Sunni status quo confronts Shiite revisionism in Yemen
With a few days to go before the deadline of the nuclear talks with Iran, a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of forces started to hit rebel positions in Yemen in the early hours of March 26. The move came after a call by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was forced to flee the capital Sanaa last month, losing control of large chunks of the country to the Iran-backed, mainly Shiite Houthi forces. Yemen has been failing for almost two decades now, with al-Qaeda and similar armed groups having seized control of swathes of the country for years.
The Saudi-led move has been backed by a number of Western Alliance NATO countries, including Turkey. A statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry – which was praised by the also-supportive U.S. - highlighted the need for “stability” in the region (ie. the greater Middle East).
This is not exactly a move by the “Sunni Front” that Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman wants to form. He opened up that issue to a number of leaders earlier this month, including Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan during his visit to Riyadh. However, the move is clearly a Sunni reflex to protect the status quo in the region, especially against the Shiite revisionism that is pushing itself forward amid the chaos created by Sunni jihadist movements like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Since the collapse of the Arab Spring and the rise of various jihadist movements, Iran has steadily extended its influence to a number of capitals in the region, including Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and lately Sanaa, effectively encircling Saudis and other Sunni-led Gulf countries. The fact that the Iranians and Shiite militia are the only forces confronting the expansion of ISIL in Iraq, together with Kurdish forces and what is left of the Iraqi army, has made Tehran’s star shine in regional politics when combined with news from the nuclear talks with the UN 5+1.
On the other hand, all of the countries that have witnessed increasing Iranian influence in their capitals are currently either emroiled in civil war or deep instability, and their Iran-backed regimes are not in control of their territorial or political integrity.
Russia, also part of the nuclear talks, thinks that the military intervention could further antagonize the situation in the region amid the Syrian crisis. The Saudi-led move, as backed by NATO and the Arab League, aims to suppress the Shiite spread in the region, which appears on the Sunni radar as bigger than it actually is, possibly because of Iran overplaying its hand due to propaganda purposes.
There are two burning questions regarding the military intervention in Yemen:
1- Will it stop Yemen from falling apart?
2- Will it stop the deepening sectarian rifts in the region?
It is not quite possible to give positive answers to either question.