Like a ticking time bomb left unattended for too long, Yemen’s undeclared civil war has suddenly exploded into a region-wide crisis that will have far-reaching, unpredictable international consequences.
The conflict, spreading outwards like a poison cloud from the key southern battleground around Aden, pits Saudi Arabia, plus what remains of Yemen’s government, against northern-based Houthi rebels, who are covertly backed by Iran.
What has until now been an unacknowledged proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia has now burst into an open confrontation that appears to be escalating rapidly as other countries and players are sucked in. The primary Saudi aim is to pacify Yemen, but its wider objective is to send a powerful message to Iran: stop meddling in Arab affairs.
WHO ARE THE HOUTHIS:The Houthi rebels, also known as Ansar Allah, belong to the Zaidi sect, a relatively obscure branch of Shia Islam. Formed by members of the northern Houthi clan, the group was originally known as Believing Youth and began life in the early 1990s as a revivalist theological movement, reportedly teaching peaceful coexistence.
The group was radicalised by the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Anti-American demonstrations brought the group into conflict with the government of the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2004, it launched a fully-fledged insurgency.
The group has sporadically battled both government forces, which have been backed in recent years by US special forces and drones, and Sunni extremists belonging to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which set up bases in Yemen after being expelled from Afghanistan.
Last September the Houthis unexpectedly seized the capital, Sana’a. The Yemeni President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, fled to Aden. The Houthis continued their advance southwards, and on Saturday they took the central city of Taiz.
The Saudi-led intervention, thus, appears designed to prevent the entire country from falling into Houthi hands and to support what Riyadh says is the legitimate Yemeni government against its Iranian-backed foes. The Saudis also fear Yemen becoming a failed state haunted by terrorist groups, like neighbouring Somalia.
The former president Saleh, who was obliged to stand down in 2012 after 34 years in power, and his son, Ahmad, are now backing the Houthis against Hadi, the current president. Part of the problem is that both Saleh and his former deputy, Hadi, are divisive figures unable to bring together the country’s many rival forces.
IRAN-SAUDI STRUGGLE: Iran is widely believed to have trained Houthi fighters and supplied arms since the insurgency began. But this is flatly denied in Tehran. Iran has nevertheless kept up a constant barrage of criticism of Saudi and western efforts to forge a political settlement in Yemen.
It appears to see the country in terms of a region-wide struggle for power and influence between itself and Saudi Arabia.
It seems possible that the success of the Houthis’ drive south, and the dramatic Saudi reaction in mobilising an international intervention, has taken Iran by surprise. It is unclear how much control Tehran exercises over the rebels.
The long-running rebellion has been a useful, low-cost way for Iran to keep the Saudis off-balance and under pressure in the regional power battle. Now the puppet may have broken loose from the puppeteers. Iran is facing off against Saudi Arabia on other fronts in Syria, the Gulf and not least in Iraq, where the Shia-led government in Baghdad is widely seen to be under Tehran’s influence.
US IVOLVEMENT: The Saudi move has been strongly backed by the US, which is providing “logistical and intelligence support”. It is inconceivable that the Saudis’ stated plan to launch a ground offensive into Yemen employing 150,000 troops would be under contemplation without prior American agreement and support.
As yet, American forces do not appear to be directly involved.
But the fact that the Saudis have given the name “Storm of Resolve” to their air operation in Yemen recalls another big joint operation involving US and Saudi ground forces, Operation Desert Storm, the 1991 invasion to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
The Saudi decision to unveil the international coalition in Washington suggests that the Obama administration, rather than the normally risk-averse regime in Riyadh, may be the driving force behind the intervention.
By arrangement with The Guardian
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2015