Tehran’s apparent support for Thursday’s breakthrough in UN-sponsored Yemeni peace talks raises questions about the future of Iran’s involvement in the conflict. The Saudi-backed Yemeni government, and Iranian-supported Houthi rebels have agreed to end fighting in and around the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah. The Iranian foreign ministry called the ceasefire ‘promising’ and hopes that negotiations scheduled for January will bring forth a final agreement. The fact that the peace talks have made progress is surprising. For most of the four-year old conflict neither side has shown much enthusiasm for a brokered-settlement. Over the last four months that attitude has vanished, in large part due to increasing US-led international pressure on the involved parties to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
Whether or not Iran’s support is sincere or purely cosmetic remains to be seen. The progress made in the peace talks, as well as Iran’s public praise for it, indicates there could be a shift in Iran’s Yemen strategy afoot. Tehran’s funding, and material support of the Houthi rebels has been vital to keeping them in the fight for this long. It is a marriage of convenience between the two more than anything else. The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is not deep. There are no historical ties that compel Tehran to support the movement. Iran’s main purpose for investing itself in the Yemeni War was to establish a firm foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, and threaten Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier, along with the vital Red Sea shipping routes. A Houthi victory would ultimately have led to the establishment of a pro-Iranian government in Yemen, and the end result would be a major victory for Tehran in the Great Game being played out between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the region.
Unfortunately, the conflict has not gone in Iran’s favor. Saudi-led intervention has made a Houthi victory more unlikely as time goes on. Yemen has become a nation-state besieged by war, and enduring an almost unimaginable humanitarian crisis. Continued backing of the Houthis in the future appears more of a crapshoot for Iran, especially in light of the other major issues the Iranian government is facing both at home and abroad. The chance of a more permanent ceasefire, or peace agreement in the near future provides Iran with an opportunity to walk away from Yemen with a respectable PR victory (provided support for the UN-sponsored talks continues) and its prestige still relatively intact.
Yemen does not hold the same significance for Iran that it did four years ago. Tehran has bigger problems to contend with. Saudi Arabia, despite the recent Khashoggi incident, has taken a hard stand against further Iranian expansion in and around the kingdom. The close relationship between the Trump administration and the Saudi royal family has enticed Riyadh to push back against Iranian adventurism, hence Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to end its intervention in Yemen.
Then there is the United States. Iran is dealing with a full court press by the Trump administration to isolate Iran from the global community. To the surprise of many Iranian leaders, the US efforts have been quite successful so far, and show no signs of easing in the future. So, it would make sense for Iran to circle its wagons and hunker down to endure the next wave of US pressure instead of overextending itself in near-hopeless foreign adventures.
The fate of Idlib could very well be determined Friday when the leaders of Russia, Iran, and Turkey will meet in Tehran to discuss the upcoming offensive against the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. Bashr al Assad’s forces are massed around the borders of the Idlib province in northwestern Syria, and preparations for offensive operations are underway. Air strikes against rebel positions have already begun, leading to speculation that the Syrian offensive could be just days away from jumping off.
The UN, various non-government organizations, and relief groups have warned that a full scale Syrian offensive could lead to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Unfortunately, the human consequences are unlikely to make Syria’s leader Bashar al-Assad reconsider intended course of action. They might be influencing Turkey’s position, however.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will come into the summit meeting with serious reservations. Turkey has been a supporter of the non-Islamic State Syrian rebels against Bashar al-Assad and has called for an end to the bombing now underway in Idlib. Another concern for Erdogan is the border Turkey shares with Idlib. A Syrian offensive has the potential to create an influx of refugees from Idlib into Turkey, adding to the more than 3 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey now.
Moscow, on the other hand, shares none of Turkey’s reservations. Russia is largely in agreement with the idea of the Syrian army moving into the province. Roughly 60% of Idlib is controlled by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and ISIS. Russia remains committed to destroying these groups. In fact, Russian warplanes have begun flying missions against Islamist targets in Idlib once again. When Syrian troops do begin operations in Idlib, they will do so with unfettered Russian support.
The Kremlin announced today that it will be sending a humanitarian relief convoy into the eastern Ukraine with cooperation from the International Red Cross. The announcement was made in spite of opposition from the West and the Ukraine regarding Russian aid to the eastern provinces. The West fears that Moscow’s interest in humanitarian missions will serve as a precursor to sending Russian military forces into rebel held territory. The timing of the announcement is certainly suspect. In the past ten days, the Ukrainian military has made significant inroads against rebel strongholds around Donetsk and in other parts of the Eastern Ukraine.
Donetsk is the key to the conflict for the moment. Whoever controls the city will ultimately control the region. As the rebel grip on Donetsk loosens, so does their grip on the rest of the eastern provinces. Kiev realizes this, hence the increased military pressure. The Ukrainian goal is to encircle Donetsk and cut it off from rebel held towns and positions closer to the Russian border. Moscow realizes this as well. Only Russian support of some kind will be able to reverse the rebel’s fortunes.