By Dr Spyros Plakoudas, Analyst KEDISA
Yemen represents a typical case of the adverse outcome of the Arab Spring. After violent protests of precisely thirteen months (27/1/2011-27/2/2012), the president of a (unified since 1990) country for twenty three long years, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigned. However, Yemen did not undergo a peaceful transition to democracy and stability. Soon afterwards, the country slid to anarchy and, eventually, civil war since the country had not developed a tradition of democratic governance – not to mention a unifying national identity. The Houthis, warlike mountainous tribes of northern Yemen which adhere to a sect of Shia Islam (Zayidi), exploited the instability to advance southwards and capture the capital in September 2014 while the army (still loyal to Saleh) watched apathetically.
The Houthis swiftly captured almost 3/5 of the country within weeks, seriously perturbing Saudi Arabia. A champion of Sunni Islam and an intervener in the internal affairs of Yemen ever since the civil war in North Yemen (1962-1970) during the Cold War, the House of Saud stood up to challenge the Shia Houthis and stop the spread of Iran’s influence in the soft underbelly of Saudi Arabia. While Iran denies any allegation of support to the Houthis, Tehran views the success of the Houthis positively. In the zero-sum game of the Middle East, a victory for any Shia power everywhere in the Middle East translates (directly or indirectly) into a victory for Iran – the protector of Shia Islam. Indicatively, Iran currently controls or influences heavily four capitals of the Arab World through its proxies and allies: Beirut in Lebanon via Hezbollah, Damascus in Syria via Assad, Baghdad in Iraq via Al-Sadr and Sana’a in Yemen via the Houthis. Before the exit of Iran from isolation owing to its nuclear program just a few months ago, Tehran used the Shia Crescent as a bargaining chip on the negotiation table.
The legitimate president of Yemen, al-Hadi, sought refuge to Saudi Arabia in the face of military defeat and requested military aid for the restoration of his rule. The advance of the Houthis against Aden (the former capital of communist South Yemen and stronghold of al-Hadi) rang alarm bells for Riad: the capture of Aden would signal the total victory of the Houthis. The House of Saudi shared a rather violent history with the Houthis – a major threat to the security of the southernmost regions of the kingdom and, above all, the loyalty of the sizeable Shia minority in the country’s eastern oil-rich provinces. In 2009, the House of Saud tried to quell an uprising of the Houthis in concert with Yemen’s armed forces but failed miserably. In 2015, Riad had somewhat learned from its mistakes. It led a coalition of peripheral Sunni powers instead of marching alone to face the Houthis head-on.
This coalition included countries such as Morocco, Pakistan and even Egypt. Cairo wanted to fulfill two goals by taking the side of Saudi Arabia in this war. Firstly, the (not completely stable) regime of al-Sisi wanted to fight shoulder to shoulder with its main funder ever since the bloody coup d’état in 2013 against the Muslim Brotherhood – the archenemy of the House of Saud. Secondly, Egypt intended to secure control over the Straits of Aden – a region of great geopolitical value for international maritime trade. After all, Egypt under Nasser had intervened in 1962 during the civil war in Northern Yemen but withdraw in 1967 badly bruised. Paradoxically, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen takes place with the tacit consent of the USA. Just as in Libya, Washington yielded the initiative to its peripheral allies for an intervention in a country of minimal value for US foreign policy.
This peripheral coalition possessed an indisputable military superiority but the Houthis did not seem intimidated. Neither the intensive aerial bombardments against the Houthis succeeded in sinking their morale or stopping their advance. As the Houthis captured almost half of Aden in defiance of the air superiority of its enemies, the coalition decided to deploy an expeditionary army and expel the Houthis from this port. After ferocious street fighting that lasted for weeks, the Houthis withdrew from Aden and several regions in the coastal region were liberated. However, the advance of the allied military forces (al-Hadi loyalist troops and allied expeditionary army) proved costly and sluggish. The Yemeni government troops still remain loyal to Saleh, who opportunistically sided with the Houthis. Therefore, the Houthis and Yemeni government troops yielded territory only after ferocious battles. Worse, the popular support for al-Hadi does not extend beyond southern Yemen and the population in the central and northern areas of Yemen has been alienated by the indiscriminate aerial bombardments. Time and time again, history has shown that a counter-insurgency campaign without adequate support by the local population does not result in a permanent victory.
Despite the conventional wisdom against the continuation of operations in regions with unfriendly populations, the peripheral coalition pressed on with its advance northwards. Although several eastern and southern regions have been reclaimed by al-Hadi, the gateway to the central plateau (with the capital and the great majority of the population) remains shut for the legitimate president. A war of attrition is currently underway and the al-Hadi suffers mounting casualties (including the loss of helicopters and war planes) for minimal territorial gains. Worse, the Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (who strong presence across the country has triggered a wave of deadly strikes by the US drone fleet without prior consent by Yemeni state authorities) seized the chance to capture several areas in central Yemen – almost 30% of the country. Similarly, the Islamic State recently stepped up its efforts to carve out an enclave in the coastal areas of the country.
Just like in Syria, a civil war which began as a war by proxy between Shias and Sunnis has been now transformed into a “bellum omnium contra omnes” (i.e. a war of all against all). The Islamic State, Al Qaeda, al-Hadi, Saleh, Houthis and Saudi-led coalition are all interlocked in a vicious conflict without ending the foreseeable future – despite the peace initiatives of the (neutral) Oman. The civilian populace once again stands out as the biggest loser in the conflict. To the tens of thousands of dead must be added millions more that suffer from epidemics and famine; indicatively, 90% of the food in the poorest country of the Arab World is imported. The war can be characterized as a stalemate: the Houthis cannot dislodge al-Hadi from the south and al-Hadi and the Saudi-led coalition cannot expel the Houthis from Sana’a. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State deserve the title of the biggest winners in the war thus far. The establishment of jihadist enclaves in Yemen threatens to undermine the flow of international maritime trade through the Straits of Aden and destablise even further the oil-rich Saudi Arabia.