Tremors in the Middle East

04/03/2015 04:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

It's been a while now since some analysts had started referring to the Arab Spring as the Arab Winter. The latter expression implies that hopes of a major transformation in the politics and economics of the greater Middle East stand dashed. Instead, the region appears increasingly riven by sectarian and ethnic fault lines. In Libya rival militias clash regularly. Utter chaos with civilian authority in shreds seems around the corner. In Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab country, a military strong man is once again at the helm after overthrowing an elected government, nearly two years ago. Not surprisingly the rule of law and respect for a democratic ethos has suffered serious damage in Egypt. Some observers are suggesting that the government headed by Field Marshal Sisi is more authoritarian than the decades-long rule of Hosni Mubarak. Syria, once proudly described as the "beating heart" of the Arab Middle East is in the fourth year of a civil war that has left over two hundred thousand dead and around ten million displaced from their homes. There is no sign that the minority Alawite regime headed by President Bashar al Assad is near losing out to a hodge-podge of its opponents who regularly fall on each other. The United States, the European Union, the Arab countries and the UN have been largely reduced to the role of bystanders. The BBC has recently described parts of the Middle East as a veritable finishing school for violent extremists.

Yemen is approaching civil war. The legitimately appointed government of President Mansur Hadi has been overthrown by the minority Houthis from North Yemen, a group which has long felt marginalized by Sanaa. (The Houthis take their name from a former leader who was killed by the Yemeni government forces in a clash a few years back.) The Houthis follow a variant of Shia Islam. While supported morally and to some extent materially by Iran, American diplomats suggest the Iranian influence over the Houthis is limited.

The Houthis have routed the Yemeni military loyal to President Hadi who has fled the country and reportedly sought refuge in Saudi Arabia. That neighboring country, which hosts a large population of Yemeni workers, is understandably alarmed at the ascendency of the Houthis. The Saudis, who are engaged in a bitter rivalry with Iran, fear that Tehran is trying to gain a foothold through their Houthi allies in the Arabian Peninsula. This may be too much for the jittery Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms to swallow coming as it does on the heels of substantial Iranian influence in the Arab capitals of Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. The Jordanian monarch Abdullah had spoken darkly a few years back of a Shia crescent surrounding the Sunni Arab states.

Having enormous financial resources not matched by corresponding military capability, the Saudis have launched air strikes against Houthi assets in Yemen. These operations, the efficacy of which is limited, are designed to coax the Houthis to enter into a political agreement with a restored Hadi government. These airstrikes have killed a large number of Yemeni civilians resulting in anti-Saudi feelings among the Yemeni populace. The Houthis are exploiting this collateral damage to gain sympathy and support among Yemenis.

Following the capture of almost all the major Yemeni towns by the Houthis, the United States decided to withdraw all its counter terrorism experts numbering around one thousand according to media reports, from Yemen. This is a significant setback, because it visibly diminishes the intelligence capabilities that the United States has on the ground in the Middle East. To some observers the U.S. withdrawal from Yemen bears some resemblance to the British withdrawal East of Suez in 1971. This comparison may appear overblown as the U.S. still has sizeable military assets in the Arabian Peninsula. However the pulling out of its counter -terrorism personnel from Yemen diminishes U.S. influence in the strife torn region.

The Arab League, a less than effective regional organization with its headquarters in Cairo, is talking about a "joint defense force" to oust the Houthis and restore President Hadi. Such aspirations appear to me to be more on paper rather than in the realm of practical reality. Egypt which relies heavily on Saudi financial aid is reportedly planning to send its troops to Yemen to confront the Houthis. The media also is reporting that the Saudis have approached their long term ally Pakistan to send its troops to Yemen to degrade the Houthi advance. Reportedly Pakistan has agreed to help Saudi Arabia. We shall know in a few days about the veracity or otherwise of these reports.

Iran is the up and coming regional power in the region regardless of the outcome of the negotiation between it and the P5 plus 1 countries on its nuclear program. These negotiations are at a delicate stage. But even if they fail, Iran will continue to exercise regional influence, notwithstanding the efforts of the Gulf States, led by Saudi Arabia to forestall this eventuality. At this time the US seems to be reducing its foot print in the Middle East, no doubt adversely affected by its baneful experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. This could mean that the field is relatively clear for Iran to augment its presence in the region.

The possibility of an Iran-dominated order in the Middle East in the near future cannot be discounted. The Arab countries would perhaps be wise to accept this emerging reality and try to work out an accommodation with Iran instead of showing a reflexive hostility toward it. The Arabs could perhaps consider reflecting upon the American maxim "if you cannot beat 'em, join 'em."