As the Saudi-led air strikes against the Houthi rebels in Yemen were starting on 26 March 2015, Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, issued a statement saying that she was convinced that military action was not a solution. Did anybody listen?
Apparently not the UK and France, who along with the US are providing support to the Saudi-led coalition. The Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies, with the notable exception of Oman, seem determined to ensure by force of arms their predominance in the region, supported by other Sunni members of the Arab League. Preserving the Arab identity and fighting the influence of Iran were the main reasons given by Arab leaders at the League’s summit in Sharm el-Sheikh over the weekend 28-29 March. The big powers of the West seem to be playing along with their long-term allies, eyes and ears closed about the state of democracy and human rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and others.
The public of course does not hear much about these decisions that commit, even if not directly in a military way for now, the West to new adventures in the volatile Middle East, opening one more front in addition to those against ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and other friction points. It is not clear what repercussions this will have on the tacit cooperation between the West and Iran against ISIS, the negotiations over Iran’s uranium enrichment due to reach a political conclusion soon, the safe supply of oil and gas from the Arab Gulf.
What is certain is that Western weapons, logistics and intelligence are used to squash an upheaval in a divided country that is unable to find a peaceful solution to its own problems. Instead of bringing together all those with influence on the Yemeni parties, including the Arab states and Iran, to set the parameters for a lasting solution for Yemen, the Sunni Arabs decide to “play it American” in their region. They have thus embarked on the Saudi-led “Operation Decisive Storm”, no doubt with some well-paid advice from Pentagon veterans (beyond the operation name, that is). They have also decided to establish a joint Arab defence force; shaming the Europeans for one, who cannot get their act together on common defence despite much greater regional integration.
The repercussions for the Middle East, especially if the situation escalates as it well may, could be severe for Europe and the world. Fuel dependency, big arms sales, construction contracts and other projects and investments traditionally cannot be jeopardized by alienating the rich Arabs, even if they are the opposite to what the West and Europe in particular is supposed to stand for. At the same time, further alienating Iran and the masses in many Muslim countries, who are either Shiite or just feel disefranchised, is a recipe for instability within and beyond the region’s borders.
The Arab League’s and Saudi-led initiatives have eventually to be reported to the UN Security Council, which has the ultimate responsibility for global peace and security. From among the Council’s permanent members with veto power Russia and China would not agree to authorize the Arab action. Going it alone for long Saudi-led action would risk destabilizing the international system and drawing into the conflict, by proxy or otherwise, Iran and beyond. If that is what we want, a regional war with possibilities of escalation to something bigger, we may continue the way we are going. If we realize, though, the risks and inconsistencies, then Europe should be taking the lead in bringing armed hostilities to a halt and convening the international community and the Yemeni parties for immediate negotiations within fair parameters. We would expect Ms. Mogherini to be working with her EU member state counterparts towards that end.