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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 19 New Delhi May 2, 2015

Pakistan Declines to Send Troops to Yemen: Danger of US-Iran conflict

Saturday 2 May 2015, by Harish Chandola

Pakistan’s ties with its Saudi Arabia ally have come under great strain. The Saudis, who have been bombing the Houthi people in Yemen in the south for over a month, have failed to subdue or make peace with them. In spite of its enormous defence budget, the Saudi Army considers itself inadequate to launch a ground offensive in neighbouring Yemen. It had therefore asked for troops from Pakistan to battle the Houthis, a large Yemeni Shi’a tribe, which not only captured its capital, Sanaa, but has reached the southern port of Aden. Though the Saudi and Egyptian Air Forces in their month-long bombings have killed and injured thousands of Houthis, they are still holding their ground. Saudi Arabia then asked Egypt and Pakistan for ground forces to fight in Yemen, but neither country has agreed to it.

The Saudis are especially upset over the Pakistani refusal. In March last year Saudi Arabia had made an unconditional gift of US $ 1.5 billion to Pakistan, which had helped it a great deal. The Pakistan Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, owed a personal debt to the Saudi Kingdom for getting him out of prison in Pakistan and providing him a home in exile after the military coup in his country of 1999, when he was the Prime Minister earlier.

This time when the Saudi request came for troops, not one person in Pakistan spoke in its favour. Its Parliament decreed that it should remain neutral and not send soldiers to assist in the Yemeni war. A Minister of the United Arab Emirate, a Saudi coalition partner in the invasion of Yemen, Anwar Mohammed Gargash, warned Pakistan that it would pay a heavy price for its ambiguous stand on sending troops to fight in Yemen. Pakistan claims that it has the biggest fighting force in the Moslem world.

The Houthis are being supported by Iran whose experts had gone to Yemen to give military training to them and also invited some to Iran to study warfare.

Pakistan has a 900 kilometre border with Iran which it does not wish to upset. It hopes to benefit from a US nuclear deal with Iran which will result in lifting sanctions on Tehran. That will enable Pakistan to obtain Iranian gas through a proposed pipeline. About one-fifth of Pakistani people are Shi’a who would not want their country to get into a conflict with Iran.

The war in Yemen is between the richest Arab country and the poorest. Yemeni Houthis, the poorest, have stood their ground.

The Yemeni war is in danger of escalating, with Iranians sending two warships, a freighter, a tugboat and some others into the waters near the Yemeni coast. These are believed to be carrying arms for the Houthis. These were in international waters near the Yemeni port of Aden, when last seen. Meanwhile, the US has also sent a group led by its aircraft career, Theodor Roosevelt, a guided missile cruiser, Normandy, altogether nine ships to the Yemeni coast. The US has warned Iran not to supply weapons to the Houthis. It is not known if the US ships will try to board the Iranian ones in the area.

On April 13, Russia agreed to sell its S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. If these reach Yemen, Saudi aircraft presently involved in bombing it will face a very severe danger. So will American aircraft, should these come in support of Saudis. At the moment, the Houthis are ineffectively aiming their Kalashnikovs at the Saudi aircraft, without doing them any harm. Iran had ordered S-300 missiles in 2007, but Russians had halted the sale under international pressure. The missile is capable of simultaneously tracking and intercepting dozens of airborne targets at ranges of up to 150 kilometres. One does not yet know when Russia will supply the missiles to Iran.

I had covered the Yemeni war in 1962, when its ruler, Imam (King) Mohammed al-Badr was ousted by its military officers led by Colonel Abdullah al-Sallal, supported by Egypt, who upon victory formed the Yemen Arab Republic.

 In 1990-911 Saudi Arabia expelled one lillion Yemenis working in it for Yemen’s opposition to the Gulf war. It used to be a very sleepy country in which the people chewed an intoxicating leaf called “qat” for hours in the afternoon. The Shi’a- Sunni conflict in it was an old one, with Saudi Arabia providing support to its Sunni Salafi elements against the Zaidi Shi’as. A Shi’a insurgency took place in June 2004, with a ceasefire in February 2010. The Shi’a accused Saudi Arabia of providing support to Yemeni Sunnis or Salafis, as they called them, to suppress Zaidism. The Al-Qaeda in Yemen was born, and it fought the Shi’a Huthis.

One has to watch if Saudi Arabia launches a ground war in Yemen. The Americans are staunch allies of the Saudis and support them fully. The Shi’a Houthis are backed by Iran. If the Yemen war goes on, the Saudis and Americans are likely to come into conflict with Iran. Efforts to open talks between the Saudis and the Houthis have brought no results so far.

The author is a veteran journalist who has written extensively on West and Central Asian developments. He also covered the 1962 Yemen war.