By Ranjit Gupta
May 4, 2015
Despite growing American reservations, Saudi Arabian hardliners seem determined to impose a military solution on the Yemen crisis. Instead, Riyadh is likely to find itself mired in Yemen for a long time in an unwinnable war.
The intense fighting that resulted in the virtual takeover of Yemen by the Shia Houthis earlier this year sent foreign nationals fleeing the chaos, resulting in the recent, splendidly executed, and deservedly, well-publicised rescue of more than 5,000 Indian and foreign nationals by the Indian government. It also sent shock waves through neighbouring Saudi Arabia which chose to react robustly though there was no attack on Saudi Arabia by Yemenis.
To properly understand the situation, one first needs to study Yemen, its politics and its turbulent history. The Shia Imams ruled Yemen for over 1,000 years till 1962, when the Imamate was overthrown by nationalist military officers led by Col. Abdullah Sallal. Both Col. Sallal and Republican Yemen’s second President, Abdul Rahman Yahya Al-Iryani, were Zaydi Shias; Ali Abdullah Saleh, President for 34 years, is also a Zaydi. In fact, Mr. Saleh waged a bitter military campaign against the Houthis from 2004 to 2010. The Muslim Brotherhood is quintessentially a Sunni entity, but in Yemen, its chairman and secretary general are Zaydis. Thus, all this shows that political contestations in Yemen have always been driven by personal ambitions and political ideology, and never by sectarianism.
A unique attribute of Yemeni society is that every individual has several firearms. As a result, the country is awash with millions of weapons. Rockets and missiles, Kalashnikovs, machine guns, and even tanks have been on sale openly for decades. Also, resorting to violence is the usual medium of settling disputes. Both the Imams/Kings of Yemen in the 20th century were assassinated; a President too. Two others were overthrown in coups. In Yemen, chronic infighting is a normal thing.
Soon after Saudi Arabia was formally established in 1932, it invaded Yemen in 1934 and absorbed the Yemeni provinces of Asir, Jizan and Najran. In the Yemen civil war of 1962-1967, Saudi Arabia supported the Zaydi Imam. Since then, Saudi Arabia has sought to influence internal political dispensations by providing billions of dollars in aid.
Yemen was among the four Arab countries convulsed by massive demonstrations from February 2011 onwards. Alarmed by its protégé, Mr. Saleh’s inability to control burgeoning unrest, mediation by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forced him to step down in February 2012, while power was redistributed among the other existing power holders — Mr. Saleh’s General People’s Congress, the Mushtarak, the “loyalist” Opposition and the Sunni Islah party, leaving out the Houthis even though they had participated very actively in the 2011 uprising. Abd Rabbuh Mansour Al Hadi, Vice-President under Mr. Saleh, was elected President without any candidate to oppose him. However, he lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the people, especially after fleeing the country and operating from Saudi Arabia. He has no tribal or political support base in northern Yemen and even in the south, outside Aden.
With both Mr. Saleh and the Houthis shut out, the stage was set for an alliance between these erstwhile bitter enemies. Having headed the Army for so long, Mr. Saleh enjoys considerable support within it and particularly among the powerful Republican Guard. The Army’s huge weapons inventory became the key factor that enabled the Houthis to take control of Sana'a in September 2014, and later, of many of the country’s main cities and ports, and more crucially, its administrative, energy, financial and governmental apparatus.
The Iranian Angle
Saudi rhetoric has focussed on Iranian involvement. Yemeni Zaydi Shias are “fivers” whose ideology is closer to the Sunnis than to the Iranian “twelver” Shias. There is no record of significant Iranian involvement with the Zaydi Shias of Yemen beyond some Houthis pursuing religious studies in Iran in the early 1990s. Among them was Hussein Badr Al-Deen Houthi, the founder-leader of the Ansar Allah, during which he picked up what became the Houthi motto: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Iranian interest was kindled by the six-year conflict between Mr. Saleh and the Houthis from 2004 to 2010 but truly meaningful interaction between the two began only after the Houthis took control in Sana'a. Direct flights between Tehran and Sana'a started in March 2015 after a gap of 25 years. Iran has signed agreements with the Houthi-led Yemeni authorities to supply Iranian oil, for help in the construction of power plants, and the modernisation of strategic ports. Implementing these agreements will take a long time, if ever. There is little credible evidence that Iran has provided large enough consignments of weapons to the Houthis to make any tangible difference on the ground; logistically, it is almost impossible to do so. However, with several airports and ports now under Houthi control, the possibilities of Iranian weapons supplies to Yemen exist, if needed. From being an interested bystander at best, Saudi actions, policies and rhetoric in the past few years have enabled Iran to acquire credible locus standi and become an active player in the processes of determining Yemen’s future.
Iran’s influence throughout West Asia has risen dramatically since the so-called Arab Spring unrest began — it has become the most influential power in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and now Yemen also. The success of negotiations between the U.S.-led P5+1 (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China, facilitated by the European Union) has further augmented Iran’s regional standing while further exacerbating already mounting Saudi concerns.
The Saudi Response
Saudi King Salman ascended the throne on January 23, 2015, and within hours appointed his son, less than 30 years old, with no governmental experience, as Defence Minister. Ambitious, brash, and oozing self-confidence, he is believed to be the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s extremely muscular reaction to events in Yemen. Within hours of President Hadi fleeing Yemen, Saudi Arabia launched “Operation Decisive Stsorm” on March 25. The Defence Minister has been personally supervising these operations.
Rather impressively, Saudi Arabia has successfully forged a “grand Sunni alliance” in a matter of days and committed 100 fighter jets, 150,000 soldiers deployed along the border and some naval units, with Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and even faraway Morocco joining the air strikes. Egypt is deploying an unspecified number of naval and air force units; ground forces will be deployed “if necessary.” The United States is only providing “logistical, intelligence and technical support”. Concerted efforts led by King Salman personally to persuade Pakistan to join have failed. This could have consequences for Pakistan later. Despite initial support for the air strikes, Turkey now feels that a negotiated solution is a better approach.
“Operation Decisive Storm” has involved extensive daily air strikes against Houthi and Saleh forces mainly in and around Sana'a, Saada, Taiz, Hodeidah and Aden. Despite almost 2,500 air strikes, the overwhelming majority by Saudi Arabia, killing many Houthi and allied fighters and resulting in the large-scale destruction of their weaponry, the Houthi/Saleh dominance has not been meaningfully dented. The air strikes are causing mounting civilian casualties and wholesale destruction of villages, sending thousands fleeing from their homes; this is causing a further alienation of Yemenis from Saudi Arabia.
The UN Secretary-General has called for an immediate ceasefire and has appealed for $274 million in aid for urgent relief and rehabilitation measures. The ceasefire demand has been rejected but King Salman has decided to contribute this entire amount immediately. However, this will not mitigate Yemeni anger. Meanwhile, by default, the al-Qaeda in Yemen is benefiting enormously.
Though the war cannot be won through air strikes, sending in ground troops will be disastrous. Given that Saudi troops performed poorly against the then much weaker and less organised Houthis in 2009-2010, and have no real combat experience, they are hardly likely to do any better this time fighting against battle hardy Yemenis on their own terrain. Nevertheless, on April 21, King Salman ordered the mobilisation of the National Guard also which has since been deployed along the border. Confusingly, later that evening, Saudi Arabia unexpectedly announced the end of “Operation Decisive Storm” and the beginning of “Operation Restore Hope”, promptly welcomed by the U.S., only for the air strikes to be resumed the very next day and which continue with increasing intensity! It is reasonable to assume that the Defence Minister was behind this since on April 29 he was also appointed Deputy Crown Prince.
Despite growing U.S. reservations, Saudi Arabian hardliners seem determined to impose a military solution; instead, Saudi Arabia is likely to find itself mired in Yemen for a long time in an unwinnable war.
The Way Forward
The Houthis have welcomed Yemen’s exiled President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi’s recent appointment of Khaled Bahah, an Indian-educated former Yemeni PR to the UN and Prime Minister, as the new Vice-President; this provides an opening for negotiations which are the only way forward. Initially they should be convened by the new U.N. Special Envoy for Yemen and the Yemeni government representation should be led by Khaled Bahah. The various UN resolutions over the past four years, the Peace and Partnership agreement signed between the Houthis and Mr. Hadi in September 2014 and the outcomes of the National Dialogues in 2013 and 2014 provide a good basis for negotiations.
If Yemen is to have long-term domestic stability, it is exceedingly important that all power brokers of the past are exiled abroad for at least five to 10 years. Reports that Mr. Saleh and his family have left Yemen, probably for Oman, which has offered to mediate between the contending parties, are encouraging. However, restarting the political process will take time and getting results even longer. In the meantime, the unfortunate people of Yemen have to face an even tougher future than their difficult past.
What you need to know about the crisis
Who are the Houthis?
The Houthis are followers of the Shia Zaidi sect, the faith of around a third of Yemen’s population. Officially known as Ansarallah (the partisans of God), the group began as a movement preaching tolerance and peace in the Zaidi stronghold of North Yemen in the early 1990s.
After some protests pitted it against the government, the group launched an insurgency in 2004 against the then ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh that lasted till 2010. Their opponents view them as a proxy of Shia Iran. The group is hostile to the United States but has also vowed to eradicate al-Qaeda. They participated in the 2011 Arab Spring inspired revolution in Yemen that replaced Saleh with Abdrahbu Mansour Hadi.
Key dates to the Yemen conflict
› September 21, 2014: Houthi rebels seize government and military sites in Sana’a after several days of fighting that killed more than 270 people. Rival groups sign a U.N.-brokered peace deal stipulating a Houthi withdrawal from the capital and formation of a new government.
› October 9, 2014: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has declared war on the Houthis, claims an attack in Sana’a in which 47 are killed.
› October 14, 2014: The Houthis seize the Red Sea port of Hodeida, 230 km west of Sana’a, then move toward the centre without opposition from government forces but face fierce resistance from AQAP and its tribal allies.
› January 20, 2015: Houthis attack Mr. Hadi’s residence and seize the presidential palace, and the President and Prime Minister resign two days later.
› February 6, 2015: The rebels announce they have dissolved Parliament and installed a presidential council to run the country. The United States and Gulf monarchies accuse Iran of backing the Houthis. In the south and southeast, authorities reject what they brand a coup attempt.
› February 21, 2015: Mr. Hadi flees south to Aden after escaping from weeks under house arrest and urges the international community to “reject the coup,” rescinding his resignation and subsequently declaring Aden the temporary capital.
› March 19, 2015: Clashes in which at least 11 are killed force the closure of the international airport in Aden and Mr. Hadi is moved to a more secure location after an air raid on the presidential palace there.
› March 22, 2015: The Houthis advance southwards, seizing the airport and a nearby military base in Taez, north of Aden and a strategic entry point to Mr. Hadi’s stronghold. Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi says the rebels have moved south to combat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
› March 25, 2015: Mr. Hadi is again moved as rebel forces bear down on Aden, capturing a major airbase nearby just days after U.S. military personnel were evacuated from it.
(Ranjit Gupta was Indian Ambassador to Yemen, and in January 1968 had visited Sana'a as the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy.)