YEMEN: A PROXY WAR
was easily predictable (Invisible Dog anticipated these events
back in October), Yemen has become the nth piece of the puzzle of
the instability in the Middle East. A number of factors have
favored the outburst of a civil war. The State has dissolved
together with the government and the Houthis have taken over
portions of the country and of the capital Sana'a, amid growing
tribal struggles and the presence of Al Qaeda in the Arabian
Peninsula (AQAP). On March 26, 2015 the start of Saudi aerial
raids and the military operation launched by Arab and regional
States has added a new dimension to the Yemeni conflict, pushing
its boundaries to both a regional and international level. As
often happens, the tensions and frustrations running through the
Middle East are now concentrated on a socially backward and
archaic country like Yemen.
The main actors
A first hint on who the actors of this conflict are can be extrapolated from the countries participating in the coalition fighting the Houthis in the so-called Operation “Decisive Storm”, Asifat al Hazm:
- Saudi Arabia is running the show, they are the country whose interests are at stake and that is largely affected by the insecurity along its southern borders;
- the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council were taken for granted, but it is important to notice how Oman has pulled of the coalition. Although bordering with Yemen, it did not take part in the military operations. There are two main reasons for this: Sultan Qaboos has always abided to a policy of non-interference, secondly the boundary zones are riddled with terrorists and any decay in the security of bordering areas would simply leave more space for Al Qaeda's militias;
- Jordan and Morocco, although not from the gulf, have asked to join the Cooperation Council and often benefit from the financial generosity of the countries in the Arabian Peninsula;
- Egypt, following the restoration of the military regime led by Abdel Fattah al Sisi, can now count on a privileged relationship with Riyadh. Al Sisi is desperate for international credibility and is leading a country of 80 million people. Cairo hopes the military adventure in Yemen will allow it to play a guiding role in Arab affairs. Egypt also needs to grant the security of the naval traffic floating through the Suez Canal. It thus needs that the Bab el-Mandeb strait fall not in hostile hands. Whoever is in control of Yemen controls the access to both the Red Sea, the Suez Canal and oil routes.
- Pakistan, fearing the Shia expansionism of the Hazara in Afghanistan, and Sudan, who's participation is solely symbolic and in the name of pan-Sunni solidarity and of Saudi financing, are also part of this war.
As it is pretty clear, each of these actors has its own agenda; the internal struggle in Yemen is simply a pretext.
The Saudi motives
Saudi Arabia is the driving force behind the intervention in the Yemeni civil war. Apart from the threat to its security, the Saudis fight against growing Iranian influence in the region. The struggle between Shia and Sunnis is simply the smoke screen of a conflict between two of the biggest countries in the area.
The fact that Yemen is 40% Shia and 60% Sunni should have suggested that a negotiated solution was far more desirable than a war. But the al Saud reign fears that the deal on Iran's nuclear program will pave the way, after decades of isolation, to Tehran's return on the international scene. The warning signals for Saudi Arabia of a growing Iranian influence are all around them: the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the support for the Alawite regime in Damascus, the role played in Iraqi political and military affairs and, finally, the support to the Zaidis in Yemen.
The Saudi interventionism and the huge deployment of both men and units (150 thousand troops, airplanes and warships) is also driven factors within the monarchy. This is the first official act by the new king Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who rose to the throne in January, and a strong signal of the new strategic role the kingdom wishes to play in regional affairs. His predecessor, king Abdullah, was far more prudent and was more incline to mediation than to action. In 2011 in Bahrein was the only time he moved his troops, about a thousand men, to reinstate on the throne a Sunni Emir in a majority Shia country. Salman, instead, has opted for a more active role. It may also not be a coincidence that the new Minister of Defense is the ruler's son, Mohammad bin Salman. This is a chance for him to prove his worth and to gain a certain degree of credibility in a future competition for the throne. He is a very young and ambitious man.
The world has taken a stance
Also other actors on the international scene have taken their stance in this proxy war against the Houthis. The United States have immediately shown their support for Salman, providing both logistical and intelligence assistance. France and the United Kingdom have also given their political support. Turkey has exploited the circumstance for yet another foreign policy turnaround and have decided to stand by the Saudis. By doing so, Ankara has let go of its good-neighbor policy with Iran to side with a Sunni coalition. The fact is that they will be fighting alongside Egypt, that has just sentenced to death the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose deep ties with Recep Tayyip Erdogan are both political and religious. Hamas' position is also surprising, given their support for Saudi Arabia alongside with Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who has recently added their organization to the black list of terrorist groups. The Palestinian radical group is now on opposite sides with Iran, that has always helped Hamas through the Hezbollah in its fight against Israel.
Through the statements of their leader Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah, just like Iran, Syria and Iraq, have expressed their hostility against the Saudi-led intervention. In the final stages of their deal with the US, the Iranians have shown a limited propensity to being directly involved in the Yemeni dispute. The Saudi claims about Iranian military advisors and instructors fighting alongside the Houthi militias have not been corroborated.
Russia and China have also spoken against the Saudi-led operation. The Russians have a specific reason for this: they had one of their biggest intelligence and listening posts in Aden that controlled the traffic in the Red Sea and monitored the communications in the regions. It must have been a mere coincidence that one of the first targets of Saudi airstrikes was the Russian consulate in Aden. Moscow will now not be able to collect information in favor of Iran.
An unpredictable ending
The military adventure in Yemen, given the disproportion between the different forces on the ground, has a predictable outcome. Saudi Arabia has total control of the airspace and the Houthi militias will not be capable of facing such a deployment of men and units. But, just like with any other war, be it civil or proxy, the ultimate result is instability and radicalization. The Houthis represent a poor and marginalized portion of Yemeni society. They have little to lose and everything to gain. During years of struggle, they have learned how to fight and how to survive regardless of persecutions against them. They could easily turn their war into a guerrilla warfare.
The Houthis can currently count on the support of the forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The deposed ruler sees this as a chance to regain the power he lost during the Yemeni Arab Spring. Saleh and the Houthis have fought against each other in the recent past – we can count at least 6 rounds of conflict – but this is now just an insignificant detail. In 2009 Saudi warplanes had intervened in Yemen in support of Saleh and against the Houthis. Now, instead, the two arch-enemies walk hand in hand. Saleh is from the north of Yemen, where the majority of the Houthis live. The deposed president who recently fled to Saudi Arabia, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, is instead from the south. This north-south struggle takes us back in time when Yemen was split in two, prior to the reunification of 1992.
Riyadh's attempt to reinstate president Hadi has nothing to do with international rule of law, but rather with the stubborn intent by Arab regimes of safeguarding the current status quo. The Houthi's fight for freedom and a better life is a bad example for countries that aim to keep their people at bay.
It is still unclear on who will profit from this war. Yet, a potential winner can already be singled out: AQAP, also fighting against the Houthis. The weaker the latter, the stronger the terrorists. We're facing once again the same paradox: a war is waged against Shia groups in the name of security, while a Sunni terrorist galaxy is given a leeway despite being just as menacing, if not more, for the Saudi reign and for the wider region. Although AQAP is split in two between those supporting the ISIS and those still loyal to Ayaman al Zawahiri's Al Qaeda, they are still extremely dangerous. The recent attack against the al Mukalla penitentiary that led to the liberation of hundreds of terrorists, including some of AQAP's leaders, proves that they are still a threat to be accounted for.
The Saudi military intervention has also had the nefarious effect of turning a civil war into a regional conflict between Sunnis and Shia. Abdul Malik al Houthi, the Zaidi militias, the political party Ansar Allah and the Houthis' struggle to overturn centuries of marginalization have become pawns in a larger game. The Sunnis, as has recently emerged during a summit in Sharm el Sheikh, are trying to create a pan-Arabic military force that is there to stay. Yemen is simply the dress rehearsal of the future to come. A show of solidarity that finds a common ground in the money poured by both the Saudis and the other emirates.