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April 11, 2015 Updated April 13, 2015

Why Pakistan declines Saudi request to join 
Arab coalition fighting in Yemen

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Pakistan has virtually declined Saudi Arabia's request to join the Arab coalition fighting its current military operation in to restore the deposed Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. After days of discussion in media and parliament, a joint session of parliament passed a resolution on Friday (April 10) saying that Pakistan "should maintain neutrality in the conflict so as to be able to play a proactive diplomatic role to end the crisis”.

The joint session was summoned after the Saudi government approached Islamabad for Pakistani warplanes, warships and soldiers to assist in the conflict and join the Saudi-led military coalition that began conducting air strikes last month against Houthi forces in Yemen.According to media reports the Saudis wanted a 3-4 year deployment of a full corps of the Army under their command.

The resolution further said that the crisis in Yemen could “plunge the region into turmoil”, calling upon the warring factions in Yemen to resolve their differences "peacefully and through dialogue". The resolution noted that while the war in Yemen was not sectarian in nature, it had the potential of turning into a sectarian conflict and thereby having a critical fallout in the region, including within Pakistan.

It urged the government to initiate steps to move the UN Security Council and the Organization of Islamic Conference to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen.

Brig. Gen. Ahmad Al-Assiri, consultant in the office of the Saudi defense minister told newsmen at his daily press conference Friday that the Pakistani government had not yet announced its official position. However, he added “Pakistan’s participation is in the interest of the Yemeni people and the operation but there are other forces already with the coalition that are well trained for the terrain.” Tellingly, hours after the Pakistanis parliament's resolution, Saudi Arabia refused permission to a Pakistani aircraft on the plea that the Shaheen Air plane did not have an entry permit to the Kingdom's airspace.

On the other hand, the reaction of the United Arab Emirate was very sharp. The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash Garhash warned Pakistan of having to pay a “heavy price” for an “ambiguous stand.” He told Khaleej Times:  “The vague and contradictory stands of Pakistan and Turkey are an absolute proof that Arab security — from Libya to Yemen — is the responsibility of none but Arab countries.” He added that Pakistan should take a clear position “in favor of its strategic relations with the six-nation Arab Gulf cooperation Council”.

Islamabad finds itself in an awkward position on Yemen, reluctant to offend oil-rich Saudi Arabia with which it has long enjoyed close military and economic ties but also not wanting to get involved in a war that could fan sectarian tensions at home. At the same time, Pakistan needs to build better ties with its immediate neighbour Iran that offers huge prospects of trade and energy imports once sanctions are lifted against Tehran.

The Shia Factor: Perhaps an important factor for Pakistan to decline to join the anti-Yemen coalition is the Shia factor. Saudi Arabia had reportedly asked Pakistan to send only Sunni soldiers and not Shia solders. Pakistan's army is comprised of roughly 70% Sunni soldiers and 30% Shia soldiers. The Saudi request was considered as creating a rift in the Pakistan army ranks which doesn't have any sectarian division.

Meanwhile, Supreme Court of Pakistan was urged to take suo moto action to restrain the Government against becoming an ally of Saudi Arabia led military coalition. It was argued that the Saudi-Yemeni conflict has serious sectarian connotations. Pakistan is already  suffering from this curse.  Shia and other minorities in Pakistan are being regularly targeted and killed.  Its participation in the Saudi-Yemen war will not only exacerbate the domestic conflict but also draw an inviolable wedge between Pakistan and its neighbor Iran.

It may be recalled that during 1970s a large contingent of Pakistan army was stationed in Saudi Arabia. After the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979, Saudi Arabia reportedly asked Pakistan to send only Sunni soldiers and not Shia one. The Government of General Ziaul Haq withdrew the Pakistani troops on the plea that the Saudi request would create division since there was no division of Shia and Sunni in the army. The latest Saudi was now politely declined by Islamabad on the same plea.

Iranian Foreign Minister visits Islamabad

Pakistan parliament stance to be neutral on the Yemeni conflict came after weeks of media campaign to highlight the risk for Pakistan to join the Saudi-led coalition. It was suggested that this is not a war for the integrity of Saudi Arabia, but an expansionist power grab by them to re-instate their chosen leader.

The Pakistan parliament resolution came days after the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Islamabad.

Commenting on Zarif’s visit, the Daily Times emphasized that  history testifies that Iran cannot be solely blamed for the ongoing civil war in Yemen. Rather other factors are equally responsible for the crisis. In fact, the nature of the civil war in Yemen is not completely sectarian as is being projected by the media. Other factors including the presence of conflicting groups like Zaidi Shiitte rebels called Houthis, separatists from South Yemen and political loyalists are equally responsible for the ongoing civil war that actually started in 2011 when government loyalists and opposition tribesmen clashed during protests in Yemen. 

The Daily Times argued that Iran has been acting responsibly and its role is not as bad as portrayed by the media. It is backing a political solution to the Yemen conflict through a ceasefire. On this basis, it has heightened its diplomatic moves for stopping the civil war in Yemen while safeguarding its own interests. “The visiting Iranian top official has stressed the need for finding a political solution to the Yemen conflict. The Iranian stance can be termed appropriate because it carries all the ingredients that can be applied for bringing back regional stability. The statement is sensible and negates the propaganda against Iran’s intentions in the Yemen conflict.”

Yemen’s quagmire 

On April 9, the daily Dawn, the largest English newspaper of Pakistan, published an article under the title Yemen’s quagmire, launching a scathing attack on the Saudi-led air strikes against targets in Yemen. The paper said:

“Simply put, it looks like the Saudis have launched an ill-conceived campaign that has plenty of precedents from the recent past. Air campaigns against militia forces on the ground have not yielded results to brag about. The Americans tried it in Libya and look at what they created. They tried it in Kosovo, but ultimately had to settle for an agreement the terms of which were practically identical to the terms offered by Milosevic before the start of the campaign. The Saudis don’t have the military wherewithal to sustain this type of a campaign for very long, and no clear exit strategy either. It would be folly of tremendous proportions to join in. Going in with overwhelming force, and committing to a large state-making function has been tried by the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hasn’t worked.”

Also in a strongly worded editorial, the daily Dawn stressed that a military entanglement in the Middle East is not in Pakistan’s interest. "Not at this time when there is a war against militancy to be fought inside Pakistan first. Not in Yemen, where old, tribal enmities are being given a sectarian edge by outside powers. Not in the decades-old proxy wars of Saudi Arabia and Iran. And not when the Middle East itself appears to be teetering on the brink of catastrophe...... Yemen is a potential quagmire that could rival Afghanistan."

Another leading English daily The News columnist wrote, the Saudis could have played a more imaginative game by trying to influence developments in Yemen from a distance. With their eyes closed they are walking into a quagmire, although with Yemen’s history intertwined with their own who should know better than them that much like Afghanistan, Yemen has been a graveyard of invading armies?

“If Pakistan is a true friend of the Saudis it should point out these dangers, forcefully and without mincing words, and together with Iran and Turkey throw its weight behind a peaceful end to the fighting. This will be the greatest favor that anyone can do to the House of Saud. Forget about the dangers to Pakistan. Sending troops to Yemen will only mean reinforcing the disaster that the Saudis are creating for themselves,” The News concluded.

Yemen war has more in common with 19th-century Europe

Foreign Policy in Focus columnist Conn Hallinan believes that the coalition that Riyadh has assembled to intervene in Yemen’s civil war has more in common with 19th-century Europe than the 21st-century Middle East. The 22-member Arab League came together at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt last month to draw up its plan to attack the Houthi forces currently holding Yemen’s capital. And the meeting bore an uncanny resemblance to a similar gathering of monarchies at Vienna in 1814. The leading voice at the Egyptian resort was the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. His historical counterpart was Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian foreign minister who designed the “Concert of Europe” to ensure that no revolution would ever again threaten the monarchs who dominated the continent.

 More than 200 years divides those gatherings, but their goals were much the same: to safeguard a small and powerful elite’s dominion over a vast area.

The Independent of UK’s writer Patrick Cockburn believes that foreign states that go to war in Yemen usually come to regret it. In practice, a decisive outcome is the least likely prospect for Yemen, just as it has long been in Iraq and Afghanistan. A political feature common to all three countries is that power is divided between so many players it is impossible to defeat or placate them all for very long. 

It may be pointed out that the Houthis fought six wars with former military strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was forced out of the presidency in 2012. Hadi, his vice president, took over and largely ignored the Houthis — always a bad idea in Yemen.

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Chief Editor of the Journal of America.