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Saudi Arabia’s deepening isolation in Yemen

Saudi Arabia faces a quagmire in Yemen; a US-Iran “catalogue of cooperation” after a nuclear deal; Iranian activists skeptical on human rights progress; Israel unnerved by Russian decision on missile sale to Iran; the Good Friday massacre in Aleppo; is Erdogan shifting from sectarianism?
A supporter of the Jamiat Ahle Hadith organization holds a picture of Saudia Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz during a rally in support of Saudi Arabia over its intervention in Yemen, in Lahore April 19, 2015. . REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

Pakistan rebuffs Saudi kingdom on Yemen

In an unusual and stinging rebuke, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif this week rejected Saudi Arabia’s request to join its military campaign in Yemen.

Bruce Riedel writes: "The Pakistani leader reportedly believes that if the Saudis enter into a ground war in Yemen — with or without Pakistani forces — it will become a quagmire. They have simply 'bitten off more than they can chew.' The Egyptian experience in Yemen, in which Egypt had up to 20,000 casualties in the 1960s fighting the same Zaydi tribes that back the Houthis, figures prominently in Pakistani thinking, especially in the army."

The Wall Street Journal reported that 648 civilians have been killed since the start of the Saudi airstrikes, which have hit hospitals, schools and a refugee camp. US officials have quietly begun to express reservations about the Saudi campaign targeting one of the poorest countries in the world.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met with US President Barack Obama in Washington this week, warned that the Saudi attacks in Yemen could be a catalyst for a broader sectarian war. Adnan Abu Zeed reports from Baghdad that the Yemen war is deepening Sunni-Shiite animosity among Iraqis.

Mohammad Ali Shabani writes that Iran’s proposal for a diplomatic solution appears a more mature approach to addressing Yemen’s civil war, compared with Saudi Arabia’s military intervention: "While it is unclear when the war in Yemen will end, what is clear is that Iranian diplomacy is proving to be an effective response to Saudi money and firepower. And with the goals of the Yemen war increasingly muddled, Saudi Arabia and its allies may soon find themselves bogged down in a quagmire."

In a speech in Beirut on April 17, Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah picked up Iran’s call for negotiations and an end to airstrikes. Ali Hashem reports: “On Iran’s readiness for dialogue, Nasrallah indicated that Tehran is ready to talk with Saudi Arabia, yet it is Saudi Arabia that is 'being stubborn because it has failed in all countries, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and it is seeking a success before sitting down at the negotiation table.'”

The debate over the war in Yemen has even divided the Muslim Brotherhood, writes Ahmed Fouad:

"Amid the Brotherhood’s rejection of the participation of Egyptian forces in Operation Decisive Storm, both the Islah Party (the Brotherhood’s political arm in Yemen) and Yemeni Brotherhood activist Tawakkol Karman expressed their support for the operation. They thanked all of the Arab forces participating in the operations and did not criticize the Gulf or Egyptian forces, which Karman specifically praised on Twitter."

More on Khamenei’s "main message"

Reflecting on the comment by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on April 9 — "If the other side avoids its amphibology [ambiguity] in the [nuclear] talks, it'll be an experience showing it's possible to negotiate with them on other issues" — Seyed Hossein Mousavian suggests a "catalogue of possible areas for cooperation" between the United States and Iran, including "the fight against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq, the protracted Syrian crisis and the unfolding crisis in Yemen," as well as "combating extremism and terrorism and drug trafficking in the Middle East."

As reported by Ali Hashem and noted in this column last week, Khamenei’s statement "might be the main message to come out of the nuclear framework."

Iranian activists skeptical

While Iranians overwhelmingly appear to support the nuclear talks, Behdad Bordbar reports that many activists are nonetheless skeptical that a successful nuclear agreement would translate into improvements in human rights.

"Although the activists who spoke to Al-Monitor expressed skepticism that a nuclear deal would immediately produce a better human rights situation in Iran, many did agree that better economic conditions were necessary for improving their standard of living, which has been reduced as a result of economic hardship," Bordbar writes.

Israel: Russian missile sale a "knockout blow"?

Ben Caspit writes that the Russian decision to lift its hold on the sale of the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran was a "knockout blow" to US reassurances about Israeli security.

"Even as the Americans attempted to explain, convince and demonstrate that sanction removal was not yet final; even as they said that there was no intention of lifting sanctions until everything would be completely clear and settled; that the rate and timing of sanction removal had not yet been decided upon; and that the United States opposed the immediate lifting of sanctions the minute that the final agreement would be signed — along comes Putin and delivers a knockout blow to the whole theory," Caspit reported from Jerusalem.

Paul Saunders considers the timing of the Russian announcement "remarkable." The Iranian contract for purchase of the missile system had been agreed in 2007, but Russia halted the sale in 2010 as a gesture to the West and Israel in dealing with Iran. Just last week, Saunders predicted that Russia would proceed with the sale, but at the conclusion of the nuclear talks.

Saunders speculates that "Moscow will need Iran’s goodwill if a nuclear agreement leads to the removal of UN sanctions; Russia’s companies will likely have considerable competition from China, India and Europe even if the United States maintains some of its unilateral sanctions." Russian President Vladimir Putin may also be sending a message to the West and hard-liners in his own base that Russia is not a go along/get along follower of the US lead with Iran, and looking out for its own interests. There might also be a connection to Russia's opposition to the positioning of US missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.

Good Friday massacre in Aleppo

Edward Dark reports from Aleppo on the unrelenting misery of the city’s Christians, including an attack on April 10, Good Friday, which many consider to be the holiest day on the Christian calendar.

"As rebel rockets and shells rained down through the night on the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Sulaimaniyah in west Aleppo, just a short distance from one of the city’s many front lines, there was mass panic as buildings collapsed, killing and injuring dozens, while others remained trapped under the rubble. Residents began to flee in the darkness, not really knowing where to head to as ambulances, fire trucks and rescue workers attempted to tackle the ongoing carnage. The atmosphere of fear and terror was exacerbated by a city in a perpetual state of darkness with almost no power and limited communication and Internet access following the collapse of vital infrastructure after the provincial capital of Idlib was taken over by Islamist groups on March 28," Dark writes.

Dark continues: "As regional and global attention shifts to other hotspots such as Yemen, the Good Friday 'massacre' in Aleppo will be just another blip — a footnote in a long list of other massacres and atrocities soon forgotten by a global public opinion that has grown accustomed and weary of the endless horrors of Syria. Compassion fatigue rules the day."

Al-Monitor has previously reported on Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil’s appeal to the UN Security Council last month to protect Christians and other minorities persecuted by the Islamic State (IS), and to reverse the exodus of these populations from the region.

Mohammed al-Khatieb reports from Aleppo: "IS’ two suicide attacks on the headquarters of the Sham Front cannot be interpreted as a mere message to the front. They should be seen as a prelude to further escalation, which will result in inevitable confrontation between the two sides (IS and Syrian rebels). IS is taking advantage of the fact that the balance is currently tipped in its favor on this front, especially in the absence of the international coalition and the dispersal of rebels forces. This is not to mention that the regime is now preoccupied with the attacks on Aleppo’s northern countryside in its quest to impose a siege on the city of Aleppo."

A return to "zero problems?"

The odd sight of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walking hand in hand with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran just days after he lashed out at Iran for its attempt to "dominate the region" may be an attempt by Ankara to tilt away from a less confrontational and sectarian policy. Maybe.

Semih Idiz writes: "The AKP [Justice and Development Party] government has learned the hard way that its over-ambitious policies did not tally with the region’s bitter, age-old realities, which appear unlikely to change anytime soon. Ankara found instead that it is being sucked into crises with potentially dangerous results for Turkey."

The so-called Arab Spring had spurred Erdogan and his AKP acolytes to consider his "zero problems with neighbors" approach to foreign policy as "spineless and demeaning for a regional power such as Turkey, which they believed had to play a primary role in reorganizing the Middle East. That dream seems to be over now.

"Western diplomats in Ankara, talking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, also welcome any move by Ankara toward the middle ground, saying this would enable Turkey to play a much greater and more positive role in the region than it does today.

"They argue, however, that this will be contingent on Erdogan’s shedding of his Sunni-based ideological orientation in earnest, and moving toward a genuinely nonsectarian line."

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