. One of the implications of this statement is that a new cold war would come with a new arms race, and this idea was given an independent exposition in The drift towards war with Iran by Gideon Rachman. This article in the Financial Times includes the following:

“…Saudi Arabia has made it clear that if Iran does successfully acquire a bomb, it will swiftly do the same. The Saudis are believed to have a deal with Pakistan, which is already a nuclear weapons state. The threat of a nuclear arms race loomed large in recent comments by William Hague, the British foreign secretary.”

I was very interested in this, so I wrote to Mr. Rachman to ask him what public intelligence was available for this. He was kind enough to respond, and said that he had heard as much from spooks and politicians in a couple of countries. I have no reason to do doubt this, and subsequent research revealed to me that quite a bit has been written about the relationship of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani nuclear program. (Cf., e.g., Saudi Arabia’s nuclear arsenal-on-demand. A reader who commented on this story wrote, “The Saudis are playing a master game.”)

Thus I learned it has been widely reported that Saudi Arabia largely financed the Pakistani nuclear program with the understanding that, if they wanted a bomb of their own, this would be made available to them from the ongoing nuclear program in Pakistan, either in the form of technology transfers or even providing Saudi Arabia with a ready-made arsenal or a half dozen or so nuclear weapons “off the shelf,” as it were. The presumptive trigger for Saudi acquisition of nuclear weapons would be the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran.

The obvious scenario for a nuclear arms race centered on the Arabian Peninsula would follow from Iran publicly proclaiming its possession of nuclear weapons, followed by Saudi Arabia calling in its nuclear promissory note, and then there are the wealthy Gulf Sheikdoms who could afford a nuclear weapon if such were made available to them (even if their own technical and industrial infrastructure would not be adequate to the production of nuclear weapons). Perhaps Egypt, too, in some future democratic iteration, would want The Bomb. Egypt is often cited as the spiritual and intellectual capital of the Arab world, and it might want a geostrategic posture equal to its spiritual stature. And then there would be question of whether Iran’s militant proxies in Syria, Lebanon, or wherever sympathetic Shia populations are to be found, would be given tactical nukes.

The very idea of nuclear proliferation on this scale would certainly give a few statesmen nightmares. But would this come to pass, and, if it did come to pass, is there any reason to suppose that the nation-states of the region would be less capable to understanding or abiding by the logic of mutually assured destruction than were the US and the USSR?

It was thought at one time that a nuclear armed North Korea might be the trigger for a nuclear arms race in East Asia. This stands to reason. Both Japan and South Korea are technologically advanced nation-states with an extensive industrial plant that would be capable of producing nuclear weapons with little difficulty. Both are also wealthy, and could afford both the production of nuclear weapons and any sanctions that might result from their acquisition. With Japan and South Korea, it is not a question of capability at all, it is only a question of intent. A political change in the region could change that intent.

So far, we have not seen a nuclear arms race in East Asia, which means that there is no inevitability that, when a belligerent nation-state acquires nuclear weapons that neighboring nation-states will acquire then regardless of cost. Furthermore, the occasional engagements between North Korea and South Korea (like the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island) have been kept well below the nuclear threshold, as has been the case conflict around the world when a nuclear-armed power is involved.

It is apparently the case with India and Pakistan that, if the one had The Bomb, the other had to have The Bomb also. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto famously said, “If India builds the bomb, we will eat grass or leaves, even go hungry, but we will get one of our own.” So far, again, in the India subcontinent, we have not seen wider proliferation, as though there were a nuclear domino effect, though certainly Abdul Qadeer Khan ran quite a personal proliferation shop for a time. Moreover, the cold war between India and Pakistan has been a well-behaved cold war like that between the US and the USSR. Conflicts have been kept well below the nuclear threshold, and everyone seems to be quite well aware of the consequences of mutually assured destruction. And in this connection we ought to observe that neither Pakistan nor India has the kind robust deterrent possessed by the US or the USSR during the cold war, with three dependable legs of a nuclear triad and for that reason an equally robust and dependable second strike capability.

It is a little disingenuous to speak of “new cold wars” and “new arms races,” since, if there is nothing new under the sun of geopolitics, there is nothing new about these most recent iterations of cold wars and arms races. Human history, if only we look at it in such a way as to appreciate it rightly, has cold wars of far greater extent than anything that happened during the twentieth century, and arms races too frequently to count.

The really interesting geostrategic questions are not whether Iran will acquire the Bomb or if there will be a nuclear arms race in the Arabian Peninsula, but whether arms races cause cold wars or cold wars cause arms races. Similarly, the questions we should be asking now should include whether the arms race/cold war dialectic issues in a stable albeit tense peace more often than it issues it all-out war between the competing parties.

We know that the First World War was preceded by an arms race focused on Dreadnaught class battleships, but more generally there was a competition among all the European powers to acquire vast military resources and a social infrastructure capable of mobilizing the military machine acquired through industrialization. In this case, the arms race/cold war dialectic did in fact issue in a catastrophic conflict that released the pent-up energies of conflict and in fact far surpassed the expectation of planners.

In the case of the arms race/cold war dialectic between the US and the USSR, this dialectic did not in fact culminate in a catastrophic conflict. Sometimes a cold war ends with a bang, and sometimes with a whimper. Are these two historical examples so diverse in terms of the historical accidents that gave rise to the particular circumstances of each that no general lessons can be drawn, or, rather, can a careful study of the essential issues involved be sufficiently isolated and abstracted that we can formulate a coherent theory that will shed light on the present and provide a rational basis for prediction of the future?

These are the true questions of geopolitics, and not the “horse race” questions of who gets what first, and the like. We learn nothing from reading headlines, even headlines of “secret deals,” and we learn little more from the reports of spies, if we are privy to such. It is the detailed record of the past that demands our attention. Here is a wealth of detail waiting to be discovered that can teach us about ourselves.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Tuesday


In the northern hemisphere we are beginning to see the first signs of spring. A week ago I saw snowdrops in bloom, and I suspect that primroses are blooming in quite a few places, although I haven’t seen any yet. That is my experience of early spring in the wet, temperate climate of the Pacific Northwest. Elsewhere in the world, the Second Annual Arab Spring is getting underway. The remarkable events of 2011 have now receded far enough in history that one year anniversaries are being celebrated (or suppressed), and in some cases these one year anniversaries are the occasion for new protests (as in the case of Bahrain: Bahrain restricts protests on uprising anniversary), and possibly the gathering of renewed momentum for change in regions long without substantive political change.

On at least a couple of occasions I have been scolded by a reader for the amount of commentary I have devoted to Libya and Syria while neglecting the situation in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Obviously, I feel that Libya and Syria are important and worthy of attention. Of course, the events in Bahrain and the non-events in Saudi Arabia are also important, but I haven’t had much to say about the Kingdom of Saud, and I don’t think that I’ve written anything about Bahrain. Partly this is a function of the difficulty for a Westerner of obtaining anything like candid reports of life within these nation-states. They are largely quiescent on the surface, but it is to be expected the subterranean forces are moving below the surface, and these forces could probably only be discerned by an expert in these societies.

It is often implied, and sometimes explicitly stated, that Arab nation-states that remained largely quiescent throughout the Arab Spring of 2011, like Saudi Arabia, and those that decisively put down their protests, like Bahrain, are able to remain quiet or engage in successful repression due to their close relationship with the US. Here is an example of an explicit statement of this thesis:

“If you live in an Arab country whose dictator is a client of the Americans, the US will do everything in its power to suppress your revolt, and if you succeed despite US efforts, the US will sponsor the counter-revolution against you directly and indirectly through its local allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, but now also Qatar. This of course applies to the situations in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Oman, and in Saudi Arabia itself. If you happen to live in a country whose dictator, though friendly to the West, maintains an independent line on foreign policy or at least a line that cannot always be guaranteed to serve Western interests — and this applies to Syria and Iran (and lest we forget their services to the West, both countries helped actively the US effort to unseat Saddam, and the Syrian regime helped with US efforts in supporting rightwing forces in Lebanon against the Lebanese left and the PLO in the 1970s) and less so Libya, then the US will help sponsor your revolt against your dictator to bring about a more pliant dictator to serve its interests without equivocation, and it will do so in the name of supporting democracy.”

The struggle for Syria by Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University in New York

I am not going to attempt to parse this piece in detail, as that would take me rather far afield. Most of what Professor Massad writes in this Al-Jazeera opinion piece is utter garbage. (The above quote, which is at least coherent, is not necessarily representative of the whole piece.) It more than strains credulity to identify the Arab League as an instrument of US policy, as the professor explicitly does. I have no doubt however, whatever my opinion of Professor Massad’s conspiratorial ramblings, that he speaks for many, and that his analysis of the Arab region as being divided between US clients who will receive support suppressing rebellion and non-US clients who will be allowed to fail and fall would be endorsed by many. Indeed, this part of the analysis is not entirely wrong, though it is set in a context that casts everything else he writes into question.

The real question is not whether the US presence in the region influences events — it would be impossible for the most powerful nation-state in the world not to influence events wherever it is present — but whether this is the central and determining influence upon regional dynamics. It is not. The regional dynamics are regional. The US presence is felt, even disproportionately, but it is an influence that is exercised upon a regional dynamic that is defined by the peoples and nation-states of the region. And the distinction between peoples and nation-states is crucial, because almost all nation-states in the region are divided to some extent along sectarian lines: two or more peoples in one state structure.

Bahrain is a very small country, only three and half times the size of Washington, DC according to the CIA Factbook (760 sq. km.). Even as a very small nation-state, it still hosts a divided population. The population of 1,214,705 is split between approximately 70 percent Shia and 30 percent Sunni. As in several states in the region, the majority population is Shia, while the ruling class is Sunni. This is widely perceived as a highly problematic demographic, since Iran is presumed to represent the vanguard of Shia Islam in the region, with the implication being that the essentially disenfranchised Shia majority looks to Iran for leadership.

Given these demographic realities, it would be no surprise that the ruling elites of Bahrain would come down very hard on a Shia uprising whether or not the US was present in the country. (They did, and while they have recently expressed some misgivings over the repression — Bahrain admits using ‘excessive force’ during protests — the renewed repression of anniversary protests suggests that there was no deep soul-searching among Bahrain’s elite political class.) In a nation-state in which the majority population is political disenfranchised, a popular revolt is indistinguishable from an ethno-sectarian insurrection.

Although the Saudis have a more homogenous population (The Shia constitute 10-15% of Saudi Arabia’s population) but the more profound division in Saudi Arabia is between those who are satisfied with the status quo and those who want radical change, and most especially those who want to violently end the rule of the House of Saud and deliver over the holy places of Islam to rule by a transnational Caliphate. The Saudis have engaged in a predictable two-prong campaign of spreading around a lot of money while seeking to quell dissent. They have been remarkably successful in keeping the country superficially quiet, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that things are simmering under the surface in the Kingdom.

Saudi failures are occasionally highlighted by an interesting story that surfaces, as in Saudi dissidents turn to YouTube to air their frustrations. Like young dissidents elsewhere in the world, some Saudis have turned to social media outlets. Governments can attempt to shut this sort of thing down, but it is a cat-and-mouse game. Everyone knows that sensitive material is likely to be removed, so as soon as it is posted, someone else usually copies it and re-posts it later. In China, despite the Great Firewall, social media has become so pervasive that micro-blogs overwhelm the efforts of censors when there is a big story. This was the case with the high speed train wreck that killed many people. However, just as dissidents are not shut down by a single action, so censors do not cease their efforts when a single story breaks free and a crack appears in the official media facade.

Youtube videos have a particular immediacy, not only because it allows the viewer both to see and to hear the story, but also because interesting stories usually have long, involved, and detailed comments sections in which people bluntly debate the merits of the video being presented. It is the very bluntness — often vulgar, and often profane — that makes people aware that they are seeing something real, unlike the slickly produced “news” stories of official media.

The Youtube videos mentioned in the above McClatchy story particularly highlighted ongoing poverty in Saudi Arabia despite the oil wealth and despite the efforts to spread money around, so we clearly get the sense that, however successful the House of Saud may be in silencing dissent, its attempts to buy off its people with luxuries are not entirely successful. One can easily guess, in a kingdom ruled by an obscenely wealthy extended family, benefits are not distributed among the people on an egalitarian basis, but are much more likely to flow through client-patron networks. If you don’t have a well-connected patron, you probably get little or nothing.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: