Beirut (GPA) – Geopolitics Alert contributor Damir Nazarov spoke with Lebanese journalist Khalil Kawtharani of Al-Akhbar about geopolitical developments in Yemen and Syria, focusing on Saudi Arabia’s regional influence and failure in both theatres.
Despite both allied under the so-called “Saudi-led coalition” against Yemeni resistance forces, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi support opposing militias in southern Yemen.
While smaller militias and al-Qaeda also constitute the Saudi-backed side, Al-Islah — the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yemen offshoot — makes up much of the Saudi-backed base on the ground. Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates backs the Southern Movement and their political entity, the Southern Transitional Council, which aims to dissolve the North-South Yemeni union and secede as a South Yemen state once again.
Since the start of the war, Yemen’s Ansar Allah resistance movement has gained incredible popular support and created a domestic military development program. For the first time in its history, Yemenis are able to develop long-range missiles, unmanned kamikaze drones, naval missiles, and a wide range of military technology.
This Yemeni development and success are huge failures and embarrassment for Riyadh. Meanwhile, in Yemen’s southern provinces, Riyadh has lost nearly all of its political influence to Emirati-allied groups.
In Syria, the Saudi regime’s objectives have also backfired, with Syrian, Iranian, and Lebanese resistance forces becoming stronger, defeating Saudi-backed groups, and improving military capabilities on the ground.
Moscow-based Geopolitics Alert contributor Damir Nazarov spoke with Lebanese journalist Khalil Kawtharani of Beirut’s Al-Akhbar about the Saudi regime’s current situation in both arenas.
Damir Nazarov: Last year, we saw confrontations in southern Yemen between Al-Islah militants and the Southern Transitional Council. Why did these organizations, who are both technically allied to the Saudi-led coalition, unleash a war against each other?
Khalil Kawtharani: There are two levels of controversy between the Al-Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen) and the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council. The first is the historical, ideological, and political dispute. The Islamic Islah Party has always been part of the authority system running the north of Yemen and strongly supported the imposition of unity and the prevention of secession in the summer war of 1994 against leftist movements that backed out from the unity project and demanded “disengagement” with Sana’a and the restoration of the state of southern Yemen.
Prior to the outbreak of the Saudi war on Yemen, the Southern Movement — like the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement — was outside the new transitional authority of the Gulf Initiative. The Al-Islah Party was not. Thus, all the differences of the past, as well as political divisions in Hadi’s government along with the demands for separation (North and South) in return for the proposed federalism of the six regions that were backed by Al-Islah Party (the Muslim Brotherhood in Yemen).
Al-Islah became the ally of Saudi Arabia while the UAE turned to the Southern Movements and created different militias that emerged later as a political framework outside Hadi’s government. Still, the Saudi-UAE Coalition used “supporting legitimacy” as the slogan.
The second level of dispute is the increasing gap between the two parties following the Gulf crisis two years ago (Qatar boycotting) where the UAE no longer hides its hostility against the Muslim Brotherhood and increased the pressure on Hadi government to weaken Al-Islah militarily. That led to an outbreak of uncertainty within the ranks of Al-Islah about the relationship with Saudi Arabia and divided the party’s leaders severely on how to deal with Riyadh and its war on Yemen.
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DN: Ansar Allah has experienced incredible success fighting in Saudi Arabia’s own territory. What is behind such success?
KK: The success of Ansar Allah and their allies in resisting the Saudi campaign is due to the massive popularity enjoyed by this Yemeni movement. This is especially true in the north which ensured a comfortable incubator that expanded with the continuation of the war and emerged very strong when [former President] Ali Abdullah Saleh rebelled and switched sides.
The movement is moderate, both religiously and politically, and does not impose its views on the general public. Nor can we forget that the movement is ideological with surprisingly strong fighters who fight with strict religious faith. They’re known for their tribal background and the fact that they live in mountainous regions, which have long been known for hardcore fighters who come from a poor environment that has suffered deprivation and marginalization.
There is no doubt that this is the complete opposite of Yemen’s south and east where the population is small. Taiz, a strong stronghold of the Al-Islah Party, the public environment was not favorable to the Ansar Allah movement, especially after the failure of rapprochement with the Southern Movement.
As for the military, it is clear that the [Ansar Allah] movement benefited from the experiences of previous wars against it. But more importantly, it’s shown a military structure and a strong system capable of developing defensive and offensive military plans as well as cadres capable of learning, developing, and adapting to the full-scale war style and widespread hostilities.
There is clear benefit from Hezbollah’s tactics and style of warfare, which combines guerrilla warfare with regular armies. In addition, the success of possessing weapons that create acceptable balance with the Western war machine, both US and UK. This includes ballistic missiles and the drone air force, which are a mixture between the modern development of the old Yemeni arsenal and Iranian technology that contributed to the development of these weapons, the bulk of which is either collected or manufacture in Yemen.
There are clear successes at the intelligence level, due to the fact that Ansar Allah has benefited from the capabilities of the Yemeni state as well as possessing people who are able to develop and deal with technology and are well trained, can move regularly, confidentially, and use technology.
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DN: The Saudi regime has offered to rebuild Syria, in return, they expect Iran to withdraw from Syria. What do you think are Riyadh’s real motives in Syria?
KK: A long time ago, Saudi Arabia got kicked out of Syria, convinced of its role’s failure there. What remains is funding activity in the Syrian east in support of the American presence. Riyadh no longer focuses on gaining influence there, as much as preventing the Turkish and Iranian influences, so it will not stop offering temptations to Damascus to move away from Tehran in exchange for offers such as the reconstruction that I mentioned. I believe that the most important battle for Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Turkey’s exit from Syria and the countering the countries that are more competitive with Riyadh to influence and dominate the so-called “Sunni world.”
DN: Why has the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, attached such great importance to improving relations with Russian President, Vladimir Putin?
KK: Mohammed bin Salman did not establish a new relationship with Russia. Relations existed before, but we cannot consider it at the level of alliance or strategic convergence that brings together Riyadh and Washington. There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia and Russia have an interest in oil and cooperation is increasing as Saudi influence in OPEC increases.
At times, Riyadh manipulated the use of Moscow as a pressure card in the face of Americans. If Washington kept away from its interests, Riyadh could converge with Moscow but this is not a serious or real project. It’s an entirely unlikely scenario given the enormous Western domination of the Gulf.
The Relations are based on mutual interests between Russia — as a political power — and Saudi Arabia — as an economic and regional power — which Saudi rulers bet on to keep Moscow from supporting their opponents — as with Iran and Yemen — by luring them with economic interests.
Featured photo: Flickr | DAVID HOLT
Damir Nazarov is a Geopolitics Alert contributor based in Moscow, Russia focused on Middle Eastern and Eurasian affairs. Khalil Kawtharani is a journalist at al-Akhbar based in Beirut, Lebanon interested in Saudi and Yemeni issues.