A year-old Saudi-led war against rebels in Yemen has backfired, empowering al Qaeda and Islamic State. Yemen’s people are paying the price, and the world mostly looks away.
By Alistair Lyon
A year ago, Saudi Arabia and its allies unleashed a Western-backed military intervention in Yemen’s civil war. It has gone horribly, and predictably, wrong.
Twelve months of bombing, backed by a naval blockade and some ground troops, have failed to quell the Zaydi Shi’ite rebels known as Houthis or reinstate the Saudi-backed president in the capital Sanaa.
Al Qaeda and its new competitor, Islamic State, have gleefully exploited the mayhem to gain strength and grab more territory.
Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman, and his 30-year-old son and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, had anticipated a swift blitz against the Houthis, which they view as tools of Shi’ite Iran, the Sunni kingdom’s main regional adversary. Tehran backs the rebels politically but denies arming and funding them.
As elsewhere in the Middle East, Saudi-Iranian rivalry has helped inflame Sunni-Shi’ite animosities in Yemen. The war has also deepened divisions between the north and the formerly independent south, where separatist sentiment runs high.
A year on, the Saudis may be groping for a way out of their quagmire. By one estimate, the war is costing them $6 billion a month in an era of low oil prices and economic strains at home. This month, talks with the Houthis produced a small-scale prisoner swap and calmed border fighting.
Rules of war ignored
But the conflict rages on elsewhere as casualties mount. A UN panel has accused the Saudi-led coalition of “widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets”, a charge Riyadh rejects. Saudi bombers have hit homes, hospitals and markets, as well as an already creaking infrastructure, inflicting most of more than 3,200 civilian deaths documented by the United Nations since the air strikes began on March 26, 2015.
Houthi fighters are no angels either, using siege tactics and indiscriminate weapons against civilians, especially in protracted battles around the city of Taiz.
The UN human rights chief said last week the Saudi-led coalition was “responsible for twice as many civilian casualties as all other forces put together” and may have committed “international crimes”, a category that includes war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Yemen was a failed state gripped by an acute water crisis and other ills even before the coalition blockade disrupted vital food and fuel imports.. The United Nations says 80 percent of Yemen’s 26 million people need outside aid and lack access to clean water. At least 320,000 children under five are severely malnourished. The conflict has forced at least 2.5 million people from their homes.
So why did Saudi Arabia, once known more for check book diplomacy than military muscle, throw caution to the winds in Yemen?
Dismay at Iran’s rising power and at Washington’s perceived reluctance to confront it was perhaps the main motive. King Salman and his influential son felt let down by their U.S. ally, which along with other world powers was offering Tehran sanctions relief in return for a nuclear deal. The Saudis feared this would only further embolden their arch-rival.
In Saudi eyes, the Houthis were an Iranian proxy akin to Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hizbollah movement, but one right on the kingdom’s southern doorstep. Never mind the doctrinal gulf between Zaydi Shi’ism and the version espoused in Iran, or what Western officials regarded as scant evidence for substantial Iranian military support for the battle-hardened Houthis.
Houthi pact with Saleh
The rebels had fought for years against former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. In 2011, when popular uprisings shook the Arab world, mass protests and political machinations in Yemen eventually forced Saleh to quit.
His vice president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, replaced him in 2012 under a deal brokered by Gulf states and endorsed by the United Nations. This staved off looming civil war, but disappointed many in Yemen, particularly the young pro-democracy protesters who had pushed for real change, not a reshuffling of power among corrupt old elites. Restive southerners felt ignored in the stuttering transition process, as did the Houthis in the north.
The northern rebels then forged an unlikely alliance with Saleh, whose sway over key army units helped them capture Sanaa in September 2014 and later depose Hadi.
When the Houthis advanced as far as Aden, Yemen’s second city, the Saudis led a hastily assembled Arab coalition into war. The United States, keen to calm Saudi anger over the detente with Iran, provided in-flight refueling, intelligence and munitions. Britain and France also sold weapons to Riyadh and its allies, and joined Washington in backing them at the United Nations.
The fate of Yemenis snared in the conflict seemed a low priority for all the outside powers.
Spinning out of control
With military help from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, motley anti-Houthi forces retook Aden in July. But Hadi’s government has failed to impose its authority or end violence in the port city, now prey to myriad neighborhood militias, including Islamists, secular nationalists and criminal gangs.
Sunni militants, especially those linked to al Qaeda, had made gains in several southern provinces while the Saudi-led coalition battled the Houthis. This month, for the first time since Aden returned to Hadi’s nominal control, coalition aircraft bombed Islamist fighters in one city district — perhaps a belated recognition of the threat they pose.
Warring local factions share much of the blame for the debacle in Yemen, but meddling by outsiders, notably Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iran, has made matters far worse.
Western powers also have much to answer for. Their sporadic interest in Yemen previously focused on a vaunted, and now severely compromised, campaign against al Qaeda in which U.S. drone strikes played a big role. In the past year they have effectively outsourced their Yemen policy to Riyadh and fueled the conflict with copious arms sales to the Saudis and their Gulf partners.
Yemen’s people are paying the price, and the world mostly looks away.
Alistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.