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April 4, 2015
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Confusion over Yemen

Opinion

April 4, 2015

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We are a very strange nation indeed. If someone utters something strange, in no time everyone – including the political leadership – follows and repeats the mantra. A recent example is Pakistan’s support of the Saudi stance over Yemen.
Without any logic or fact it is said – and has been repeated – that this is an Iran-Saudi tussle, and that siding with one party could result in a Sunni-Shia conflict within Pakistan. Perhaps a look at ground realities would be of some help to understand the real situation.
Before analysing the actual situation, let’s first take into account some similar cases from recent political history. The Afghan Taliban were Sunnis and against Iran. They killed Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari. The Hazara Shia were fighting with them till 9/11. But after 9/11 when the Taliban were attacked by Nato forces, no one said that anti-Taliban engagements were an anti-Sunni move.
To this day, Iran has not openly declared itself to be a stakeholder to the Yemen crisis. And the reasons are obvious. Yemen is not situated at the border of Iran. Indeed the Houthi force is supposed to be acting as a proxy for Iran. In this the Houthi are not alone; Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon are also thought to be acting as proxies for Iran. When Assad or Hezbollah were attacked, Iran never termed it as an attack on Iran. How can Iran now claim the Saudi air raid over Houthi rebels as a direct attack on Iran, a raid that was requested by the Yemen government itself? And if so, how could Pakistan be counted as working against Iran by mere helping out Saudi Arabia?
Everyone knows that the Afghan Taliban were acting as a proxy for Pakistan and some Gulf States, while the Northern Alliance was a proxy for Iran, Russia and India. But just after 9/11, when the US dismantled the Taliban government, Pakistan and the Gulf States never termed it as an attack on them. Proxies and their links with patron states are always of this nature.

Iran can never claim any attack on the Houthi rebels as a direct conflict with Iran.
The Houthi are said to be Zaidi Shias. However, due to some of their religious ideas, the majority of Shia scholars in Iran do not consider them as proper Shias. Besides, even if they are Shia, their war against Yemen president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is not over religious grounds. If it is so, then why is former president Ali Abdullah Saleh – who is a Sunni himself – fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Houthis against Hadi? Indeed this clash has nothing to do with sectarian issues.
Saddam Hussain was a Sunni leader and was rightly considered as representing Iraq’s Sunnis. Once he was removed from power, a Shia-dominated government was established in Iraq, a government that enjoyed support from both Iran and the US. However, when Saddam Hussain’s regime was targeted, no Sunni state including Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Qatar, labelled it as a war against Sunnis. The Yemen president asking for help from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states does not have any sectarian dimensions.
Yemen has a long history of turmoil; it did not just start with the Saudi raids. For the last two decades the country has been facing political problems. For long the country remained divided into northern and southern portions and even after its unification in the 90s the country could not achieve stability. After 9/11 the Al-Qaeda saw the promise this area had – due to its disturbed political situation, coupled with the fact that Osama bin Laden’s father belonged to Yemen. Al-Qaeda gained influence there and challenged the government in same fashion as today the Houthis have done.
To counter that, the US started its drone operations in the area to target Al-Qaeda and was praised by all those who are now upset over the Saudi intervention. Legally speaking, both acts of intervention – by the US in the shape of drones and by the Saudis in the form of air raids – are based on the same logic. But those who are criticising the GCC action in Yemen did not oppose the drone attacks.
If the Houthi tribes came into power through the ballot or if their government was accepted by the United Nations, in that case indeed any armed struggle against them was a breach of international conventions. But in a case where the Yemen government requests its neighbours to protect it against rebels, can the Saudi-led operations be termed as aggression or helping out a neighbour?
The legal and factual position is very clear. Yemen is not and never was a part of Iran. It is not even a neighbouring country and neither is Iran’s army operating there. Iran cannot claim any Iranian population in Yemen. Iran-origin work force in Yemen is far less than the Pakistanis working there. No mutual defence agreement exists between Iran and Yemen. Iran is not supporting the Houthis openly, and denies any financial or strategic help extended to the Houthis. In this case if Saudi Arabia helps its neighbour on its request, how it could be termed as a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia?
In contrast, Afghanistan shares a border with Iran. Iran had serious conflicts with the US. Yet when the US invaded Afghanistan, this was not dubbed as an Iran-US war. The same was the case over the invasion of Iraq by the US. Iraq borders Iran and has a sizeable Shia population, but the US invasion was not termed as a US-Iran war. Contrary to that, Iran is said to have helped the US in dismantling the Taliban government in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussain’s government in Iraq.
Having said that, all this does not mean that the Saudi action was justified or that the Pakistani government is free to join the forces blindly. All I wish to stress is that the present conflict is not based on sectarian rivalry between Sunnis and Shias and cannot be termed as an Iran-Saudi war. Likewise, Pakistan needs to decide the issue in the best interest of its own people.
And by this I do not mean the interest of the rulers. The decision must be made through parliament and all national institutions should give input that is based on merit. This must be decided not as a Sunni or Shia conflict. The decision should be made taking into consideration the past, present and future of our relations with different actors.
The decision should also consider the ground realities of Pakistan. As of right now, 18 million military personnel are engaged at our western borders. The army is also over-engaged in three provinces of the country. We also have to keep a large contingent of the military at our eastern borders.
The present Yemen crisis is not a Sunni-Shia conflict, neither does it have anything to do with the clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, it is unfortunate that in Pakistan we have groups that are more loyal to other countries than to Pakistan. They are more concerned with the interests of those countries than with those of Pakistan. It is very important that decision of Pakistan’s stance over the Yemen issue is thought through carefully.
The writer works for Geo TV. Email: [email protected]

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