YEMEN: WHO IS FIGHTING WHOM, AND WHY?

Canberra, 29 April 2015

All the nations of the Middle-East are now at war—against one another or against undefinable entities who are pursuing their own warped agenda—ruthlessly attempting to shore up lost prestige, struggling to retain power and influence, and to regain long lost command over the region. The rationale put forward is the necessity to ensure that the sovereignty of the nation is safeguarded. The underlying theme however is never mentioned openly—the struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran through their respective proxy elements and allies, for political and religious domination of the region. This regional competition has now spilled over to the entire Islamic world, with shifting allegiances and short-term alienations being more common than the more prosaic, but understandable alliances.

The Middle-East defies definition—the fault lines between the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam are deeply etched in the sand and visible for all to see; while almost simultaneously the same lines are blurred into indistinct scratches, as self-serving and narrow national interests are brought to bear in an enforcement of realpolitik. The turmoil, so far considered as having been created and nurtured by Western nations against the Muslim world, has finally shown its true form. The conflict(s) in the Middle-East have now demonstrated that they are internal wars within the broader Islamic religion.

Yemen, and the raging conflict there, is a true example of this internal strife. Yemen, home to 25 million people, is the poorest nation in the Middle-East. It is a nation with an exploding population, where unemployment is above 40 percent, and water is scarce. Yemen is also fragmented—divided between the rich and more populous south and the poorer and mountainous north; and riven by a myriad of clans, tribes and familial bands at odds with each other. Until 1990, it was not even a unified nation and even after unification fought a destructive fratricidal civil war in 1994. The Houthis, a northern tribe, fought six separate wars with the government between 2004 and 2013 without much success till they turned the tables in the current iteration of the conflict.

There are three primary participants in the current chaos: the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni Arab coalition; and the al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP). On the sidelines—cheering on the conflict is the United States; caught on a cleft stick is Pakistan; and aspiring to play an influential role in the nation’s affairs is the ousted, but previously long-serving president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The Houthis

The Houthis are a fundamentalist Shia group, taking their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, who launched a revolution against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The group has very clear objectives, which are spelt out on their flag in five statements, the first and the last in green colour—‘God is Great; Death to America; Death to Israel; Curse on the Jews; Victory to Islam’. [This is a translation taken from an op-ed published on 11 April 2015 and maybe at slight variance in a nuanced manner with some other translation of the slogan. However, the absolute clarity of their mission objectives cannot be denied.]

Even after the death of their leader, the Houthis have continued the uprising with the financial and materiel support of the Qud force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for the past decade. Further, they are also in alliance with a part of the Yemeni military/security forces who are still loyal to the ousted president, Abdullah Saleh. This military group is reported to be in full control of the Yemeni Air Force. The Houthis have overrun the capital Sana’a and control large parts of the country, while the incumbent president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi is in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia.

One important factor is that although the Houthis are Shiites, they are of the Zayidi clan, one that is not universally recognised as main stream Islam even in Iran. On the one hand, the Houthi rebellion can hardly be considered religious, it is more about control of their own destiny. On the other, the Arab coalition has tried to simplify a complex situation by labeling the Houthi uprising an Iranian-controlled effort. This is patently incorrect; yes, the rebellion is supported by the Iranian regime, but the Houthi agenda is completely their own—they are home-grown and their roots in Yemen go back thousands of years. They are highly unlikely to completely toe Iran’s instructions now or into the future.

Without doubt the Houthi fighters have friendly relations with Iran, but the driving force behind the Houthis come from within Yemen. The fact that they also represent a very large and entrenched social and political movement with popular and national support within the country is the most important factor that sustains the Houthis. This mass support has been garnered because of two fundamental reasons—the visible failure of the government to deliver succour and the alliance of a large part of the Yemeni army with the Houthis.

The Saudi-led Arab Coalition

Unable to condone the increasing Iranian influence in Yemen any further, Saudi Arabia decided to support the beleaguered President Hadi by launching an air campaign against the Houthi rebel movement. This intervention was endorsed by a subsequent Arab League summit and ten Arab nations have united under the Saudi-led coalition banner to create an ‘Arab Army’ dedicated to restoring President Hadi to power through defeating the Houthi Group and stopping them from taking over Yemen. This coalition is actively supported and encouraged by the USA and UK.

The coalition accuses Iran of using the Shiite Houthi movement as their proxies, and represents the crisis as a clash between Iran and Arab nations, part of the on-going Sunni-Shia tensions in the Middle-East and elsewhere in the Islamic world. On another level however, the conflict is in reality the extension of a long running conflict over control of political power and resources, not fundamentally about religion. It could even be envisaged that the sectarian violence is the result of Saudi intervention and not the cause.

So far the coalition has only used air power and naval artillery to attack Houthis, destroying arms caches and temporarily halting the Houthi advance in the south. There are reports that despite the four-week long bombing campaign, the Houthis are making progress into Southern Yemen, forcing the US to increase logistical support and intelligence sharing with the Arab coalition. Before the military intervention, Yemen was already in crisis in multiple areas, the air campaign has only made the situation more complicated. The intervention is almost completely against the cautious and discretionary approach that Saudi diplomacy and foreign policy has taken in the past few decades. Under these circumstances, there are questions looming regarding the maturity of the current, and much younger, Saudi leadership and the reasons for the rapidity with which the intervention was commenced.

So what was the motivation for the intervention? There is one viewpoint that the military operation was a reaction to a perceived and/or actual and immediate security threat posed to the Saudi kingdom by the turmoil in Yemen. It is pointed out that a Shia dominated Yemen will be a security threat to the entire region, especially at the strategic straits of Bab-el-Mandel. This is the argument being put forward by the Saudi government and its spokespersons in both regional and international arenas. However, the argument is not substantiated in a detailed analysis. First, the Saudi military machine is far too superior to the capabilities that the Houthis can bring to bear on the battlefield. Second, the Houthis do not have the ability to threaten the Bab-el-Mandel straits, especially when major maritime powers are present in the region and there is clear understanding that the safety of international shipping is directly connected to global economic security. It is noteworthy that in the past few days the US Navy has positioned the strike-group led by the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to ensure maritime security in the region.

Perhaps more importantly, the current crisis in Yemen is the outcome of the failed policies adopted, primarily by Saudi Arabia, towards Yemen in the past few decades. This conclusion is based on the fact that the 2011 uprising in Yemen failed to deliver any tangible improvement to the lives of the common Yemeni people. The change of leadership, from Saleh to Hadi, was ornamental at best. The Arab rhetoric of blaming Iran for the current conflict is to be seen and understood as just that, empty rhetoric. The path that the Houthis have followed to gain the current power and influence in the nation should have been recognised by the Arab governments and dealt with through political accommodation at a much earlier stage. On the contrary, military intervention has completely weakened any chances of a political compromise with the Houthis and led to escalation of the crisis.

Viewed in an overarching manner, it would seem that the military intervention was primarily aimed at rebuilding Saudi Arabia’s prestige and influence in the region and to bolster its status in international forums. The fact that this was a unilateral Saudi decision, at least outwardly taken devoid of consultation with the US, emphasises the point further. The reasoning of threat to Saudi security and territorial integrity as being projected is difficult to believe. There is little doubt that the new Saudi leadership was less than happy with the decreasing influence of the nation in the region and blamed the diminishing status on the nation’s old foreign policy that was fundamentally based on religious lead as the ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ and economic might that stems from oil exports. Employing the nation’s billion-dollar military in a mighty and brutal show of force was the demonstration of another aspect of national power as a proof of intent and will. Yemen was the obvious choice for this unilateral action, since it was felt that military intervention in the backwaters that Yemen is would not elicit a great deal of regional or international comment or condemnation.

It can also be speculated that by seeking a military solution in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is setting the scene to increase its influence in other conflicts currently underway in the region, particularly in Syria. If the Houthis are decimated militarily and forced to accept a political settlement that favours President Hadi and returns him to power, then it could be used as a lever to diminish Iranian influence. In turn this could force the removal of Bashar al-Assad, which is a fundamental objective of the Saudi establishment. Viewed dispassionately, this is a huge and convoluted gamble on the part of the Saudi monarchy. The reinstatement of President Hadi, which has not happened so far, and is unlikely to take place in the near term, is the one event that Saudi Arabia would be fervently hoping for at the moment. The domestic consequences of failure to achieve this stated objective for the Saudi leadership is far too severe to contemplate.

It is still early days to fully understand the consequences of Saudi Arabia’s military enterprise in Yemen and it is still not clear whether the action has boosted Saudi prestige in the eyes of the onlookers. However, the chances of changing the political equation in Yemen and restoring Hadi to the ‘throne’ purely through air strikes is diminishing daily. More than anyone else, the Saudis are aware of this. This is the reason for the Saudis to have announced a ‘new phase’ in the Yemen operation, even changing the name from ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ to ‘Operation Renewal of Hope’. Along with this change of name, the military objectives to be achieved have been listed. Obviously this is the first step towards arriving at a negotiated settlement. The sticking point in this process could well be the role of Iran.

Even if a lengthy and messy military operation is carried out, the civil war in Yemen will defy a military solution. It is common knowledge that once wars are initiated, they tend to take a life of their own and every single action can have unexpected repercussions and consequences. In the current situation it is to be hoped—for the sake of some semblance of stability in the Middle-East—that this military adventure will not blow up in Saudi Arabia’s face.

AQAP

AQAP is a spin-off al Qaeda group formed in 2009 and led by Nasser al-Wuhayasi, a former aide to Osama Bin Laden. This is a totally Sunni organisation but its objective is to topple the Saudi monarchy (also Sunni) and also the Yemeni government (irrespective of who controls Yemen) in order to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Arabian Peninsula. The AQAP therefore opposes both the Houthi movement as well as President Hadi, a Sunni Muslim. They also face opposition from the nascent Yemeni affiliate of the Islamic State, although the IS is also trying to establish an Islamic Caliphate. The difference between the two is in the severity of the practice of the religion that the groups advocate, which has become an unbridgeable gap between the two essentially Sunni groups. The IS is against everyone, except itself—they oppose the Houthis, the Sunni president, the AQAP and the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia. If ever there was confusion regarding alliances, this is it.

Even with the rise of IS as a primary threat to the Middle-East, the US government has continued to regard AQAP in Yemen as the most severe terrorist threat to the US. The current focus in Yemen—for the Sunni Arab coalition and its mentor the US—is the defeat of the Shia Houthis. The success of the Saudi-led military action in stopping the advance of the Houthis has also created an increase in the chaos on the ground. The result has been greater space for the AQAP to strengthen itself and expand its influence. This will have two foregone consequences—one that the competition between the AQAP and the IS will intensify; and two, that this struggle for supremacy will spill over into terrorist actions abroad as a means of demonstrating their competence to would-be supporters. In both cases, the people of Yemen will be the losers.

The Role of the United Sates – Cheer Leaders?

The US involvement in Yemen is longstanding and dates back to the Carter administration in 1979. According to some sources, at that time the CIA funnelled money to King Hussein of Jordan to foment a north-south civil war in Yemen. It is no secret that US Special Forces have been on the ground for the past decade, directing UCAV strikes. They had to beat a hasty retreat when the Houthi rebellion gained momentum, setting back the US fight against AQAP.

The Saudi-led military action in Yemen shows up the paradoxes and logical disconnects that exemplifies US policy in the Middle-East. It also demonstrates the unwillingness of the US policy-making community to learn from their past mistakes and their willingness to attempt the proven impossible yet again. The US Middle-East policy, at least at the current moment, seems to be the eternal circle with no beginning and no end. First there is the pattern of US military support. The US support to the Shah of Iran was almost absolute and when the current Shiite Islamist government overthrew the monarchy in 1979, they also got hold of all the US supplied weapons, which were sophisticated and at the cutting edge of technology for that time. In the 1980s the US supported the Mujahedeen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and when they morphed into al Qaeda, they continued to use the US-supplied weapons. More recently, the Iraqi forces that vanished in the face of the IS onslaught also left the US weapons for the IS to capture and use.

Second, the US has been meddling in the Middle-East for decades, much prior to any terrorist attack on US mainland. Since the attacks on the twin towers in September 2001, the US has attacked or invaded seven Muslim nations. Although both Presidents Bush and Obama categorically state that the US is not at war with Islam, it is convenient for the extremist Muslim fringe to convince their followers that this claim is patently incorrect. They believe that the US is waging war on Islam. The paradoxes do not end there. The US is supporting the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen—with materiel, intelligence and maritime sanitisation of strategic sea lines of communication—because the Houthis are clearly allied with Iran and opposed to the Yemeni government whose support is essential for the US to continue its war against AQAP, which is considered a priority in the US policy team. However, blanked out in this calculation is the fact that the Houthis themselves are perhaps the strongest enemies of the AQAP. On the other side of the Middle-East, in Iraq and Syria, the US is tacitly cooperating with Iran to fight the IS. How does this align with the actions in Yemen? It does not. So the US continues to muddy the Middle-Eastern waters through shifting allegiances and promises of friendships.

Perhaps this confusion in US foreign policy is the result of a very fundamental streak in the American character that makes them believe that in a two-sided conflict, one side is good and the other bad and that the US should always support the ‘good’ side. However, in this manifestation, the fact that the decision of who is good and who is bad is made purely by American perceptions is almost always forgotten. That this situation leads to confusion would be an understatement. The IS imbroglio is a good example. The US is allied with Iran in the fight against IS; in Syria, the US supports groups who oppose the regime (and is therefore considered to be the ‘good’ guys) while the regime is also fighting the same IS and the local al Qaeda affiliate. The situation cannot get more chaotic.

Pakistan – Caught in a Cleft Stick

Although the Middle-Eastern monarchies have armies that are equipped with the latest weapons, they have almost always looked outside the Middle-East—primarily to Egypt and Pakistan—to bolster their forces in times of conflict. The reasons for this are—the tribal composition of the Arab armies; a less than optimal training regime as compared to the Western forces; and most importantly, the fact that the Arab armies have not been battle-tested for the past two decades or more. This was the reason for the Saudis making a direct call to Pakistan, which has an experienced army at its disposal, to join the coalition with both air and land power. In fact the announcement was made that Pakistan was part of the coalition immediately after King Salman spoke to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, even before any formal answer was provided; a clear indication of the strategic clout that Saudi Arabia thought it had over Pakistan.

There is no doubt that Pakistan is beholden to Riyadh, but the Pakistani generals are extremely concerned about their national security and the Army is in the middle of a protracted campaign in the tribal region of the country. Pakistani declining to be drawn into the Yemeni conflict on the request for military participation was a great shock to the Saudi monarchy. Initially the Islamabad government demurred; then they turned over the request to the Parliament; and that august body, after much heated debate, declined to send its military forces to aid their long-term benefactor. The parliament’s decision was hard-hearted and based purely on calculations done in the head. Pragmatism had won over sentiments.

It is simple to see why the Gulf Sheikhdoms and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia took the participation of Pakistan in the Yemen conflict for granted. In particular the Saudi largesse and the particularly close relationship that Nawaz Sharif has cultivated with the Saudi monarchy is open to public view. In 1998, when Pakistan under the first prime ministership of Sharif, carried out nuclear testing, the Saudis softened their sanctions; oil worth billions of dollars was provided to Pakistan on deferred payments and free for five years [although this facility was later revoked when General Pervez Musharraf took over as military dictator]; it hosted the entire Sharif family lavishly when they were in exile and assisted the setting up of multi-million dollar enterprises for the family; and they ensured that he would not be deported again on returning to Pakistan by sending him back in a Royal Saudi aircraft. In providing unstinting support to Nawaz Sharif, the Saudi’s were making a calculated investment. The Yemen conflict was payback time.

In 2014, when the Pakistani Rupee was on the verge of sinking, US $ 1.5 billion was deposited mysteriously in Pakistan’s Central Reserve Bank, the donor is easy to identify! Doubtlessly, there were few Pakistanis at that time who questioned the wisdom of accepting such enormous ‘gifts’, but were silenced by the Government’s declaration that there was no quid pro quo. Obviously this was not true.

The denial of military aid itself was a hard hit to absorb for the Saudi monarchy, but rubbing salt on a fresh wound, the Parliament also declared that, ‘…[the Parliament] desires that Pakistan should maintain neutrality in the Yemen crisis…’. Almost as a last minute sop to the Saudis, the most powerful ally that Pakistan has ever had, it also declared that it would ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ with Saudi Arabia if its territorial integrity is threatened directly. There is no doubt that the Saudis were dismayed. However, this is an instance of national self-interest superseding material and spiritual ties. There is no doubt that the Parliament’s decision came as something of a surprise for Nawaz Sharif.

There are three reasons for the pragmatic Pakistani decision. One, the awareness of the extreme danger of taking sides in what is essentially a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Two, a little more than 20 percent of Pakistan’s population are Shias and already the nation is rife with sectarian violence. Three, and most importantly, Pakistan shares a 900-kilometer, porous land border with Iran. The Iranian Foreign Minister visited Pakistan recently and it can be assumed that he hammered home some hard-headed realities that should keep the Pakistani decision-makers on the straight and narrow path of self-interest. However, the Saudis also hold a trump card in their hands; Pakistani expatriates living in the kingdom remit more than US $ 8 billion annually, which represents half of the total of $ 16 billion in overseas remittances that clearly shore up a sagging economy. At the moment Pakistan sits between Scylla and Charybdis—Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations on one side and Iran on the other.

Pakistan has every right to be wary of joining another war. Its proxy involvement in regional wars, starting with the Mujahidin against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, has created extremely serious fractures in the State and society. The massive Saudi funding of seminaries have resulted in sectarianism led by murderous Sunni attacks on the Shia minority. Radical Islam has spread across the societal structure and now threatens to engulf the nation with religious intolerance. The Taliban now has a stranglehold in some of the more restive parts of the country. The society is divided and Pakistan has effectively become the ideological battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Taking sides at this juncture is perhaps the worst decision that the leadership could make.

Will this refusal trigger the start of a widening gulf between the Arab monarchies and Pakistan? While the changes to the cosy relationship that has so far been shared by the two sides cannot be explicitly determined now, the fact remains that Pakistan’s refusal will certainly impact on future relationships. The UAE has already made this very clear. Saudi Arabia will in all likelihood bide its time and change the relationship only gradually. But change it will, and Pakistan should be under no other illusion.

Conclusion

As this is being written (27-29 April 2015) the Saudi-led coalition has declared a unilateral ceasefire in the air campaign and also broken it a few hours later. The air campaign continues in a slightly lesser intensity. They also declared that the focus has shifted from counterinsurgency to negotiations and humanitarian assistance. However, in less than 48 hours after the announcement, air strikes once again targeted Houthi bases and assembly points, suggesting that the reprieve was not sacrosanct. The decision to effect a ceasefire was perhaps based on the understanding that any other option would spiral out of control and draw the Arab forces into an unwinnable war of their own creation. The lessons of the 2008-09 border war that Saudi Arabia fought with the Ansar Allah the Houthi fighting force, in which the Saudi forces came out second best, has not been forgotten by the Saudi leadership. Therefore, although the ceasefire was violated almost immediately, it can be expected that there will be concerted attempts to make it work. The Houthis have also stated that they are amenable to a United Nations-sponsored peace talks once the air strikes have been fully discontinued. This has not happened as yet.

Middle-East media has claimed that 150,000 troops have been mobilised on the southern borders of Saudi Arabia and that a ground invasion could be launched if required. While the Kingdom has definitely demonstrated that it would resist the Houthis through its military action over the past few weeks, it is almost certain that the Saudis would avoid a ground war that could turn very ugly. However, Saudi Arabia’s stated goal is to reinstate the now in exile President Hadi. If this cannot be achieved, either through military action or political dialogue and accommodation, it will be an embarrassing defeat for the nation. Failure carries its own price, especially for the young leadership at the helm in Saudi Arabia.

The signals from Saudi Arabia are unequivocal in seeking a negotiated solution. This would involve Hadi being returned to power and a peace agreement with, and between, the warring factions. Such a state would also involve a gradual increase in the autonomy of provinces through constitutional change, especially to stem the secessionist movement in South Yemen. However, what the Saudi Arabian monarchy wants and what they will get may not be mutually compatible and therein lies the crux of the peace deal. At the very fundamental level what Saudi Arabia wants is to keep Shiites outside its periphery and to ensure Sunni dominance of the region. Under the prevailing circumstances this may not be achievable in the absolute. Irrespective of the outcome of the military campaign, a political solution in which the Houthis have a significant say in matters of State is the only way a protracted low-intensity conflict can be avoided in Yemen. A low-intensity conflict would produce the ideal state in which the AQAP and IS would be able to operate with impunity and increase their already strong influence—a nightmarish scenario.

For the sake of the people of Yemen, it has to be ‘hoped’ that the new phase of coalition operations, aptly named ‘Operation Renewal of Hope’ will bring succour to them with no political strings attached. Perhaps a Utopian dream!

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2015]
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About Sanu kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS)

3 Responses to “YEMEN: WHO IS FIGHTING WHOM, AND WHY?”

  1. Sunny Fernandez Reply May 1, 2015 at 13:04

    Spot on Sanu – enjoyed reading the post!
    It certainly is a mess out there with implications that surely will be wide reaching.
    Look forward to the next excellent piece.

  2. Sanu, not read the full article yet…but always wanted to know the genesis of the madness in Middle-East. I am sure it will be a enjoyable and informative read…THANKS !! and hope to be remain informed in future.

    Also would like to know how Chinese are laying claim on the entire Pacific !!

  3. Wonderful article about Yemen and all the chaos going on in that region. Thanks 👍

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