Yemen Crisis: This Exotic War Will Soon Become
The main outcome of the Saudi air campaign will be terrorism and
boatloads of desperate migrants
By Patrick Cockburn
April 25, 2015 "Information
Clearing House" - "The
Independent" - Yemen is short of many
things, but weapons is not one of them. Yemenis own between 40 and
60 million guns, according to a report by UN experts published
earlier this year. This should be enough for Yemen’s 26 million
people, although the experts note that demand for grenades that used
to cost $5, handguns ($150) and AK-47s ($150) has increased
eightfold. Whatever else happens, the war in Yemen is not going to
end because any of the participants are short of weaponry.
Yemeni politics is notoriously complicated and
exotic, with shifting alliances in which former enemies embrace and
old friends make strenuous efforts to kill each other. But this
exoticism does not mean that the war in Yemen, where the Saudis
started bombing on 26 March, is irrelevant to the rest of the world.
Already the turmoil there is a breeding ground for al-Qaeda type
attacks such as that on Charlie Hebdo in Paris.
The collapse of the country into a permanent state
of warfare will send waves of boat-people towards Western Europe or
anywhere else they can find refuge. It is absurd for European
leaders to pretend that they are doing something about “terrorism”
or the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean when they ignore the
wars that are the root causes of these events.
So far the Yemen war has been left to the Saudis
and the Gulf monarchies, with the US ineffectually trying to end it.
The reality of what is happening is very different from the way it
is presented. The Saudis allege that they are crushing a takeover of
Yemen by the Houthi Shia militia backed by Iran and intend to return
the legitimate president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, to power. In
fact, the Houthis’ seizure of so much of Yemen over the past year
has little to do with Iran. It has much more to do with their
alliance with their old enemy, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh,
who still controls much of the Yemeni army. This enabled the Houthis,
whose strongholds are in the north of the country, to capture Sanaa
easily last September, though UN experts note that the capital “was
guarded by no less than 100,000 Republican Guards and Reserve
Forces, most of them loyal to the former president”.
The Saudi air campaign is geared more to
inflicting severe damage on the units of the Yemeni army loyal to
Saleh than it is to weakening the Houthis. The Houthi militiamen are
experienced fighters, their military skills and ability to withstand
air attack honed between 2004 and 2010, when they fought off six
offensives launched by Saleh, who was then in power and closely
allied to Saudi Arabia. It was only after he was ousted from office
in 2012 that he reconciled with the Houthis.
The Saudi war aim is to break this alliance
between the Houthis and the Saleh-controlled military units by
destroying the army’s bases and heavy weapons. The more lightly
armed Houthis are less likely to be hard-hit by air strikes, but
without the support or neutrality of the regular army they will be
over-stretched in the provinces south of Sanaa. In Aden, they are
fighting not so much Hadi-supporters, but southern separatists who
want to reverse the unification agreed in 1990.
The problem with the Saudi strategy is the same as
that with most military plans. The 19th-century German chief of
staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, said that in war “no plan
survives contact with the enemy”. The same warning was pithily
restated more recently by the American boxer Mike Tyson, who said
that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
The danger for Saudi Arabia is that wars build up
an uncontrollable momentum that transforms the political landscape
in which they are conceived. Had the Saudis not intervened in Yemen,
it is unlikely that in the long term the Houthis would have been
able to dominate the country because they are opposed by so many
regions, parties and tribes. Yemen is too divided for any single
faction to win an outright victory. But the air war has been
justified by Saudi Arabia to their own citizens and the Sunni world
as a counterattack against Iranian and Shia aggression. It will not
be easy for Riyadh to back off from these exaggerated claims to
reach the sort of compromises required if Yemen is to return to
peace. A further danger is that demonising the Houthis as Iranian
puppets may well prove self-fulfilling, if the Houthis are compelled
to look for allies wherever they can find them.
Yemenis insist that their society has not
traditionally been divided along sectarian lines between the Zaidi
Shia, a third of the population, and the two-thirds of Yemenis who
are Sunni. But this could change very quickly as the Yemen conflict
gets plugged into the wider and increasingly warlike regional
confrontation between a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia and a
Shia counterpart led by Iran.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been
one of the main beneficiaries of the militarisation of Yemeni
politics, because it can present itself as the shock troops of the
Sunni community and its fighters are no longer under pressure from
the regular army. As many Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans have
discovered to their cost, Sunni-Shia sectarian hatred and fear is
often only one massacre away.
The Saudis and the Gulf monarchies worry so much
about Yemen because it is very much their backyard. But there is
every reason for the rest of the world to worry too, because Yemen
is joining Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Somalia as places
where warlords rule in conditions of anarchy. They are places where
life has become unlivable for much of the population, who will take
any risk to escape.
This is the sort of national calamity that is
filling the boats and rafts crowded with desperate emigrants that
are heading across the Mediterranean for Europe.
And this calamity is particularly bad in Yemen,
because the country was in crisis even before the present conflict.
According to UN agencies, malnutrition in Yemen is about the same as
in much of sub-Saharan Africa and only half the population has
access to clean water. The country imports 90 per cent of the grains
used for food, but no ships are coming in because its ports are
blockaded by the Saudis or caught up in the fighting. In any case it
is difficult to move food supplies because of a chronic shortage of
fuel. Lack of electricity means that essential medicines in
hospitals cannot be stored.
This is not a short-term problem, Yemen is finally
falling apart, but it may take a long time doing so, which means
that there will be a vacuum of power. AQAP and other jihadi groups
are already taking advantage of this. America’s much vaunted drone
war against AQAP has not prevented the organisation taking over
The Sunni-Shia confrontation has a fresh injection
of venom. Yemen has endured many wars that the rest of the world has
ignored, but this one may well prove uncontainable.