Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is faced with an uphill task of getting a parliamentary consensus on his emotionally articulated wish to send the military contingent to Saudi Arabia; now he is planning a shortcut—an in camera All Parties Conference, where he will be confronted only by obliging party heads, and the proceeding shall not go public. In the meanwhile, the conflict is well past the peak. Iran-Turkey summit has reinforced the likelihood of a cease fire. Iranian foreign minister shall soon convey this to Pakistan, at the same time he will urge Pakistan to not to join the Saudi led coalition; feedback from Turkey is already in. By this evening all information gaps would be filled. While an overwhelming consensus is emerging for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement, no frame work for such talks is on the horizon.
Nevertheless space for diplomacy is clearly increasing; by now all parties to the conflict have nodded affirmative for negotiations; hence raison d’etre for sending the military contingent to Saudi Arabia is fast diluting. Handling of this crisis by the government of Pakistan was slow, it could not match the speed of events. Political parties also kept shifting their stance. There was a huge gap between the Pakistani and Saudi positions regarding the ongoing role of Pakistan in Yemen crisis—positions varied between meek denial by Pakistan and total embrace by Saudi Arabia. People of Pakistan were left in a state of confusion. By taking a strong partisan position like Turkey, Pakistan lowered its acceptability for playing a lead mediatory role. Only thing that remained under control was evacuation of stranded Pakistanis. At tactical level, limitations of employment of air power in standalone mode against insurgents have been reinforced, yet once again. Despite the bombing Houthis have consolidated their territorial gains—especially in Aden. There were two developments in the crisis over the last week. First, fierce fighting for control of Aden left at least 185 people dead and more than 1200 wounded, including many noncombatant. Second, while making territorial gains, Houthis have expressed their conditional readiness for peace talks.
Conditions put forward by Houthis are modest; Saudi-led air campaign be halted; and the process of talks be observed / overseen by “non-aggressive” parties, a senior Houthi member Saleh al-Sammad said. “Even if there was Iranian support as is being said, it is not an excuse for this flagrant aggression…We still stand by our position on dialogue and we demand its continuation despite everything that has happened, on the basis of respect and acknowledging the other,” Sammad said. He further said that he wanted the dialogue sessions aired to the Yemeni people “so that they can know who the obstructer is”. King Salman has also been quoted as saying that the kingdom was also ready for a political meeting of Yemeni parties, under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Sammad has denied that Houthis want control of the south, home to a long-running secessionist movement, and said they were focused on confronting the threat from al Qaeda. “The sons of the south will run their own affairs and they will have the more prominent role in the coming political scene,” he said. Earlier, Saudi planes has been parachuting weapons to Hadi’s armed supporters in Aden; helping them temporarily beat back Houthi advances. The crates of light weapons, telecommunications equipment and rocket-propelled grenades were parachuted into Aden’s Tawahi district, on the far end of the Aden peninsula; still held by Hadi loyalists.
Saudi Defence Ministry spokesman Brig General Ahmed bin Hassan Assiri announced in a briefing said that they had successfully cut off air supply lines to the movement. However there are reports that the rebels had already stored much of the ammunition and their supply line through sea; and the flow is intact. And at the same time it is Saudi affiliates in Yemen who are short on supplies, needing air drops.
The United Nations says more than 500 people have been killed in the past two weeks in Yemen and nearly 1,700 wounded since the Saudi led coalition started bombing Yemen on March 26. International Red Cross is moving in essential medical supplies and personnel; and in the process has suffered causalities. Port city Aden, is the last foothold of supporters of absent President Abdelrabbo Mansour Hadi; who escaped to Saudi Arabia after Houthi fighters edged closer to Aden last month. Houthi forces have inched forward in street-fighting in the city despite coalition’s bombing campaign; reportedly they were in control of Aden on April 5. Situation in Aden is not very clear, with both sides claiming control over the city. It appears that Saudi led coalition forces are now gaining ground to some extent and reports say that most part of Aden has been cleared off Houthis. However the Houthi rebels claim their presence in Aden which reflects that they are entrenched and have established their network in due course of time. The strength of Houthis is an indicator that there will be more destruction in the days to come.
Another emerging danger is that of Yemeni Al Qaeda militants who broke a jail a few days back. They also took over two army bases, a day after on duty soldiers left their posts in eastern Hadramawt province. Now, the Saudi led coalition would have to ensure that other militant groups including Al Qaeda do not gain any foothold in Yemen because that would further complicate the situation.
Apparently Pakistan is likely to follow a two track policy: an articulated track—compatible with public aspirations; and a pragmatic track—matching the Realpolitik. Articulated track would be: Pakistan won’t participate in the Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen but will help Saudi Arabia defend its own territory if necessary. And practical track could be to participate in military operations under Saudi flag. At least two of Pakistan’s military services—air force and army are poised to take part is such contingency centered operations.
Pakistan shall continue striving for a balance between: obliging Saudi Arabia, its long-term partner; and placating Iran which actively supports the rebels that Saudis are struggling to defeat in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has asked Pakistan to join the coalition, militarily, and support its efforts against the Houthi rebels in Yemen. A plan to help secure the Saudi-Yemen border is being worked out. “At this time, there is no threat to Saudi territorial integrity,” said Khawaja Asif, the Pakistani defense minister.
It will be difficult for Pakistan to deliver an unequivocal ‘no’ to the Saudis, and say ‘yes’ without annoying Iranians. It indeed poses serious decision making dilemma. To be exact, decision has already been taken, albeit post haste; and now it’s only a matter of performing good salesmanship towards Iran and the people of Pakistan. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javed Zarif is expected to arrive in Pakistan on April 08, for consultations on Yemen crisis.
In the context of force availability, as of now, about one third of Pakistan’s active-duty troops are deployed in the country’s combat zones along Afghan borders. On Line of Control, Modi has mellowed down after IHK elections; from now on a ‘cool’ LoC suits him better. Therefore, from national security perspective, a potent contingent can be spared for Saudi Arabia without any negative shade on own security.
Prime Minister’s visit to Turkey for consultations was a good step; however, he should have made stopovers in Tehran and Riyadh. Solution to the conflict lies in broader political understanding between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Such understanding may not be forthcoming as both are riding a high tide. Iran feels that end to its isolation is just around the corner as nuclear talks are likely to lead to a final agreement by June 30, that would later lead to lifting of nuclear related sanctions. And under the new King, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an assertive trajectory; indeed both are following profiles of over reach. By intervening in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has inadvertently brought the war to its doorstep without having due capacity to extinguish it, or push it back, or stop it from entering the Kingdom—hence, the panic for enlarging the coalition. Iran too is foolhardy to assume that American led Western conglomerate will embrace it too soon, and too warmly.
There are practical difficulties in the settlement of this dispute. There are no credible dialogue partners with whom an agreement could be reached with a reasonable degree of assurance of implementation. While external coalition for war is growing fast, peace constituency is hardly visible. What is glaringly missing is political vision and towering leadership.
On tactical canvas, air strikes alone would not yield the desired results; and sooner or later coalition may be sucked in for a ground offensive. If so, it would be a dicey phase, with a few desired and numerous undesired fallouts: especially so, when the State of Yemen ceases to exist for all practical purposes. Sectarian dimension is the most serious aspects of the conflict. Some regional and extra-regional actors wish to turn and sustain the Middle East as a blood oozing zone on the basis of sectarian hype—something like Lebanon of yester years.
The way this avoidable 21-day siege evolved and ended has raised many questions, which need collective answers from the national leadership. There was a nation-wide sigh of relief when Faizabad sit-in ended peacefully, thanks to good offices of Pakistan Army. This wasn’t the first time when Army played such a role and burnt its fingers. A number of times fingers have been pointed towards Army for first constructing such sit-ins and then deconstructing them in a power barter with the executive branch of the government. Like wise the incumbent government is often blamed for trucking with religious extremists for political gains. For their credibility, both need to come clean on these public perceptions. As the post mortem of Faizabad fiasco is in progress, all the guilty have dug-in their heels to justify their follies, stupidities, acts of omission and commission as well as comics. They are hoping that soon there would be a divine intervention in the form of yet another bigger catastrophe, turning the national focus away from this one. A candid estimate has it that the incident could cost the ruling party around 20-30 national assembly seats in the upcoming elections alongside erosion of mandate in all provinces. Those with higher stakes like the ruling party are trying to wriggle out of it by rolling of a couple of dispensable heads. The planning and execution of the controversial law ran much broader and deeper than the single ministry’s purview. Then allowing the matter to hang-on to ferment a crisis was indeed a national crime for which responsibility must be fixed and punishment meted out. However, one wonders whether our fragile system would have the strength to undertake this enterprise; or, as per track record, push the matter under the carpet.