Thursday, October 13, 2016
A Grave Matter
Americans are really bad at missing the little stories that might just change our future, understanding how other people think. We all know that Saudi Arabia is not exactly a modern and open culture or one where women have remotely the freedom and rights they have in virtually every other part of the world. They stone adulterers, chop the hands off of thieves and use beheading for all sorts of crimes. They are the keepers of the holiest shrines in Islam and have been a staunch ally of the United States in the region for many decades. The Saudi monarchy, rife with internecine battles, endures as do the thousands and thousands of Saudi princes and princesses that have some standing in that royal structure.
They are also bastion of Sunni doctrine, embracing an ultra-conservative Wahhabi vision of their faith, not particularly dissimilar to the fundamentalist views expressed by the Taliban or al Qaeda (both of whom have found strong financial and participatory support from rich Saudis) or even ISIS. Except that these other extremists think the Saudi monarchy is a corruption of Islam and has to go. Apparently, the U.S. Congress agrees in part, allowing 9/11/01 victims standing in federal court to file actions against the Saudi government for their alleged role in supporting those who brought down the Twin Towers, crashed flight 93 and blasted the Pentagon.
The Saudis see themselves as the anchor against those nasty Shiite mystics (Sunnis are literalists when it comes to interpreting the Qur’an), especially Iran (90%+ Shiite and across the Persian Gulf) and that nasty 60% Shiite majority in Iraq. So as Iran uses Shiite surrogates to fight Sunni powers wherever it can – Hezbollah in Iraq, Lebanon, etc. and the dreaded Houthis (pictured above) in majority Sunni Yemen – the Saudis fund those who oppose this Iranian attempts to expand Shiite Islam everywhere they can. They funded those Islamist madrasa schools in Pakistan and funnel massive amounts of cash to support the ultra-conservative Sunni vision wherever they can.
But Saudis avoided direct involvement in those conflicts. At first, it was because the Saudis could not field the relevant troops or pilots. But with a lot of training from the American military and amazing levels of super-high-tech U.S. weapon systems and aircraft sold with U.S. governmental support (e.g., billions of dollars of deals over the years, including a $1.15 billion new arms deal in 2016), the Saudis were ready to confront their Shiite nemesis directly. When Houthis rebels (Shiites), with strong financial and military aid from Iran, they deployed their own forces to launch a full-on attack against the Sunni government forces in neighboring Yemen. Saudi reacted against the possibility of two Shiite powers in it immediate neighborhood (Houthis in the south and Iran across the water)… and began a systematic attack against Houthis forces.
Using border intelligence supplied by the United States (the US claims it does not provide targeting information), the Saudis began airstrikes with bombs and missiles aimed at annihilating Houthis rebels. The official word is that Saudis ordered their pilots to avoid civilian targets, but reports from the ground told a different story. At first, the Yemenis Sunnis reacted with glee that the Saudis were hitting Houthis targets. But as collateral damage mounted, feelings slowly changed. Anger mounted against both the Saudis… and the Americans who had enabled the slaughter.
Just as there are historical inflection points that alter the course of history – recently the 9/11 attack or the Paris bombings – history may find an inflection at the Saudi bomb attack of a funeral in the Yemeni capital of Sana on October 8th. Alliances that the Saudis thought impossible, angry Sunni tribes shifting to side with their long-term enemies, Shiite Houthis, were bubbling, threatening to change the overall balance of power in the entire region.
“Large speakers played verses from the Quran as hundreds of mourners filed through the fanciest reception hall in Sana, the capital, to pay their respects to a prominent family after the death of its patriarch.
“Then there was a roar, the hall shook, and the guests were knocked to the floor and enveloped in fire and smoke. Some rushed for the exits as parts of the ceiling collapsed, trapping others under the rubble.
“‘We did not think they would attack a funeral,’ said Abdulla al-Shamy, 27, a clothing salesman who was in the hall at the time. ‘We did not think they would be so vile.’
“The attack on Saturday [October 8th], which Yemeni officials and witnesses said was a series of airstrikes by the military coalition led by Saudi Arabia, killed more than 100 people and unleashed political forces that could drastically change the course of Yemen’s war…
“The carnage in the heart of the capital could hamper any return to talks aimed at ending the conflict, while galvanizing support in northern Yemen for military escalation against Saudi Arabia…
“The United States will conduct ‘an immediate review’ of its support for the Saudi-led coalition, with possible adjustments ‘to better align with U.S. principles, values and interests,’ according to a statement from Ned Price, the National Security Council spokesman.
“‘U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,’ Mr. Price’s statement said. ‘Even as we assist Saudi Arabia regarding the defense of their territorial integrity, we have and will continue to express our serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged.’
“Secretary of State John Kerry also spoke by phone on Sunday with top Saudi officials and called for an immediate ‘cessation of hostilities,’ the State Department said in a statement. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi deputy crown prince, said his government was prepared to ‘institute a renewable 72-hour cessation as soon as possible, provided the Houthis will agree,’ the State Department added.” New York Times, October 9th. Saudis escalated their hostilities as their attacks failed to dislodge the Houthis, now setting up a separate state on the coast, replete with its own banking system.
The potential realignment augured badly for the Saudis. “In a statement on Saturday [10/8], the United Nations said more than 140 had been killed in all. [Tamim al-Shami, a spokesman for the Yemeni Health Ministry] said the higher figure probably included victims who had not been taken to medical facilities… ‘Some bodies were shredded to pieces, an ear here, a head there,’ Mr. Shami said.
“The dead included many members of prominent tribes from northern Yemen. Ms. [April Longley] Alley, [an] analyst with the International Crisis Group, said those tribes might now ally with the rebels in new attacks on Saudi Arabia. Also killed were Abdulqader Hilal, the mayor of Sana, and a number of other political and military leaders who not only supported peace talks with the exiled government, but also had the credibility to put an accord into effect.
“‘They killed and injured several important moderate leaders who were working with them, who wanted a deal,’ Ms. Alley said of the Saudi-led coalition. ‘Now the desire for revenge is high, and militants will be empowered, which puts us in a situation where a compromise might not be possible.’
“The attack occurred at a time of growing tension between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Their decades-old alliance has been strained by the United States’ push for a nuclear agreement with Iran, a bitter Saudi enemy, as well as by American policy in Syria.’ NY Times. The day after the Sana slaughter, “A U.S. military spokesman said two missiles were fired from Houthi-held territory at the USS Mason, a guided missile destroyer sailing north of the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait. Neither missile hit the ship…The Houthis denied firing at the U.S. ship.” Reuters, October 10th.
“The attempted strike on the USS Mason, which was first reported by Reuters, came just a week after a United Arab Emirates vessel came under attack from Houthis and suggests growing risks to the U.S. military from Yemen's conflict.” BusinessInsider.com, October 10th. Another pair of missiles were fired at the Mason on October 12th, but “counter-measures” easily deflected the attack.
This ugly aspect of this conflict, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives overall, marks a turning point, one that that may loosen the Saudi grip as a protector of the Sunnis side of Islam and give additional players reason to topple the monarchy, a domino that sends quivers of fear in other regional monarchies. It is of the utmost importance to diffuse this explosive situation, find peace and restabilze this volatile border hot zone. There is more than enough volatility in the region already. We do not need another fire-blast to anger even more people into ultra-violent retaliation.
I’m Peter Dekom, and let’s hope this “little” story does not find its way to redefine the Middle East with even more violence that could easily spread across the globe.