While Saudi Arabia seems to be serious about ‘co-operating’ with Russia in ‘eliminating’ Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, the real motive behind this co-operation and increased engagement with Moscow may be the continuing need to stabilize the oil market.
This does not, however, mean Saudi Arabia is not trying to influence Russia with regard to the latter’s military campaign in Syria. While it could not prevent the Russians from engaging militarily in Syria, Riyadh is certainly trying to influence the outcome by re-engaging with the Russians and by reaching, what the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called, mutual “understanding.”
But had Saudi Arabia been so serious about elimination of IS and other terrorist networks, it could not have supported IS and Al-Qaeda in Yemen against Houthis, nor designed the policy of supporting proxy groups in Yemen after the catastrophic failure of this very policy in Syria. As it stands, they do not seem to have learnt any lesson from their failure there.
Reports say IS units are gaining strength in Yemen due to the financial and military support being provided by Saudi Arabia. And since their official “We have arrived” announcement in April 2015, IS have carried out a number of operations in the country.
According to Abayomi Azikiwe, the editor of the portal Pan-African News Wire, radical Islamists are enjoying strong support in Yemen and he is convinced that the Saudi coalition had access to US intelligence reports throughout its operations.
In a videotaped message, an IS commander thus stated their objective: “We have come to Yemen, with men hungry for your blood to avenge the Sunnis and take back the land they have occupied.”
Their objective perfectly ‘coincides’ with that of Saudi Arabia that, too, is trying to ‘liberate’ the land captured by Houthi fighters since the beginning of the conflict. Indeed, the objective is to ‘liberate’ the land of the Houthis once and for all. Hence, IS bombing of Houthis.
Although the ‘official’ announcement came in April, the first major attack carried out by IS’s newly announced division the Green Brigade in Yemen was in March which left at least 150 killed and more than 300 injured.
Historically speaking, Yemen has been a major feeder for jihadi groups, pumping fighters into Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya etc. That is to say, IS does have a pipeline of fighters that it might try to tap into. According to a Yemeni official’s statement, IS are already engaged in a propaganda against Al-Qaeda to wean their fighters away from them.
They are found telling Al-Qaeda’s recruits that they can better fund operations against Houthis than AQAP—Al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula. That they have “more funds” than Al-Qaeda is perhaps an indication of a “secret” financer they have in Yemen. While IS does have “oil-money” in Syria and Iraq to finance their operations, they do not have such a source in Yemen, so far.
Aimen Dean, a former al Qaeda insider who now runs a Gulf-based security consultancy, is reported to have said that IS began setting up its stranglehold in Yemen a year ago, with about 80 people. But their strength has grown to about 300 militants. Copious funding from IS coffers, al Qaeda’s inability to attack the Houthis regularly, and losses of al Qaeda leaders in drone attacks had discouraged its habitual supporters and led to a series of defections.
“They are supplanting al Qaeda and presenting themselves as the credible alternative,” he said of IS.
While IS’s emergence is likely to intensify into a conflict between them and AQAP, the actor standing to benefit the most from it is Saudi Arabia because AQAP and IS are, as they already have been, directing their energies towards killing the Houthis and their sympathisers in Yemen. With Saudi Arabia providing, wittingly or unwittingly, a sort of “air cover” to both AQAP and IS, these two forces are likely to intensify their drive against the Houthis.
The Saudis are, in this way, depending upon them for ground operations as Saudi forces have repeatedly failed to gain their desired objectives. As a matter of fact, Saudi forces’ operational capacity can be gauged from the fact that they had to cooperate with the militants of the so-called ‘Southern Movement’ in a successful attempt to recapture Aden which was being held by the Houthis.
In addition, a coalition of Saudi troops actually shared control of the southern Yemeni cities with militants of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), without ever challenging them. Detachments of this terrorist group entered the city of Zinjibar and Aden in southern Yemen and shared control over these areas with the troops of the Saudi coalition. Residents of this port city puzzled Reuters reporters with claims that the city was flooded with militants fighting under a black banner once the Houthis left.
All this can be explained quite simply. AQAP militants and the troops of the Saudi coalition are not allies, but while in desperate need to launch an offensive into the central part of the country, the Saudis decided to make an agreement with these terrorists and, in turn, happily gave them control of the southern cities.
The Saudis, at the moment, are facing threat not from the Houthis alone. The intensity of this threat multiplies when the local Shia factor is taken into consideration. Were Saudi Arabia’s Shia population to join the Houthis against their mutual oppressor, the Saudis might find themselves encircled from within and without. Such an alliance between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia’s local Shia population will also provide an additional impetus to IS, which thrives on its sectarian appeal, to increase its presence in Yemen and multiply its attacks too.
The Saudis are not winning the war and it is making them desperate. Marred by their inability to launch ground operations and win battles, they have reached the breaking point. In their desperation to avoid another defeat after Syria, not only are they willingly — directly and indirectly — supporting almost every group that is ready to counter the Houthis, but also drawing other countries’ armies into the war zone.
Only a few days ago, news agencies reported the transfer of almost 800 Egyptian soldiers to Yemen. Although Egypt had earlier refused to take part in the conflict, it has now decided to take the plunge.
The purchase of the French Mistral ships on the money provided by the UAE and the ongoing rearmament of Egyptian troops sponsored by the Saudi royal family seem to have combined to force Cairo into taking part in the war. However, they can still be least expected to advance on ground operations. What they can at the most be expected to do is to hold ground wherever they must.
Given Saudi Arabia’s precarious internal situation and Yemen’s situation as it is escalating into a much expanded and complicated war, the Saudis and IS cannot be expected to become “allies” in the literal sense of the word. While they do share a common enemy, IS also has declared “jihad” against the kingdom itself. For instance, IS claimed responsibility of recent bombing of Qasr hotel and other targets used by the Arab coalition.
However, despite this claim, the official news agency of the UAE chose to pin responsibility on the Houthis for this bombing. And when asked about their policy against AQAP and ISIS in Yemen, officials of the Coalition said that they would deal with such groups once the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was ousted by the Houthis in January, was reinstated, thus unwittingly implying that until that Government is reinstated, the Arab coalition and these groups remain partners. Although uneasy but still “allies.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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