Thursday, April 23, 2015

Daily Times Editorial April 24, 2015

Pak reassurance After a high level meeting to discuss Pakistan’s policy on the Yemen crisis, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Riyadh with COAS General Raheel Sharif and top ministers and officials on Thursday. Most observers ascribe this frequent ‘traffic’ to Saudi Arabia to the need Islamabad continues to feel to reassure Riyadh that it will stand by it in times of need. That, it seems, is proving a little more difficult than may have at first been envisaged. Saudi (and Gulf Arab) anger at Pakistan’s stance of neutrality in the Yemen conflict, flowing from the resolution of the joint sitting of parliament, does not seem to be abating. Hence the special visit of the younger Sharif recently has now been followed up by the top civil and military brass attempting to smooth Riyadh’s ruffled feathers. For the overly optimistic, it seemed as though the announcement of a halt to its air strikes and renaming its operations as ‘restoring hope’ signalled that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies had come round to seeing the wisdom of Pakistan’s (and some other Muslim countries’) position. However, the fine print in Saudi Arabia’s announcement of a halt to the air campaign came into play just a day after the announcement of the halt when the Houthis captured an army base loyal to deposed president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi in the city of Taiz. Saudi and allied aircraft then struck the base, causing an indeterminate number of casualties. On the ground too, fighting between the Houthis and their allies and Hadi’s forces continues fiercely. Despite all the talk of a pause (if not ceasefire) making room for political negotiations between the warring factions, the ground situation is fraught and not easily amenable to a turn away from the language of weapons to the weapon of language. Desirable as it may, as often happens in such wars, a political solution remains a tough ask. Peace plans abound ad are proliferating. Oman has a seven-point one that seeks the restoration of Hadi and the retreat of the Houthi forces from the cities they have captured. That sounds like a non-starter. The ground situation has moved way beyond any such solution or even the contemplation of it. The UN and Iran want a ceasefire, followed by negotiations. This at least has some element of practicability since it recognizes the near impossibility of imposing a retreat on any side from the positions it currently holds. Again, as is the inevitable fallout of civil wars because of the collapse of anything resembling central authority or a state, the humanitarian crisis is, according to the UN, “catastrophic”. The dead number nearly a thousand already since the Saudi air offensive began last month, the internally displaced (officially) are at least 150,000, those whose lives are threatened by war as well as starvation, lack of healthcare, etc, may well be more than a million and a half. For a comparatively small and poor country like Yemen, this is not far short of Armageddon. The muscularity of the Saudi and Arab coalition response to the rapid advance of the Houthis is being ascribed to the apprehensions of Iran’s spreading influence in the region, especially into Arab countries (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon are quoted as examples). This lends itself to sectarian interpretations despite the fact that in Yemen at least, the play of contending forces is far more complex than this simple binary may suggest. However, there is talk in Arab capitals of shedding at last the security blanket of the US and assuming responsibility for their own defence and security. A joint Arab military force for just such contingencies has been mooted. Of course such ideas may take time to assume practical form. What is indisputable however, is the growing self-confidence and ambition of Saudi Arabia to translate its oil clout into military means that will allow it to lead a coalition of Arab countries to scotch any dissent or rebellion in the countries of the allies in the coalition and even perhaps further abroad. To assume, in other words, the role of the policeman not only of the Gulf but the wider region. This ambition goes far beyond the relatively simple sectarian divide and is a manifesto of pure power play. It may also be informed by the exposure of the US as the greatest military power on earth but a colossus with feet of clay stemming from eroding political will to physically (militarily) police the world, a role it took on after the Second World War and which some quote as the reason for its decline, eventual or sudden, the jury is out on. In such a volatile region as ours, let alone the world at large, countries like ours need to cut their cloth according to their capabilities and not surrender to expedient considerations that may later come back to haunt us.

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