RD interview: Veniamin Popov, former Ambassador to Yemen, Libya and Tunisia, shares his views on the current crisis in Yemen and suggests that the West may need Russia’s help in bringing order and stability to the Middle East.
Shiite rebels raise their weapons to denounce the Saudi-led airstrikes as they chant slogans during a protest in Sanaa, Yemen, April 27, 2015. Photo: AP
The situation in the Middle East has always been a focus of the world’s major powers. This has made the region geopolitically explosive, as the interests of too many nations clash there. Of late, there has been little improvement or stability there. In fact, if anything, the situation is getting worse, and that’s beginning to change the policy calculus for both Russia and the West.
In March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states with the assistance of the U.S. launched an air strike campaign against Yemeni Houthi rebels, Yemen joined the list of those states that are already on the verge of collapse in the region. The current crisis in Yemen is of crucial importance because it illustrates how a conflict in one state has immediate spillover implications for the broader Middle East region.
For insight into how the Yemen crisis impacts the region and the policy decisions of the major powers, Russia Direct talked with Dr. Veniamin Popov, an experienced diplomat, Middle East expert, and former ambassador to Yemen, Libya and Tunisia.
Russia Direct: How does the crisis in Yemen affect regional politics and U.S. policy in the region?
Veniamin Popov: In fact, the situation in Yemen is a complicated and serious regional crisis that is spreading, causing the rise of extremism, which consequently affects and puts an extra burden on all the great powers. That is why the United Nation’s Security Council, which can play a constructive role in resolving the crisis, should reinforce its attempts in dealing with the regional issues.
RD: Does the current situation in Yemen affect the policies of the major powers?
V.P.: Actually, the United States started to understand the real seriousness and danger of the situation. That is why they started to reconsider their approach and seek new contacts [in Yemen].
As I see it, the U.S., Russia and China all support political dialogue in Yemen. This creates the possibility for a discussion, which is the best option in the current circumstances.
RD: How to consider the Yemen crisis in the context of the region?
V.P.: Another story unfolds if you consider the general context of the Middle East, which makes it an extra-flammable and explosive region. This includes Islamic State and its activity in Levant, extremism in Libya and Yemen, civil war in Syria, and war against Islamic State in Iraq.
Generally speaking, the number of conflicts in the Middle East region has risen significantly. The major reason for that is the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, when everything was turned upside down. Before that, people in the region did not pay much attention to the Shia-Sunni division at all, because there was none. The majority of people even did not know the clear difference between the two. Now everyone knows about it and the Sunni-Shia struggle is exploited to further destabilize the regional situation.
This cannot lead to any positive consequences. The Sunni-Shia confrontation has already become a dominant issue in the region. For example, not long ago Saudi Arabia considered the Muslim Brotherhood as the main threat to its security. Recently, it was replaced by the rising Shia threat from Iran, which in the eyes of the Saudis, tries to encircle the Sunni-governed Gulf states and dominate in the Middle East.
RD: Does the crisis in Yemen affect talks on the Iranian nuclear program?
V.P.: Surely, it affects Iran talks. The main reason is that it made the U.S. maneuver and take extraordinary steps to avoid deterioration in relations with regional powers that also are close allies – Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, etc. This is the main reason why U.S. President Obama called the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to come for a summit at Camp David on May 14.
When the interim deal with Iran was reached in Lausanne on April 2, the prospect for a final agreement, which has to be signed by June 30 this year, loomed. This outcome naturally scared U.S. allies in the Gulf. It is pretty obvious that in case of the successful final deal with Iran, the Middle East’s landscape will change dramatically. This is why Obama invited the GCC leaders to Camp David to reassure them in the solid and unchanged position of the U.S. on Gulf security.
On the other hand, the concerns of GCC states are also understandable. In case the final deal with Iran is secured, the sanctions will be lifted, which will let Iran off the leash. Hence Iran’s ability to challenge Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states will increase.
RD: What position Russia should take on the crisis in Yemen?
V.P.: Russia, in principle, has a very good policy towards this conflict. We have to make all parties of the conflict sit around the table and negotiate as Russia has been always proposing. Of course, it is not an easy task to do, but it is possible. If Yemenis do not want to participate in negotiations in Riyadh, then all interested parties should arrange talks in Geneva. Also do not forget that Russia itself is a very suitable ground for holding talks, as was proven by two rounds of inter-Syrian talks in Moscow.
RD: Do you see any change in the Western approach to Middle East issues?
V.P.: The most important thing that has to be understood is that national, ethnic and religious issues in the 21st century cannot be solved militarily. Diplomacy and negotiations are the only suitable tools here.
That is why the U.S. started to evolve its approach. Especially, this started to become more obvious after the shooting at a Mohammed cartoon drawing contest in Texas on May 4, when two gunmen, reportedly connected to ISIS, attacked a crowd of people on American soil. This event has already influenced how the U.S. expert community talks about the issue. They started to express concerns over the possibility of ISIS coming to the U.S. and conducting terror attacks.
To speak about Europe, it is unclear why it conducts such a policy towards the region when members of ISIS are already in Europe. Another side of the story is the issue of African immigrants, which is a result of European policy towards the region as well. In Libya there are about 1 million of those who strive to cross the Mediterranean and end up in Europe to escape the chaos and extremism. The migration crisis is already there, Europe does not have any policy or a program how to cope with the influx of migrants from Libya. They offer to sink the boats but it is not the way out.
RD: What is your vision of change in the Middle East?
V.P.: In general, I see the situation evolving, although slowly. The understanding in the U.S. and in Europe that their policies should be changed is on the way. Recent visits of Merkel and Kerry to Russia and their talks with President Putin indicate the upcoming change.
The most important thing is that the U.S. started to understand that it couldn’t handle Middle Eastern issues alone. Without coordination and cooperation, the result is quite obvious – the rise of extremism and terrorism in the region.