Belmont Club

Counting the Cats in Zinjibar

News reports suggest that forces associated with al-Qaeda have taken over, at least temporarily, a major city in Yemen. The LA Times says Zinjibar, “the capital of Abyan province in the south had been overrun by the country’s Al Qaeda affiliate”. The civil strife in Yemen has diverted most of that country’s military energy to sectarian purposes, leaving any rebels who care to attack a free hand.


It was impossible to know for sure if the group in Zinjibar was in Al Qaeda’s grasp. Myriad separatist groups exist in the south, including rival jihadist militant organizations such as the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, as well as clans resentful of Sana. The country experienced a civil war between north and south in 1994. …

Troops loyal to the president have withdrawn from swaths of the country in recent months to concentrate on holding Sana, the capital. Last week alone, the elite Republican Guard — headed by Saleh’s son Ahmed — battled supporters of powerful tribal leaders in Sana and surrendered a base just outside of the city on Friday before airstrikes were called for.

The Yemeni Observer said government forces are now shelling Zinjibar and it may be retaken by the government. However Reuters says that the US and Saudi Arabia are afraid that al-Qaeda related groups might take advantage of the chaos to make gains. “Fears are growing that Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) will exploit such instability, analysts said. The United States and Saudi Arabia, both targets of attacks by AQAP, are worried that growing chaos is emboldening the group.” The New York Times reports that Saudi Arabia is doing its utmost to roll back the Arab Spring.

Saudi Arabia is flexing its financial and diplomatic might across the Middle East in a wide-ranging bid to contain the tide of change, shield other monarchies from popular discontent and avert the overthrow of any more leaders struggling to calm turbulent nations.

From Egypt, where the Saudis dispensed $4 billion in aid last week to shore up the ruling military council, to Yemen, where it is trying to ease out the president, to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, which it has invited to join a union of Persian Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia is scrambling to forestall more radical change and block Iran’s influence.


Meanwhile Teheran is doing its utmost to make points. A cleric in Iran claimed the Ayatollahs have played a pivotal role in the Islamic awakening throughout the region and that Iran and the West were battling for the leadership of the movement. He was addressing visiting Turkish university professors. “Ayatollah Khamenei also stressed that recent developments in the region have surprised the US, European and Zionists, and warned that the arrogant powers have conspired plots to gain control over these developments. As regards the outcomes of the recent Islamic awakening in the region, Ayatollah Khamenei assured that “this movement will eventually serve the interests of the people of the region in future”. Doubtless Khamenei also wants the Spring to also serve Iran’s interests.

These developments may shed light on President Obama’s peculiar diplomatic behavior. Lee Smith was probably right to say that despite the outward bluster Washington regarded the Arab Spring a serious challenge. The President may have embarked upon the strategy of trying to lead, rather than fight it. It was a response from weakness rather than strength. This would explain its willingness to throw Mubarak overboard, press Saudi Arabia for “reforms” and to throw Israel’s borders into the negotiating pot all in an effort to gain street cred in the region.


In other words the President is fighting a rearguard action and shown a willingness to throw whatever it can into the path of the oncoming avalanche in order to slow it down temporarily. What he has been willing to concede speaks volumes about the seriousness of the situation. But sacrificial strategies only work when they set up a counter-attack or are anchored on a final stop line. Without a counterattack strategy repeated concessions only lead to defeat. So where is the administration’s final stop line?

That remains to be publicly defined. Doubtless Washington knows what it is, one would hope. But Saudi Arabia and Israel, perhaps sensing the drift, have left the Washington line and are setting up their own final protective fires. For the Kingdom, the lines are drawn around the GCC. For Israel, they are drawn around the parking lot because in comparative terms, that’s as big as its boundaries are. But for Washington the final game plan is still unclear.

It is not worth the while to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. … If you would learn to speak all tongues and conform to the customs of all nations, if you would travel farther than all travellers, be naturalized in all climes, and cause the Sphinx to dash her head against a stone, even obey the precept of the old philosopher, and Explore thyself.

— Walden Pond


What Teheran and Riyadh want is clearer than what Washington desires.

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