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The early signs of a new regional order have been appearing through diplomatic and military developments this week, Dina Ezzat reports (Issue No.1241, 9 April, 2015 , aL-aHRAM Al-Ahram Weekly)
With two consecutive meetings with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohamed Ben Nayef Al-Saoud and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in less than 24 hours, Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan is starting to explore the chances for a possible diplomatic mediation that Ankara hopes could block a ground war in Yemen that the Saudis are determined to have with or without support from the UN Security Council to change the balance of power on the ground in favour of its allies and against the Iran-supported dominating Houthis.
“We are not sure if an initiative could pick up. We are exploring the positions of all sides and their allies and we are still working on what we could offer, but for sure we see a regional crisis and we want to work on preventing it,” said an informed Turkish official who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly by phone from Ankara.
According to the announced position, Ankara, which has in the early months of this year been wooing the new Saudi King Salman Ben Abdel-Aziz, supports Saudi security concerns over and against the dominance of the Houthis in Yemen following the ouster and then flight of Riyadh-supported Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. This, however, has not stopped the Turkish president from exploring potential political avenues to secure the Saudis a good share of what they want: more power for their allies rather than the allies of Iran in Yemen, the immediate backyard of the oil-rich kingdom.
What is prompting Ankara’s moves in this respect, according to regional diplomatic analysis, are three objectives: Turkey wants to improve its relations with Iran to secure economic gains and to block rising Kurdish inclinations towards independence; Turkey wants to reposition itself as a key regional player to make up for losses sustained in what some in Ankara qualify as exaggerated animosity between Erdogan and the new authorities in Cairo; Turkey wants to score high points with the Saudis and consequently pursue further diplomatic and economic cooperation.
“I think the only reason the Saudis want to go to war in Yemen is that they fear there is no other way to fix the situation in the country in their favour,” said a Riyadh-based Asian diplomat. He added that the Saudis “are not stupid” however, and that they know and have been told especially by their Egyptian and Pakistani friends, and also by the Turks and the Americans that a war in Yemen, even if originally started as a series of aerial operations designed to shift the tide against Houthi advances, could get out of hand and develop almost unintentionally into a long and hard to contain battle that could consume Riyadh’s resources and those of “reluctant” allies.
A recent meeting in Saudi Arabia of top military officials of the 10 states participating politically, militarily, or both in Operation Decisive Storm focused on the potential hazards of a tough war that would essentially be guerrilla-like on a rough topography, and with external input from “at least Iran and Hizbullah”, one informed Egyptian official said.
On Monday, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that if the Saudis moved to a ground war in Yemen they would surely lose it.
“This is not just a platitude. Yemen is a tough topography and the techniques of guerrilla warfare are tricky and it could turn into a real swamp,” said the Egyptian official.
“I think if the Saudis are offered a solid political alternative they would take it with the support of the US and all allies yes, including Egypt, and despite the tension between Cairo and Ankara,” said the Turkish source.
According to the same source, the base of the Turkish idea is for Ankara rather than Riyadh to host political talks that could start in a few days with the participation of all parties, “not excluding the Houthis”, and that could have the direct support of Riyadh and Tehran.
Riyadh had offered to host political talks but its offer had not been inclusive enough to prompt a positive response from all Yemeni parties, according to a North African diplomatic source in Cairo. He said that his country and other Maghreb states have offered a nod of approval to the Saudi acknowledged Turkish diplomatic demarche, and that they hoped it would work, “a least to spare the region from another long and exhaustive civil war that is bound to influence already very frail regional stability”.
Successful Turkish intervention to prevent a ground operation to check the advance of the Houthis is something that would also appeal to Washington, which has been trying to dispel what some in the US capital qualify as an exaggerated negative reaction on the part of Saudi Arabia to the Lausanne framework agreement signed late last week between Iran and the six negotiating Western powers over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Turkish diplomacy has been acting while the Saudis have been calling on military allies in Pakistan and Egypt to start a process of preparation for a probable ground operation that might be called in a matter of days “anything between five days to two weeks”, according to the estimate of an informed Egyptian source.
Iran is probably happy to receive the Turkish president, according to the same Turkish source. “What is clear is that Iran is now getting ready to come back to the region and it is willing to open its doors to all potential friends,” he said.
North African diplomatic sources speak of intensified Iranian overtures towards all Maghreb capitals, at different levels. Iran, according to Cairo-based African diplomats, is also showing growing interest in expanding its cooperation with Sub-Saharan Africa while not giving up on Khartoum that upon Saudi pressure and incentives switched alliances from Tehran to Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Iran is considering options to strengthen relations with two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states that have traditionally shown more openness than the other four members of the GCC towards Tehran: Oman, that stayed out of Operation Decisive Storm, and Qatar, that only reluctantly joined.
Come June, when Iran and the West should be ready to sign a final deal on the nuclear issue, say Cairo-based Asian and European diplomats, Tehran would be ready to act promptly to make up for years of isolation by building new diplomatic and economic bridges. Tehran, they add, is already eyeing a regional power role.
The Iranians have never disguised their regional interests and some of their officials openly speak of Iran’s military presence in several Arab countries. Tehran doubtless would seek to influence political balances in these countries including Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen in its favour.
“This is something the Saudis would not like because Saudi friends in these countries are not the ones Iran would support,” said a Cairo-based Western diplomat.
She added that the US promised the Saudis that it would support its views with regards to countries of direct Saudi concern, and where it has political influence, especially Iraq and Syria.
“The Americans had already supported the Saudi wish to change [former Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri Al-Maliki and they are already pressuring Iran to show more flexibility on Yemen. And the Iranians know when they will give in to American demands, according to the Iranian agenda of interests,” the same Cairo-based Western diplomat added.
US President Barack Obama is planning a meeting with GCC leaders in Camp David to try to dispel their fears over the Iran nuclear deal. Ahead of the anticipated meeting, Washington has made clear to GCC capitals that it is time for them to realise that the old ways of doing things in the Middle East are no longer sustainable, as US Secretary of State John Kerry is planning to impress upon interlocutors in a possible visit to the region.
The Saudis, said the same Cairo-based Western diplomat, were just celebrating their defeat of the Arab Spring when the “Tehran Spring” came their way. The Tehran Spring, she added, is not going to be as easily defeated as the Arab Spring and it will create a new regional set up whereby Turkey, Iran and “of course Israel” will be the key players.
“Saudi Arabia will remain at least for a few years an important regional player, but it might have to face some challenges that it was not hoping for,” she concluded.