by Tobias Thiel
In the night from 25 to 26 March, a Saudi-led coalition of Sunni Arab states has launched operation ‘asifat al-hazm (Decisive Storm) – ostensibly to save the Republic of Yemen from the Zaydi Shi’a Huthi ‘rebels’ and restore the legitimate rule of president-in-exile ‘Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. In reality, however, the nocturnal aerial bombardments have exacerbated and regionalised a protracted domestic power struggle that has emerged since the negotiated resignation of perennial strongman Ali Abdallah Salih in 2011. Much worse even, the poorest country on the Arabian Peninsula is now headed for a humanitarian catastrophe of devastating proportions.
The landscape of stakeholders on the ground is messy and politically pragmatic. A religio-political movement that emerged in the early 1990s against the victimisation of Zaydis and the marginalization of Yemen’s northern areas, the Huthis are fighting alongside military units loyal to ex-President Salih. This marriage of convenience remains fragile, however, as Salih, with whom the movement engaged in six brutal wars between 2004 and 2010, might withdraw his support due to political opportunism. Despite his meagre domestic support base, their adversary, President Hadi, has garnered a loose anti-Huthi coalition that includes such diverse forces as the Sunni Islamist Islah party and the southern secessionist movement, Hirak al-Janubi. The Huthis and al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) are moreover combating each other, while local tribes have joined either side amidst a mounting power vacuum.
Although frequently described as either a sectarian struggle or the latest front in a proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran, the power struggle between Hadi and the Huthis has little to do with sectarianism but evolves around the control of the state. Intra-faith relations have historically been amicable in Yemen. The doctrinal beliefs of Zaydis, a minority offshoot of Shi’i Islam, differ as much from the Twelver Shi’ism practised in Iran or Lebanon as from those of the two-thirds Sunni Shafi’i majority in southern and coastal Yemen. Although warring factions have increasingly appealed to sectarian identities in recent months, the roots of the crisis lie in the breakdown of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Initiative, which transformed Yemen’s brief revolutionary moment in early 2011 into a negotiated transition process with the promise of fundamental reforms.
Although the GCC Initiative ensured an orderly power transfer to Salih’s long-time deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in early 2012, it failed to institute a genuinely inclusive power-sharing arrangement. Despite the inclusion of ascendant forces in the National Dialogue Conference, such as the Huthis and Hirak, powerbrokers associated with the ancien régime, including Ali Muhsin al-Ahmar, the al-Ahmar family, as well as prominent GPC and Islah politicians, dominated the decision-making under the GCC roadmap. Amidst this fragile transition order, the Huthis positioned themselves as the champions of the unfulfilled aspirations of the 2011 citizen revolt, and progressively expanded their territorial control over much of Yemen’s northern areas. Following weeks of popular Huthi-led protests, they easily seized control of the capital San’a in September 2014 with the help of Salih loyalists. The escalation was temporarily contained, however, as President Hadi acquiesced to Huthi demands by signing in the Peace and National Partnership Agreement (PNPA).
However, continuous violations of the PNPA by both sides led tensions to escalate even further. Emboldened by international backing, Hadi attempted to refer the draft constitution – loathed by the Huthis since they had been excluded from the decision on a six-region federation – to an implementation body in January 2015, which constituted a breach of the agreement. In response, the Huthis, whose continued exercise of informal control over the capital and its government ministries also violated the terms of the PNPA, seized the presidential palace, put Hadi and his ministers under house arrest, and replaced the transition government with their own Transitional Presidential Council. While their avowed goals of confronting corruption, combating AQAP and filling the security vacuum had earned them many sympathies beyond their core constituency, many Yemenis now perceived Huthi actions as a slow-motion power grab. Although Hadi later managed to flee to ‘Adan, where he reclaimed the presidency, the standoff precipitated the breakdown of the transition process.
Tensions flared up again on 20 March when Sunni extremists set off coordinated bombs in two mosques in San’aʾ used by Zaydi worshippers, which killed at least 137 and wounded more than 350. The attacks prompted the Huthis to continue their southward drive to root out AQAP. They captured the city of Ta’izz on 25 March, followed by al-Ḍali’ and Lahj governorates. The events forced the house of Saud’s hand. The same night, the kingdom launched concerted air raids against Huthi positions and military infrastructure. With the Huthis at the gates of ‘Adan, Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia and issued a plea for an Arab military intervention at an Arab League summit in Egypt on 28 March. Although the aerial campaign pulverised the Huthi-controlled Yemeni air force, missile launching sites and air defences within hours, it failed to halt the movement’s southward advance to ‘Adan – the last major city in Hadi’s sphere of influence.
The Saudi-led military intervention regionalised Yemen’s domestic conflict. It is motivated by a deep paranoia about what the conservative monarchy sees as an Iranian proxy militia, and thus primarily intended as a message to Tehran. The operation moreover aims to establish Saudi Arabia as the policing agent of the Arabian Peninsula. The coalition encompasses the Gulf Cooperation Council (except Oman), a few other Arab monarchies, as well as the Sunni Muslim states Egypt, Turkey and a reluctant Pakistan, yet many of these pledges may prove nominal. The United States and the United Kingdom have moreover agreed to provide logistical and intelligence support in pursuit of the alleged common goal of restoring order and achieving lasting stability in Yemen. The irony here is not, however, that the United States backs the Iranians in Iraq and works against them in Yemen, but that the U.S. paradoxically supports the targeting of the sole Yemeni force that is capable and willing to eradicate the domestic al-Qaida franchise.
Stability is, perhaps, last on the list of goals that Saudi Arabia pursues in Yemen. In line with King Abd al-Aziz’s advice on his deathbed to ‘keep Yemen weak,’ Riyadh has made consistent efforts to undermine a strong, republican, sovereign, united and democratic Yemen at various points in history. As early as the 1930s, the Saudi Arabia engaged in a war with Imam Yahya, in which the Mutawakkilite Imamate ceded two provinces to the kingdom – a final border was not settled until the year 2000. In North Yemen’s civil war from 1962 to 1970, the conservative monarchy supported royalist tribes against republican revolutionaries as part of a leadership struggle with Gamal Abd al-Nasir’s Egypt, which had deployed more than 70,000 highly skilled troops at the height of the war. Saudi King Salman, who was then in his 30s, will have an active memory of how the kingdom turned the conflict into ‘Egypt’s very own Vietnam’ – at the expense of Yemen.
In 1977, then, Saudi Arabia conspired (together with Salih) to the assassination of modernist President Ibrahim al-Hamdi, who was determined to loosen the stranglehold of the kingdom over Yemeni politics. More recently, the House of Saud expelled around 800,000 Yemeni guest workers to punish the newly united republic for its stance in the 1991 Gulf War, plunging the country into an economic crisis. Political interests overrode ideology, as the kingdom simultaneously supported both sides – Sunni Islamists and Marxist separatists – in the 1994 war of secession. In November 2009, Saudi Arabia launched air raids in the sixth war between the Yemeni government and the Huthis; however, the abysmal handling of Saudi security forces allowed Huthis to wreck havoc on Saudi territory. Finally, Riyadh has backed the Salih regime against the mass protests in 2011 and has – as elsewhere – tried to stifle the democratic opening.
Iran, on the other hand, is much less invested in Yemen than in Syria, Iraq or Lebanon – a nuance that is often lost with the labelling of the Huthis as an ‘Iran-backed’ rebel group. Although the Islamic Republic has cultivated ties to the Huthi movement since its inception, the relationship is limited to low-level funding, training and some degree of political support, which is dwarfed by the billions of U.S. dollars that Saudi Arabia has provided to Sunni Islamists. Iranian support is unlikely to include military hardware, which is abundantly available in Yemen. Although hardly an Iranian proxy, the Huthis have recently steered towards Tehran in their desperate search for regional allies. However, Iran is currently not interested in becoming more deeply involved in Yemen, particularly as this would jeopardise a nuclear deal with the United States. The Islamic Republic may be tempted, however, depending on how events play out, to either abandon the Huthis for political concessions or draw Saudi Arabia into a similarly costly quagmire as Egypt suffered in Yemen in the 1960s or the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although Saudi-led coalition envisions that a military campaign would take between one and six months (as did the Bush administration in Iraq in 2003), a clear-cut victory for either side is highly unlikely. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have professed their readiness to mount a high-risk ground invasion, which would be a recipe for a humanitarian disaster with a high number of civilian casualties. The closing of airfields and ports with the current aerial campaign has already taken a toll on the highly food-insecure country, which imports most of its grain from abroad. Although Saudi Arabia is equipped with new-generation American weaponry, the kingdom is more astute in flexing its muscle on the international oil markets than in the military arena. With two months into the job and even less military experience, the 30-year-old Saudi Defence Minister Prince Muhammad bin Salman, is unlikely to provide the necessary leadership. Even if Saudi Arabia were to avail itself of well-trained Pakistani troops and bankrolled Sunni jihadist groups in Yemen, a ground invasion would almost surely embroil both sides in a protracted stalemate.
The Huthis, on the other hand, have more than a 100,000 ideologically motivated warriors, battle-hardened by ten years of fighting experience, with knowledge of the rugged mountain terrain and armed to the teeth with looted military hardware from Yemen’s army depots. They are currently regrouping for a counter-attack and may attempt to provoke a conflict along the Saudi-Yemeni border, perhaps involving Saudi Arabia’s own Shi’a minority. The movement has threatened suicide attacks against the Saudi regime – a tactic uncharacteristic of its methods. Although some political factions have welcomed the military intervention, it will serve as a recruitment and mobilisation tool for the Huthis in order to tap the deep-rooted resentment of Saudi Arabia among many Yemenis, which are convinced that the kingdom does not have its best interests at heart.
Amidst dim prospects for a cease-fire, an equitable power-sharing agreement is the only viable option to achieve some level of stability. Even if the coalition managed to dislodge the Huthis, which would require a successful ground invasion, to reinstall a president that enjoys so little domestic backing that he would invite Arab nations to bombard his own country, borders on cynical ruthlessness. If the aim is, on the other hand, ‘to bomb the Huthis to the negotiating table,’ such a strategy could only work if they were permitted to negotiate with dignity and on an equal footing – a scenario Saudi Arabia is unlikely to permit. With Yemen heading for a humanitarian nightmare and protracted stalemate, the best option, if at all possible, would be to broker an equitable power-sharing agreement through Omani mediation, in which the myriad of political forces in Yemen – none of which could rule the country singlehandedly – had an equal seat at the table.
Tobias Thiel is a PhD Candidate at the LSE’s Department of International History. His dissertation is about contentious politics, collective memory and violence in post-unification Yemen. He has spent the past three years in Yemen conducting field research.