(CNSNews.com) – Syrian rebels who have long been seeking regional support for their bid to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad want the Arab states that are now bombing a Shi’ite militia in Yemen to widen their focus and target Assad as well.
The Syrian National Coalition in a statement Thursday underlined the role of Iran in the two conflicts: Tehran, Assad’s closest ally, is also accused of backing the Shi’ite Houthi militia that is trying to take over Yemen.
The SNC described the decision by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies to launch a military offensive against the Houthis as “a sound and deterrent step that paves the way for the formation of an alliance needed to address the Iranian regime’s plans to target the entire Arab region.”
“The Syrian people, through their legal representative, urge brotherly and friendly countries to work on building a close alliance to finish off the Assad regime, thwart the ambitions of the Iranian regime, put an end to the destruction of Syria, and help Syrians achieve their legitimate aspirations.
The Syrian civil war, which entered its fifth year this month, has cost an estimated 215,000 lives and turned more than four million Syrians into refugees.
Although Sunni governments in the region, including those in Turkey and the Gulf states, say they want to see Assad gone, their support for the rebels has been limited to finances, logistics, training and weaponry.
Apart from some retaliatory cross-border shelling by Turkey, none have taken direct military action against the regime.
By contrast, Iran has sent combat troops to bolster Assad, and Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah is also deploying fighters in support of the regime. (According to recent death toll figures compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 3,400 foreign Shi’ite fighters have been killed in battle alongside regime forces, included hundreds from Hezbollah.)
Airstrikes by foreign powers that have been carried out in Syria are those by the United States – almost 1,300 since last September – which target Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) and other terrorist groups, not the regime; and a handful by Israel, which have targeted weaponry bound for its longstanding foe, Hezbollah.
US ‘not taking sides’ in a sectarian conflict
In other reaction to the Sunni military operation in Yemen – which the Saudis say came in direct response to an appeal by embattled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, now reportedly sheltering in Riyadh – Iran and Syria both slammed the intervention.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif demanded an immediate end to the operation, calling it a violation of Yemen’s sovereignty, while the Assad regime’s news agency described the airstrikes as “blatant aggression.”
Muslim countries lining up on either side of the dispute are doing so along unmistakably sectarian lines: The Saudi-led coalition comprises 10 Sunni countries – five Gulf states, plus Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Pakistan. Sunni Turkey has also expressed support, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying he may offer logistical assistance.
Joining Iran and Syria in condemning the operation – which the Saudis are calling “Decisive Storm” or “Resolute Storm” – are Iraq, whose Shi’ite-majority government has close ties with Tehran, and Hezbollah, which said the intervention was “driving the region towards more tensions” and serving the interests of the U.S. and Israel.
The one member of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that is not involved in the Yemen mission is Oman, whose foreign policy tries to balance between its GCC partners and Iran. (Oman is neither Sunni nor Shia, but adheres to a third, small school of Islam, Ibadism.)
The U.S. is providing “intelligence sharing, targeting assistance and advisory and logistical support” to the Saudi-led operation, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke said Thursday.
Despite the clear sectarian divisions, he denied that the administration was siding with one side against the other in a widening sectarian conflict.
“We’re not taking sides against Shia – a Shia faction against a Sunni faction,” Rathke said. “We’re trying to promote a dialogue process in which the views of all Yemenis can be taken into account. And it’s the Houthis who have refused to engage in that dialogue.”
He said Secretary of State John Kerry in a conference call with GCC foreign ministers had commended their action.
Rathke also confirmed that the matter came up briefly during a one-on-one meeting between Kerry and Zarif at the nuclear talks in Switzerland.
Asked whether the dispute was affecting the nuclear negotiations, he said “our sense is that it hasn’t had an impact.”
Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin in a phone conversation with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani “stressed the urgency of an immediate cessation of hostilities [in Yemen] and of stepping up efforts, including by the U.N., to develop options for a peaceful settlement of the conflict,” the Kremlin said in a statement.