Opening the gates of hell in Yemen

STANLY JOHNY | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on April 07, 2015

Peace, when? The rebels now face the Saudi bombers   -  AFP

Recent history tells us that external interventions can be disastrous. A political, and not military, solution is called for

In 2002, the American ambassador to Yemen, Edmund Hull, requested a meeting with the then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The agenda was to seek Saleh’s permission to start a drone war in Yemen against al-Qaeda terrorists.

The Americans were not sure of the outcome of the meeting given that drone attacks in Afghanistan had already stirred a storm. In the meeting, CIA officers showed an animated video on how the drones worked. Saleh, writes The New York Times reporter Mark Mazzetti in his book, The Way of the Knife, “broke into a smile as he watched (the video) and he seemed proud that Yemen would be the first place outside of Afghanistan that the CIA was preparing to use the predator”.

This partly explains the predicament Yemen is in today. The country has long been a war theatre for outside powers. America still operates drones in Yemen to bomb the targets of the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But ironically, these bombings didn’t weaken the AQAP. Rather, it destabilised Yemen further, creating conditions for insurgents to grow. AQAP now controls territories in central Yemen.

And now, history is repeating itself — another country is bombing Yemen in the name of fighting rebels on behalf of the government, though the actors are different this time: The attacker is Saudi Arabia, the rebels are the Houthis, and the government is led by Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi who has already fled the country. Will the result be different this time?

President Hadi welcomed the Saudi intervention, saying it was aimed at “saving the people from the Houthi militias”.

Who are the Houthis?

Some of those who support Saudi action in Yemen even compared the Houthis with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), indicating that a complete Houthi takeover of Yemen would lead to a sectarian war and excessive bloodshed.

But not many knew about the Houthis till a few months ago when they took over the Yemeni capital. The Houthis are a Shiite insurgency group that originated from northwestern Yemen’s Saada province. Historians date their origins back to Shabab al-Mumanin, a religious youth movement which operated in the 1990s.

The group was largely working among the country’s marginalised Shia community who make up anywhere between 30 to 45 per cent of the total population of 24.4 million, and dominated Yemen for centuries till the civil war of the 1960s.

The Shiites saw political momentum when Saleh decided to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Al-Mumanin, under the leadership of Hussein al-Houthi, organised public protests against the government, which invited large-scale repression from Saleh’s security establishment. In 2004, Yemeni forces killed Hussein al-Houthi, but the movement he led transformed into a rebel militia named after him.

In the years that followed, the Houthis made broad alliances to cash in on the widespread resentment against the government, and staged both political protests as well as armed resistance, much like the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.

They signed a ceasefire deal with the government in 2010, but hit the street in large numbers against Saleh in the wake of the Arab Spring protests in 2011. Saleh had to resign in November 2011 despite earnest efforts from Saudi Arabia to protect him.

But the Saudi seal was very much evident on the post-Saleh dispensation of President Hadi, which excluded the Houthis despite their being the most dominant anti-Saleh opposition group. While Hadi failed to consolidate his government in the face of a number of challenges, including economic worries, separatist insurgency in the south and the al-Qaeda problem, the Houthis launched a major military campaign against the government last year. Ironically, the ousted Saleh and his supporters also backed the Houthis.

In February this year, they captured Sanaa, forcing the Hadi regime to flee to Aden. Then the Saudis sent their bombers.

The Kingdom and its demands

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia is intervening in Yemen. In 2009, they sent troops to defeat the Houthis. Two years later, they did it again to back up the Saleh regime in the wake of popular protests. On both occasions, they failed to meet their goals.

The latest intervention, which is large both by the scale of attack and the number of participants in the war coalition, was reportedly triggered by the Houthis’ advances towards the south. The declared goal is to force the Houthis out of Sanaa, and restore the Hadi regime in the capital city.

Sunni Saudi Arabia sees the Shiite Houthis as an Iranian front. Iran is already a major power in the region with its influence stretching from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Southern Lebanon. If the Houthis consolidate themselves in Sanaa and outer regions, the Saudis fear it would give Tehran direct access to its backyard. So Riyadh’s strategic motive is to push back the Houthis to deny Iran another Hezbollah-like proxy in the region.

Gates of Hell

Will Saudi Arabia be able to meet its strategic goal this time? The contemporary history of West Asia does not endorse interventions. If countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria have something in common, it’s that external military intervention does not solve local political problems; rather it worsens them. Yemen’s own history points to the terrible failure of the US-led drone war in its territories that ended up giving the AQAP more recruits.

The human cost of the bombing campaign is already high — over 500 killed and 1,700 injured in two weeks, and AQAP is making use of the chaos wrought by the campaign — they captured Mukallah, an important coastal city in Hadramout province in southeastern Yemen, after storming a prison and freeing jihadis.

Right now, the Houthis are the strongest rivals of the AQAP; if they are weakened, that would obviously help the latter. The lack of a central authority, the presence of foreign forces, and armed groups divided on sectarian lines are all examples of a classic failed state.

The next step is catastrophic chaos, unless a political solution is found to the Yemeni crisis. The tragedy is that the Saudis are least interested in a political solution.

Published on April 07, 2015
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