Turkey's Forays into the Middle East
Turkey's Forays into the Middle East
A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East
A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey's Forays into the Middle East

Once oriented mainly toward Europe and no more than a (wary) bystander in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Turkey became one of the region’s aspiring heavyweights in just over a decade. The country is bound to the neighborhood through blood and cultural ties, even if its distinct Turkish character sets it apart from the Arab world. Despite a shared history and geographical proximity that could have ensured strong commercial and diplomatic links with states formerly part of the empire, Turkey’s traditional establishment and elites long saw exposure to a conflict-ridden Middle East primarily as a liability. It was only in the 1980s that Turkey started developing closer trading, cultural, and people-to-people ties with the surrounding region. In the 1990s, after the Cold War had ended, Turkey cemented its relations with the US and Europe, and anchored its MENA regional engagement through close military cooperation with Israel.[fn]See Philip Robins, Suits and Uniforms: Turkey’s Foreign Policy after the Cold War (London, 2003); William Hale, Turkish Foreign Policy Since 1774 (Abingdon, 2013), chapter 11.Hide Footnote

Regardless of who led it, Turkey’s primary objective over the past century has been to retain the territory that was left to it from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire. Ever since the 2002 elections, the country has been ruled by the Justice and Development party (AKP) under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and then as president. The AKP is a movement whose Muslim Brotherhood-inspired ideology fuses Islamic principles with participatory politics and free-market economics. AKP leaders and the conservative intellectual elites close to the government cast Turkey as a natural leader of the Islamic umma, and view the country’s borders with Iraq and Syria as an artificial imposition. At the same time, Erdoğan and his supporters have internalized the Kemalist vision of a strong state capable of deterring and overpowering internal and external enemies.[fn]On the merger of political Islam and Turkish nationalism, including the Millî Görüş (“National Outlook”) tradition from which the AKP stems, see Jenny White, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).Hide Footnote

One of Turkey’s primary internal challenges – one that poses a threat to its territorial integrity and ties its fate to that of its neighbors – has been the Kurdish question. From the 1980s onward, following the creation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK), this has involved ferocious fighting with tenacious Kurdish separatists punctuated by deceptively peaceful lulls and even hesitant attempts at reaching across the aisle. The most recent such effort ended in July 2015; its collapse must be placed within the context of the AKP’s reduced showing in elections the previous month, and the PKK’s expanding fortunes in the gaping vacuums of Syria and Iraq. The Turkey-PKK conflict, now in its fourth decade, has been tremendously costly and damaging to all sides – especially to the civilians caught in the crossfire. It has become a festering wound for which no workable treatment has yet been found.

“Zero Problems” in the Neighborhood

Soon after coming to power in 2002, the AKP pivoted Turkish foreign policy towards its neighborhood, most distinctly, MENA. It was a decision that was particularly popular with the party’s base of conservative small-business owners, especially in Anatolia, who profited from an increase in cross-border trade and investment.[fn]See Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan, The New Turkey and Its Discontents (Oxford, 2016), chapter 7.Hide Footnote The economy took off. This allowed Turkey, full of swagger, to appoint itself as the region’s order setter (düzen kurucu). That was the essence of the “zero problems” policy enunciated by Ahmet Davutoğlu, an academic who went from being Erdoğan’s foreign policy advisor to the foreign minister, and lastly to prime minister during the heady years of Turkish economic expansion.[fn]Ahmet Davutoğlu used the term düzen kurucu bir ülke (“an order-setting country”) in his “Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position” [Stratejik derinlik: Türkiye'nin uluslararası konumu] (Istanbul, 2001).Hide Footnote The ruling party championed a regional marketplace by forging free-trade agreements and lifting visa requirements for its neighbors. If Europe had its Schengen, Turkey was to build its “Sham-gen” (Sham is Arabic for the Levant), some argued.[fn]The word Sham-gen was reportedly coined by Erdoğan himself in relation to agreements Turkey signed with Syria, Iran and Iraq. It was made public by an Iranian minister, Ali Agha-Mohammadi. Milliyet, 3 March 2011. See Kemal Kirişci and  Neslihan Kaptanoğlu, “The Politics of Trade and Turkish Foreign Policy,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 47, No. 5 (September 2011), pp. 705-724.Hide Footnote

Middle Eastern publics, raised on Egyptian and Syrian soap operas, now fell in thrall with (dubbed) Turkish TV series, as well as Turkish consumer goods and tourist attractions. Turkey offered something to those looking for alternatives to their own sclerotic authoritarian regimes. Arab liberals admired Ankara’s EU-induced – but broadly embraced in Turkey – political and institutional reforms as well as its overall pro-Western outlook, while Muslim Brotherhood supporters were attracted to the AKP’s reformulation of Islamism in a modern key, with economic results.[fn]Meliha Benli Altunışık, Turkey: Arab Perspectives (Istanbul: 2010).Hide Footnote

As an important component of what some referred to as “emerging neo-Ottomanism,”[fn]Ankara believed it could parlay its new popularity, economic strength, and growing regional networks into diplomatic muscle deployed in furtherance of conflict resolution.[fn]It presented itself as a mediator between Israel and Syria in 2007 (though talks became public only in May 2008) and having friendly relations with both;[fn]between Israel and Hamas;[fn]and between Iran and the UN Security Council over Tehran’s nuclear program.[fn]It no longer saw MENA conflicts as threatening, but as opportunities.

The common menace of an independent Kurdistan brought Iran and Turkey on the same track, providing both countries with a chance to coordinate and decide on how to confront the new status.

The AKP’s Brotherhood-infused ideological outlook soon created contradictions in its peacemaking efforts. In 2006, it endorsed Hamas (the Brotherhood’s Palestinian expression) after it won the elections in the West Bank and Gaza, diverging from the Quartet, which linked acceptance of the results with the Islamist movement’s recognition of the state of Israel and renunciation of violence. From that point onward, Israel no longer saw Ankara as an honest broker but as a challenger, one with the kind of soft-power influence in the region that Israel signally lacked, and one that pursued alliances, or at least workable relations, with Israel’s enemies: Hamas and Iran. Israeli-Syrian negotiations – and Turkish mediation along with it – fell apart when the Israeli army invaded Gaza in December 2008. Ankara blamed Tel Aviv for presenting it with a fait accompli.[fn]Tensions escalated, first in a January 2009 showdown between Erdoğan and President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum, then more dramatically in May 2010, when Israel’s attack on the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” (sponsored by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation/İnsani Yardım Vakfı , or IHH, a Turkish NGO close to the AKP) provoked a rupture in diplomatic relations.[fn]Turkey’s mediation with regard to the Iranian nuclear program in 2010 hardly fared better, ending in failure after Washington declined to support it.[fn]David E. Sanger and Michael Slackman, “U.S. Is Skeptical on Iranian Deal for Nuclear Fuel,” The New York Times, 17 May 2010; and Laura Rozen, “Obama admin. dismisses leak of Obama letter on Iran fuel deal,” Politico, 28 May 2010. Turkey used its position as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2009-10.Hide Footnote

Ankara’s approach to post-2003 Iraq was wrought with contradictions and ultimately failed dismally. While its relations with the Saddam Hussein regime were never very solid, it saw a strong Iraq as a critical buffer against Iranian influence and shared Saddam’s interest in keeping the Kurds divided and weak. Ankara warned against the US invasion of Iraq, and the Turkish parliament – contrary to the wishes of Turkey’s military leadership – refused transit rights to US troops seeking to bring down the Iraqi leader via a pincer movement from Kuwait, Jordan, and Turkey.[fn]While this may not have affected the war’s outcome, it did fray Ankara’s relations with Washington and left Turkey out in the cold for five years. Worse for Turkey, the US military’s disastrous errors in stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq afforded Iran an increasingly influential role in shaping the country’s political course, and provided the Iraqi Kurds with vast new opportunities.

It was in Syria – where the stakes for Turkey are incomparably high – that its aspiration to refashion the MENA region suffered its most dramatic crash.

In a moment of clear thinking, Turkey counter-intuitively began forging a strategically important economic bond with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 2007, particularly with its strongest component, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani.[fn]Ankara’s objective was to contain the Kurdish challenge to Iraq’s territorial integrity – and ipso facto Turkey’s own – by drawing the Kurds tightly into its economy while allowing them the kind of autonomy, including the opportunity to exploit the region’s hydrocarbon wealth, that Baghdad had been averse to extending since Iraq’s birth but, after 2003, could not prevent. At the same time, the Turkish leadership overcame its distaste of Iraq’s new Shiite Islamist ruling parties and reached out to Baghdad, signing a series of commercial agreements that formed the basis for major Turkish investments in the Iraqi economy. Ankara hoped it could mediate a deal between Baghdad and Erbil that would keep the Kurds in Iraq, and both Kurdish and Kirkuk oil flowing into Turkey.[fn]

Turkey soon shot itself in the foot. In the run-up to Iraq’s 2010 parliamentary elections, Turkey, in coordination with Qatar, set about building a secular political counterweight to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Islamist-tinged Shiite ruling alliance. But by drawing mainly Sunni parties into Iyad Allawi’s Al-Iraqiya list, Turkey compounded Iraq’s sectarian politics. When Allawi won the plurality of votes but proved unable to cobble together a governing coalition, Maliki returned to power and promptly took revenge on Allawi’s foreign sponsors, especially Turkey. Sectarian rhetoric soared in Ankara and Baghdad, and commercial ties suffered.[fn]These antecedents would come back to haunt Ankara after 2011. Since then, it has been drawn deeply into the vortex of the region’s interlocking conflicts while facing significant blowback at home.

Accumulating Challenges in a Crumbling Neighborhood

The Arab awakenings put Turkish regional policy to an ever more rigorous test. Initially, it seemed that history was on the AKP’s side, with years of investment about to pay off. Sensing commercial and political opportunity in the Arab world at a time when EU membership negotiations had reached a stalemate, Turkey presented its multiparty politics, economic vibrancy, synthesis of Islam, and democracy as a model – or, as former President Abdullah Gül put it, a “source of inspiration” – to the region.[fn]Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, became a hero of Tahrir Square with an early call on Hosni Mubarak to step down.[fn]First vetoing NATO’s Libya intervention from fear of losing its extensive economic investments there, Ankara then threw its weight behind the anti-Qadhafi coalition and ended up on the winning side.[fn]With the old autocrats gone, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya all saw Brotherhood affiliates triumphing. Not only were they ideologically aligned with the AKP, but they were also the best-organized political force and were capable of assuming power. Turkey’s fortunes rose with Al-Nahda’s March 2011 electoral victory in Tunisia and Mohammed Morsi’s 2012 ascendancy to the Egyptian presidency.

In Syria, Ankara expected Assad to fall in the face of growing popular protests. Then came the reversal, shattering in its impact. Assad stayed on, requiring growing Turkish investment in an insurgency that never ceased to fragment and radicalize. Turkey’s support of the Brotherhood backfired, delivering a blow to its political and commercial interests in the region: The Egyptian military, backed by Saudi Arabia, toppled Morsi in July 2013; Turkey responded by cutting diplomatic ties. In Tunisia, seeing the writing on the wall, the Al-Nahda government resigned pre-emptively, agreeing to being replaced by an interim technocrat government and subsequently to a power-sharing arrangement with secular forces.[fn]Lastly, the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 diminished Turkey’s value to Tehran as a bridge to the West (as well as a way around the sanctions). As many in Turkey quipped, from zero problems with neighbors, the country now had zero neighbors without problems.

It was in Syria – where the stakes for Turkey are incomparably high – that its aspiration to refashion  the MENA region suffered its most dramatic crash. In the popular uprising’s early months, Assad shunned Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s calls for reform, resorting to harsh repression instead.[fn]This triggered a sharp Turkish U-turn in August 2011.[fn]Betting on Assad’s speedy demise, Turkey burned bridges to the regime by offering a safe haven to its opponents, a conduit for arms and foreign fighters, and a refuge for displaced civilians. The gamble backfired. A military stalemate dragged Ankara deeper into the civil war, straining its relations with Iran and Iraq.[fn]The hope that Western states would intervene and impose a no-fly zone, as they had in Libya, evaporated once President Barack Obama chose not to enforce his declared red lines on Syrian chemical weapons use in September 2013.

Instead of Turkey changing Syria in its own image, the Syrian war transformed Turkish domestic politics and regional policy.

Things went downhill from there. Turkey now faced a triple challenge: from the PKK, whose Syrian affiliates were exploiting the vacuum in the north to carve out a self-rule entity along the length of the Turkish border;[fn]from ISIS, which emerged from the chaotic Turkey-supported Syrian rebel scene and in 2015-2016 carried out repeated attacks on Turkish soil, including in Ankara (the bloodiest in Turkey’s history) and Istanbul, taking hundreds of lives;[fn]and from 3.2 million (registered) Syrian refugees, who somehow had to be accommodated and cared for.[fn]“Number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reaches 3,2 million”, Daily Sabah, 4 October 2017, https://www.dailysabah.com/syrian-crisis/2017/10/04/number-of-syrian-refugees-in-turkey-reaches-32-million. See also, Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Report N°241, Turkey’s Refugee Crisis: The Politics of Permanence, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The dual threat from the PKK and ISIS presented a particularly knotty dilemma. In the balance of things, Ankara felt the PKK posed the greater menace, having built up a formidable guerrilla force and seeking a political transformation in, if not secession of, Turkey’s southeast.[fn]The July 2015 collapse of a Turkey-PKK ceasefire brought a sharp escalation in fighting in Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast, and a more aggressive Turkish military approach toward the presence of the PKK and its affiliates in Syria and Iraq.[fn]While Ankara did not align itself with ISIS, it benefited from the group’s presence in Syria, where its fighters fought the regime (but also other Syrian rebel factions) and attacked the Kurdish self-rule area. ISIS’ October 2014 seizure of the Kurdish border town of Kobane triggered a US-backed military response from the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the PKK affiliate – over strenuous but eventually fruitless Turkish opposition: Ankara did not want to see the PKK make military gains on its southern border and accumulate Western credit in the process.[fn]Turkey ultimately allowed the transfer of Kurdish peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq to Kobane. Al Jazeera, 29 October 2014. The U.S. also delivered heavy weapons through this route after Barzani and the U.S. promised Turkey they would not be passed on to the PKK or its Syrian affiliate, the YPG. Rudaw, 25 October 2014.Hide Footnote

In early 2015, Turkey saw a glimmer of hope that Assad might yet fall, but Russia’s military intervention in September ended any prospect of regime change in Damascus. Worse, after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter jet, the Kremlin imposed tough sanctions on Turkey, reversing what had been a stable economic relationship.[fn]The combined power of Russia, Iran, Hizbollah, and what remained of the Syrian army, pushed back hard against Turkey-backed rebels. As the YPG extended its control in the north, seeking to connect the areas east of the Euphrates with Afrin north of Aleppo, Erdoğan realized he had little choice but to reconcile with Moscow and re-engage Iran. In return, he received tacit approval to move military forces and Free Syrian Army units into Syria (Operation Euphrates Shield, launched in August 2016), ostensibly to fight ISIS but in reality to stop the YPG’s bid to take control over the entire 900-kilometer border.[fn]Together with Russia, Turkey brokered the rebels’ surrender in East Aleppo in December and sponsored several rounds of Moscow-initiated peace talks in Astana and Geneva, with Iran as co-host. A year later, Turkey’s role in Syria was much diminished. In August 2017, it agreed with Russia to establish a jointly monitored de-escalation zone in Idlib province, which had come under the near-exclusive sway of an – apparently autonomous – Al Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front. Ankara appeared motivated as much by the possibility of containing the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the YPG, in Afrin as by the desire to prevent a new refugee flow into Turkey as a result of a future Syrian regime assault on Idlib.

In Iraq, Turkey hardly fared better. ISIS’ capture of Sunni Arab areas in June 2014, including the city of Mosul,[fn]drew Iraqi Shiite militias – some of which were funded, trained, and equipped by Iran – to northern Iraq, a traditional Turkish sphere of influence. This was the first time since the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab between the Ottoman and Persian Empires that the two sides came to face each other in this area, even if only by proxy.

To make matters worse for Turkey, the PKK made major inroads in northern Iraq as well, challenging Turkey’s ally the KDP, which pre-emptively abandoned the district of Sinjar in August 2014 as ISIS moved in. PKK fighters saved thousands of fleeing Yazidis; many others were slaughtered or enslaved by ISIS.[fn]More than a year later, the PKK and the KDP – moving simultaneously but separately – started to push ISIS out of the area, leaving the PKK (and its local affiliates) in an advantageous position, the KDP having lost the trust of the local population. During the subsequent US-led campaign to wrest control of Mosul from ISIS, Turkey played hardly more than a bystander role, having sent only a small number of troops into northern Iraq to train Sunni forces under Mosul’s former governor and deter the PKK from taking further advantage of the security vacuum. Still, this move put Ankara on a collision course with Baghdad, which decried Turkey’s violation of Iraqi sovereignty,[fn]while its support of the KDP aggravated intra-Kurdish tensions.

Most of the gambles the AKP took, starting from the mid-2000s but especially from 2011 onwards, boomeranged.

Ankara’s post-2008 relationship with the KDP, which had enabled the Kurdish region’s integration into the Turkish economy, suffered a severe blow as a result of President Masoud Barzani’s decision to stage an independence referendum over its strenuous objections. On the day of the September 2017 referendum, Erdoğan went so far as to warn Barzani that if the Kurds failed to “go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war.”[fn]Sanctions followed but more importantly, Ankara closed its eyes to a subsequent move by Iraqi security forces supported by Iran-backed Shiite militias to restore federal control over the disputed territories (the borderlands between majority-Kurd and majority-Arab areas in northern Iraq), including Kirkuk and its oil fields. These developments were a strategic disaster for Turkey, which saw an almost decade-long investment in a seemingly reliable Kurdish partner collapse overnight and its rival Iran improving its strategic position in Iraq.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East & North Africa Briefing N°55, Oil and Borders: How to Fix Iraq’s Kurdish Crisis, 17 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Setbacks in Syria, Iraq, and the broader region pushed Turkey into a retrenchment mode. Instead of Turkey changing Syria in its own image, as many Turks had hoped in 2011 it would do, the Syrian war transformed Turkish domestic politics and regional policy. To prevent further isolation and maintain its position, Ankara began to repair relations with Israel, tried to restore economic ties with the Sisi regime in Egypt, reopened its embassy in Libya and even toned down its anti-Assad rhetoric, reportedly establishing a backchannel to Damascus.[fn]At the same time, Turkey has clung to its alliance with Qatar, a fellow sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood and since 2016 host to a Turkish military base. This relationship was even strengthened during Qatar’s Gulf squabble with Saudi Arabia and the UAE that broke out in June 2017. Turkey also has remained steadfast in its backing of Hamas in Gaza. In short, Turkey has traded its comfortable “zero-problems-with-neighbors” stance for one of crisis management in a desperate effort to protect its own vital interests at home and along its borders.

Concluding Remarks

Being in but not truly of the region – to use Churchill’s adage about Britain and Europe – Turkey long succeeded in living with conflicts next door without incurring inordinate costs. Presenting itself as a neutral third party, at least initially, in the Israel-Palestine conflict and Iran’s standoff with the West gave it a regional profile as peace mediator, even if some in the West saw Turkey abandoning its staunchly pro-Western alignment. Sunni radicalization in the region was a boon for the AKP early in its tenure, as it conferred legitimacy in the West’s eyes of being a “moderate Islamist” party at a time when it was locked in a life-or-death struggle with the Kemalist “deep state.”[fn]See, for example, European Stability Initiative, Islamic Calvinists. Change and Conservatism in Central Anatolia, September 2005; Angel Rabasa and F. Stephen Larabee, The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey (RAND, 2008.). At the time, Erdoğan insisted the AKP was a Turkish replica of the Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. Ian Traynor, “Turkey strives for 21st century form of Islam”, The Guardian, 27 February 2008.Hide Footnote

The Arab Awakenings and their violent aftermath served to unravel the edifice that AKP leaders had built. Most of the gambles the AKP took, starting from the mid-2000s but especially from 2011 onwards, boomeranged. Turkey’s challenge today is to restore equipoise in its regional relations and in particular to prevent any further negative spillover from the conflicts and vacuum in Syria and Iraq, while finding ways to address its own worsening internal convulsions.


Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
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Dimitar Bechev
Research Fellow at the Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Houthi fighters walk at the site of an air strike on a parade square in Sanaa, Yemen on November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

A Huthi Missile, a Saudi Purge and a Lebanese Resignation Shake the Middle East

Volatility is rising across the Middle East as local, regional and international conflicts increasingly intertwine and amplify each other. Four Crisis Group analysts give a 360-degree view of the new risks of overlapping conflicts that involve Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon and Israel.

On 4 November 2017, Huthi/Saleh forces in Yemen fired a Burkan 2-H long-range ballistic missile at the Saudi capital, Riyadh. It was intercepted and destroyed before reaching its target. The attack occurred during a profound political shakeup in Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to consolidate power, and amid dramatic Saudi political manoeuvrings in the region which led to the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri. Adding to the volatility, Israel has been making veiled – and not so veiled – threats about its intent to prevent Hizbollah from developing an indigenous capacity to build sophisticated precision missiles.

The Yemen War Is a Trigger Point for Wider Conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran – By April Longley Alley

The Potential Cost to Iran of Its Expanding Rivalry with Saudi Arabia – By Ali Vaez

Saudi Arabia’s Counter-productive Show of Strength in Lebanon – By Heiko Wimmen

Israel Faces New Risks in Enforcing Its Red Lines against Hizbollah – By Ofer Zalzberg


The Yemen War Is a Trigger Point for Wider Conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran

By April Longley Alley, Project Director, Arabian Peninsula

Although the Huthi/Saleh alliance has fired dozens of rockets into Saudi territory this year, this missile launch is the farthest on record and the closest they have come to hitting a major population centre. The fact that they have the capability to strike Riyadh raises the political stakes as well as the cost of war for Saudi Arabia. It also means that other Gulf cities may soon be in target range; on 8 November, the Huthis threatened further attacks on Saudi and Emirati ports and airports. Given growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the U.S. administration’s eagerness to push back against Tehran, missile strikes by the Huthis in Gulf countries or in the Red Sea arguably are the single most dangerous trigger points for widening the conflict beyond Yemen to a regional confrontation.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by April Longley Alley, Project Director, Arabian Peninsula CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Yet lost amid the regional dynamics is the Yemeni political context. The Huthi/Saleh alliance didn’t fire the missile as part of the Iranian-Saudi conflict; rather, they did so for domestic reasons. They view their missile program, rightly or wrongly, as the best way to retaliate against Saudi-led coalition airstrikes, which have devastated parts of north Yemen over the past two and a half years, and also as the best bargaining chip in future negotiations. Tellingly, the missile attack came on the heels of two Saudi airstrikes in the Huthis’ home governorate of Saada, which reportedly killed 38 people, eight of them children.

Intra-Huthi dynamics also could be at play. The strike came at a time of behind-the-scenes efforts to restart stalled negotiations to end the war, and thus may have been an indication that the Huthi bloc’s harder-line military wing may be out of step with its political negotiators and is acting to pre-empt talks. In this context, the most effective way to minimise the risk of future missile attacks would be to reduce coalition airstrikes, especially those with the potential to result in civilian casualties, and quickly revive meaningful negotiations so that would-be Huthi dealmakers acquire leverage over hardliners deeply sceptical of a political compromise. Since the missile launch, however, the coalition has done precisely the opposite.

Driven by local factors, the strike nonetheless risks having dangerous regional and even international ramifications. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. directly linked the strikes to both Iran and Hizbollah, on the plausible basis that the Huthis’ mastery of missile technology benefited strongly from their assistance. A Saudi-led coalition spokesman went so far as to warn that the latest attack on Riyadh could be considered “an act of war”, with fingers clearly pointed to Tehran and Beirut.

Driven by local factors, the strike nonetheless risks having dangerous regional and even international ramifications.

Should the Saudis choose to retaliate, they would have only limited options inside Yemen, and these would come with significant risks. They could tighten the noose on Huthi/Saleh-controlled territories through an enlarged and more tightly enforced blockade. They already are doing this. On 6 November, they announced the temporary closure of all of Yemen’s land, air and seaports, ostensibly to prevent the flow of weapons from Iran to the Huthis.

But this approach is fraught with problems. First, whatever weapons are being smuggled into Yemen are unlikely to be passing through the main entry points currently closed off, namely the Huthi-controlled port of Hodeida as well as the Saudi-led coalition-controlled ports of Aden and Mukalla and airports in Aden and Saiyoun (Hadramout). More probably, they are entering Yemen through smaller ports along the Red Sea and Arabian Sea coasts, or through land crossings via Oman – vast areas that are nearly impossible for the coalition to seal.

Second, the Saudis are shooting themselves in the foot by closing off access to areas nominally under the Hadi government’s control in the south. They are punishing the people with whom they are politically aligned and whose support they need to maintain.

Yemen represents the most severe hunger crisis in the world, with an estimated seventeen million people who are food-insecure.

Third and most important are the humanitarian consequences. Supplies to Huthi/Saleh-controlled areas already have been sharply reduced due to coalition restrictions. As imports from Hodeida have declined, the Saudi border crossing of al-Wadi’a and Aden port have picked up the slack. If these vital access points are closed down, civilians will suffer the most, and Huthi/Saleh fighters will be the last and least affected. Already, Yemen represents the most severe hunger crisis in the world, with an estimated seventeen million people who are food-insecure. The coalition’s promise that the embargo will not affect humanitarian assistance is nice rhetoric but of virtually no practical impact. Aid cannot possibly address the food needs of all 27-28 million Yemenis. Sanaa is experiencing severe fuel shortages as a result of the announced closures, and these will further reduce the volume of food reaching markets. They will also affect the water supply, as water must be pumped from deep underground.

So far, the economic strangulation of the north has empowered the Huthi military wing, which has privileged control over and access to limited resources flowing into their areas. There is little reason to believe that more of the same will produce a different outcome.

Military options also are limited. By this point, the coalition has exhausted legitimate military targets from the air. Immediately after the missile strike, coalition bombers unleashed a barrage of airstrikes on Sanaa, repeatedly hitting military targets previously struck, and adding new but largely symbolic ones, such as the city’s parade ground. The coalition could expand its target list to include civilian infrastructure, government buildings and the homes of Huthi/Saleh leaders, as it has done in the past. But this would bring international scrutiny and condemnation as a result of inevitable civilian casualties, while also feeding the deep and growing resentment toward Saudi Arabia in the north.

The coalition also could put more troops on the ground to try to capture territory in north Yemen. One problem it would face is where to find such troops. Saudi-trained and supplied Yemeni forces consistently have failed to register military successes. Saudi Arabia has not been willing to put its own troops on the ground and is probably less likely to do so now, given developments inside the country. In contrast, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has committed troops in southern Yemen and has proven quite capable, but it remains unclear how much further they can or will go, given that a fight in the Huthi/Saleh northern heartland doubtless would result in significant casualties.

The U.S. conceivably could step in to help the coalition capture Hodeida and other areas. While this may produce gains, it likely would rally additional northern fighters to the fronts, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. The battle would become increasingly prolonged if it subsequently moved into the highlands.

In short, what can be done from the air in Yemen has already been done. What territory could be taken in the south with the strong backing of local populations has already been taken. Additional gains on the ground would be costly for all sides involved. Given that they are fighting on their home turf, Huthi/Saleh fighters almost certainly have a higher tolerance for escalation than their adversaries.

What is more, the attack on Riyadh temporarily brought the Huthis and Saleh’s forces closer together. Their cooperation had been fraying and their incipient divisions had opened up a small window for negotiations, as Crisis Group argued in a recent briefing. Yet today, both view the missile launch as a resounding success. Absent the resumption of political talks, the prospects for which have suffered a clear setback, we should expect more missiles headed toward Riyadh, and sooner or later a Saudi/U.S. response, whose target could be Yemen, Iran or Hizbollah. By all accounts, the current trajectory bodes poorly for a return to stability in Yemen, and may presage an ominous escalation in the region.


The Potential Cost to Iran of Its Expanding Rivalry with Saudi Arabia

By Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran

U.S. as well as Saudi officials have claimed that Tehran plays a substantial role in arming the Yemeni movement, particularly through the provision of missile parts and training. While there is evidence of Iranian weapons supplies to the Huthis, including the transfer of drone technology, as well as of Iranian advisory and training support to the Huthis, notably via Hizbollah, the same cannot be said regarding any ongoing provision of significant amounts of military hardware.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ali Vaez, Project Director, Iran CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

Likewise, although Iran sees real benefit in a Saudi Arabia caught in the Yemeni quagmire at very low cost to Tehran, it is unclear whether Iran exerts the kind of influence over the Huthis that would enable it to order or prevent such an attack. Indeed, the Huthis are known to have ignored Iran’s advice on consequential decisions in the past, for example when they entered Sanaa and subsequently moved south to Aden. In other words, Iran ultimately might pay a price for actions by an allied group it does not control.

Against this backdrop, Iran’s ties with the Huthis are a subject of debate among Tehran policymakers. One view, prevalent in the military and security establishment, appears to consider the Huthis a natural, potentially long-term ally, and accordingly argues for strengthening the group in order to keep Saudi Arabia off-balance. The second is the perspective of the elected government of President Hassan Rouhani, which sees Iran’s ties with the Huthis as useful, but only as long as the group’s actions do not harm Iran’s strategic interests.

Iran ultimately might pay a price for actions by an allied group it does not control.

For now, some in Tehran seem to be sensing the risks. The hard-line Kayhan newspaper explicitly welcomed the missile strike on Riyadh as an apt retaliation for the devastation the Saudis have inflicted on Yemen, and speculated that Dubai could be the Huthis’ next target. In response, the country’s Supreme National Security Council suspended the powerful outlet for two days for undermining national security. This was virtually unprecedented, given Kayhan’s position on the political spectrum, and reflects sensitivity at the highest levels against handing Iran’s foes a good pretext to retaliate. Even generally hard-line politicians say they see Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel colluding to heat up the region’s conflicts, including by destabilising Lebanon, in order to push the U.S. and Iran into a military confrontation.

This development also should be seen in the broader context of Iran’s rivalry with the U.S. and its regional allies. Friction between them is rising in eastern Syria as both sides rush to seize territory from a rapidly diminishing Islamic State (ISIS). This also comes at a time when the Trump administration has launched a broad campaign to demonise Iran as the source of all the region’s troubles and as acting in collusion with al-Qaeda, while refusing to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear agreement, thereby casting doubt on the accord’s sustainability. All of this has heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran, and none of which has been accompanied – let alone mollified – by diplomatic engagement between the two countries.

In the eyes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, not responding to U.S. aggression only would invite more of it.

If the U.S. were to take military action against Iranian facilities in reaction to the Huthi missile strike, Iran’s response likely would depend on circumstances. If the strike originated from the territory of a regional country, Iran arguably could directly retaliate against it. Conversely, if the strike originated from a U.S. warship, a direct response would be far less probable given U.S. escalation dominance. In either case, the more plausible reaction would be indirect and asymmetric, using Iran’s proxies or partners to target U.S. forces in Iraq, Syria or Afghanistan. Iran’s leaders likely know that they could lose control of such a dynamic and they do not seem hungry for a direct military confrontation. Still, in the eyes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, not responding to U.S. aggression only would invite more of it.


Saudi Arabia’s Counter-productive Show of Strength in Lebanon

By Heiko Wimmen, Project Director, Iraq/Syria/Lebanon

That Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh clearly made him look like he was acting on Saudi orders. That impression was reinforced by what had happened both prior to and after that event. Immediately preceding the announcement, strongly worded anti-Hizbollah statements had come from prominent Saudi officials, including Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer Sabhan. Later, none of Hariri’s advisors in Lebanon could fully explain what happened, where he was going, and whether he was free to return. Under the circumstances, most Lebanese political leaders assumed Hariri was being held against his will. If Riyadh wanted to show the world that it was in charge of Hariri’s fate, it succeeded.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Heiko Wimmen, Project Director, Iraq/Syria/Lebanon CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

The question is why Riyadh made this decision now. Saudi Arabia implicitly blessed the deal Hariri struck with Hizbollah and that allowed him to gain the premiership nearly a year ago. That the Saudi leadership ever could have seriously entertained the notion that Hariri could “rein in” Hizbollah appears fanciful if one takes even a cursory look at the group’s relationship to previous Lebanese governments since 2005, which it either dominated, defied or toppled at will.

Nor is it plausible to assume that Hariri’s resignation would compel Hizbollah to change its ways. With the party and its allies effectively monopolising the vote of the Shiite community – roughly a third of the Lebanese population – no government can be formed without its consent. The most likely near-term scenario is therefore that Lebanon once again will be stuck without a functional government, a situation that arguably serves Hizbollah more than harms it. Indeed, rather than being portrayed as the source of the problem, Hizbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, now can cast his party as a proponent of “safety and stability for Lebanon” – as he did in a televised speech the day after Hariri’s announcement – whose partner walked out on him at the behest of a foreign power. Finally, being out of government does nothing to restrain Hizbollah’s regional activities.

The most likely near-term scenario is therefore that Lebanon once again will be stuck without a functional government

That leaves other possible motives for Riyadh to have made its move now. With the U.S. adopting a harder line against Iran and slapping new sanctions on Hizbollah, Saudi Arabia may have sensed an opportunity to reinforce that trend in order to isolate and pressure its regional rival. Hariri’s resignation as prime minister on the grounds of excessive Iranian and Hizbollah meddling furthers that goal by bolstering the case that those two actors need to be restrained and that coexistence with either one is impossible. It also paves the way for possible punitive action against Lebanon and the Shiite movement, again with the goal of weakening both it and its Iranian ally.

For now, Hariri’s resignation on its own is unlikely to have a major impact on the political situation in Lebanon. It will not destabilise the country in the near future, and he could theoretically remain in a caretaker position until elections in 2018. Likewise, while regional pressure on Hizbollah could rise, no domestic actor is in a position to mount a credible military challenge to the Shiite movement. And the manner of Hariri’s departure is unlikely to galvanise an already weakened Sunni community to mobilise on his behalf.

The most immediate cause for worry is of an economic nature. With the Qatari precedent in mind, and in light of Saudi statements casting the Lebanese government as an enemy, Lebanese officials and members of the business community are bracing for Riyadh’s and its Gulf allies’ potential punitive measures. Already, several Gulf countries have ordered their citizens to depart Lebanon. Should they either cut off imports from the country or, worse, expel some of the hundreds of thousands of Lebanese living in the Gulf – thereby affecting billions of dollars in remittances – the impact on an already fragile economy could be dramatic. What Qatar could cushion thanks to its vast wealth and reserves, Lebanon would have a far harder time to survive. Saudi Arabia’s Western allies in particular ought to urge it to refrain from such a devastating step.

What Qatar could cushion thanks to its vast wealth and reserves, Lebanon would have a far harder time to survive.

The other question on Lebanese minds has less to do with Saudi Arabia or their own domestic actors than with Israel. It remains the only force that could seriously degrade Hizbollah’s military capability, which would have a devastating effect on the rest of the country. Israeli officials have drawn an implicit red line regarding the transfer of production facilities for the domestic manufacturing of precision-guided missiles. A serious build-up of Hizbollah and other pro-Iranian forces on Syria’s border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights also could become a casus belli. Hariri’s resignation and Saudi Arabia’s assertion that Lebanon is now in the hands of a terrorist entity arguably facilitates an Israeli assault. But the Shiite movement and many others in Lebanon seek reassurance in what they call the “balance of terror”: the prospect that an Israeli attack could provoke Hizbollah to rely on its massive stock of short-to-mid-range missiles to strike Israeli civilian areas.

Lebanon in the Crosshairs

Crisis Group's Project Director for Lebanon, Syria and Iraq Heiko Wimmen explains from Beirut what might have driven the Lebanese Prime Minister to resign and the effects that the Saudi confrontation with Iran might have on Lebanon's stability. CRISIS GROUP/JGL


Israel Faces New Risks in Enforcing Its Red Lines against Hizbollah

By Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine

Israel is concerned about Hizbollah’s growing strength in both Lebanon and Syria because of the severity of damage their next war would cause on the Israeli home-front – damage so severe that the prospect of such a war could curb to a degree Israel’s freedom of manoeuvre for fear of triggering one.

Crisis Group on the Ground This section is contributed by Ofer Zalzberg, Senior Analyst, Israel/Palestine CRISISGROUP/Julie David de Lossy

In particular, Israeli officials say they will do their best diplomatically and militarily to prevent Hizbollah from setting up offensive infrastructure in south-west Syria because its defence establishment assesses that Israel’s deterrence doctrine would likely fail to effectively prevent its use should that occur. If Hizbollah were to move into the area, it could fire across the border at Israeli civilians while Israel would be limited to targeting Hizbollah fighters in retaliation; these, as Israeli sees it, can easily be replaced. (By contrast, in Lebanon, Israel’s ability to harm civil infrastructure has restrained Hizbollah). Indeed, Israel’s only way to exact a real cost from Hizbollah in Syria in such a scenario would be by attacking targets in Beirut, Damascus or Tehran. This easily could provoke a broader conflagration that Israel might well rather avoid.

Israel is concerned about Hizbollah’s growing strength in both Lebanon and Syria because of the severity of damage their next war would cause on the Israeli home-front.

Moreover, Israel specifically marked provision of high-precision long-range missiles to Hizbollah as a red line, and has attacked dozens of convoys crossing Syria to enforce it. These actions have not stemmed the tide of long- and short-range missiles and rockets, of which Hizbollah now reportedly has over 130,000 in its arsenal, as compared to roughly 15,000 in 2006, prior to their last war. But they did limit the number of high-precision long-range missiles that came through Syria, the kind that can deliver a 400kg warhead on a tall residential building in downtown Tel Aviv and generally threaten Tel Aviv, Ben Gurion airport and Israel’s strategic maritime gas rigs.

Reports since July have suggested that Hizbollah is trying to establish underground long-range missile factories in Lebanon with Iranian support. Israel relayed messages to the U.S. and others that it would take military action to prevent this, a warning that, according to Israeli officials, induced Hizbollah to freeze construction. The dominant official view in Israel is that it can afford to take out any such facility should construction resume, because any Hizbollah retaliation to such a targeted strike likely would itself be narrowly focused and thus fall short of triggering a full-fledged war.

The Israeli establishment also expects Russia to restrain Hizbollah, just as it has restrained President Bashar Assad when Israeli strikes took out Syrian military targets over the past few months. They believe Iran is similarly not keen to see Hizbollah’s military arsenal destroyed over this: it has armed Hizbollah, in part, as a second-strike capacity to deter Israel from striking Iran itself, a threat Tehran obviously would want to maintain. Hizbollah itself has more pressing priorities as its fighters continue to fight in Syria. In short, Israel views a limited Hizbollah counter-attack as the more likely reaction and a risk that would be worth taking to prevent Hizbollah from acquiring the indigenous ability to produce high-precision long-range missiles. In turn, Israeli plans assume a purposefully limited reaction to any such Hizbollah retaliation.

A large-scale military confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah is an unlikely direct or immediate result of Hariri’s resignation

This situation imposes certain limits on Israel. As noted, its army leadership knows it needs to restrict its military objectives in order to reduce chances of all-out war. It also will need a compelling legitimising narrative to secure broad international backing – possibly coupled, unfamiliarly, with explicit regional support given the recent upswing of Iran-Saudi tensions – and domestic public support in the event that a strike and counter-strike scenario leads to full-scale war.

A large-scale military confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah is an unlikely direct or immediate result of Hariri’s resignation if only because – as far as Israeli officialdom is concerned – not much has changed. It has long argued that Hizbollah effectively controls Lebanon. Yet, his stepping down provides grist for the public relations mill, since it reveals to the world Israel’s contention about the power balance in Lebanon. Netanyahu seems keen to use this in order to further mobilise international pressures against Hizbollah.


Program Director, Middle East and North Africa
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Dimitar Bechev
Research Fellow at the Center for Russian, Eurasian and East European Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

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