Turkey and Pakistan, two of the biggest military powers in the Muslim world, have launched a diplomatic initiative in an effort to prevent the conflict in Yemen from exploding into a regional one.
The initiative began Friday in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, where Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, both voiced concern over the ousting of the Yemeni government by “non-state actors,” a reference to the Iran-backed Houthi rebels who now occupy Yemen’s capital and are pressing an offensive to take the country’s second city, Aden.
That meeting is being followed by a flurry of diplomatic get-togethers: a visit to Ankara Monday for consultations by the Saudi deputy crown prince and interior minister, Mohammed bin Nayef; a visit by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Tehran on Tuesday, where he’ll meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and a visit Wednesday by Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, to Islamabad. Later in the week, the Turkish foreign minister is expected in Islamabad.
The intense series of consultation comes two weeks after a Saudi Arabia-led coalition launched a bombing campaign over Yemen aimed at halting Houthi advances. Saudi Arabia asked Turkey and Pakistan to join the coalition, which currently includes Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and three Persian Gulf emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. The U.S. is providing technical and intelligence support to their campaign.
But Turkey and Pakistan, with nearly 1 million active military personnel and many more in reserve if needed, have so far demurred, in part because they both have borders with Iran and fear retaliation if they side with Saudi Arabia.
The two countries have aligned their diplomatic positions, saying an attack on Saudi territory by the Houthis and allied units of Yemen’s ruptured military would prompt them to deploy forces in defense of Saudi Arabia.
But Pakistan and Turkey agreed to defer their decision to join the Saudi-led coalition so they could work to prevent the crisis in Yemen from splitting the Muslim world into camps favoring Riyadh or Tehran, which claim leadership of the Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, respectively.
Pakistan’s defense minister, Khawaja Mohammed Asif, detailed the diplomatic initiative in a presentation Monday to his country’s parliament, which convened a special session of both houses to debate the Saudi request for military help. Most of Pakistan’s major political parties support the government’s position of defending the kingdom if it is attacked but opposed Pakistan’s becoming a combatant in the Yemen conflict for fear worsening Pakistan’s domestic Sunni-Shiite violence.
Pakistan also is concerned that a diplomatic blowup with Tehran over the Yemen conflict would force it to divert troops to its border with Iran, which now is patrolled only by paramilitary border guards.
Public opinion in Pakistan is overwhelmingly against any involvement, largely because of dismay at intra-Muslim conflict across the Middle East.
Asif already has told Saudi Arabia during a visit to Riyadh last week that Pakistan could not divert any of the 172,000 soldiers engaged in battling Taliban insurgents in tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan. The rest of Pakistan’s military is deployed along its eastern border with India, with which it has fought six wars since independence in 1947.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman telephoned India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 30 to assure him Riyadh’s request for Pakistani military support wouldn’t “dilute” its relations with New Delhi.
Turkey’s government hasn’t said what assistance Saudi Arabia requested, but in a March 26 interview with the broadcaster FRANCE 24, Erdogan had said Ankara “may consider providing logistical support, based on the evolution of the situation.”