Saudi-Yemen conflict: Another proxy war?
Saudi airstrikes threaten to escalate the conflict in Yemen
Sabika Zehra Delhi
Airstrikes on the Al Mazraq refugee camp in northern Yemen on March 31 killed dozens of persons and injured hundreds. These were delivered by a Saudi-led military coalition of Gulf monarchies and other regional governments, on behalf of Yemen’s ousted president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi.
The Al Mazraq attack was just another instance of incessant aerial bombings being carried out in and around Sanaa and other Houthi positions as part of Operation Decisive Storm, which began on March 25. Saudi authorities maintain that the casualties were Houthi rebels – who carried out an “illegitimate coup” and took over the capital, Sanaa, six months ago, with support of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But reports by human rights groups have stated that most of those dead and wounded in Al Mazraq bombings were internally displaced people, living in pitiable conditions since 2009. Limited intelligence capabilities and lack of precision-guided weapons of the Saudi-led forces involved in this operation are bound to result in high collateral damage.
Instability in Yemen and the external military intervention have dragged the country and the region to the brink of an abyss.
The speed with which Saudi Arabia put together an anti-Houthi coalition took everyone by surprise. Even the United States stood dumbstruck as Saudi Ambassador Adel al-Jubair announced the launch of the decision of Saudi Arabia and other regional countries to intervene militarily “to defend and support the legitimate government of Yemen and prevent the radical Houthi movement from taking over the country”.
The timing of the operation suggests that the Saudis meant to send a message to Washington as well as Tehran. Riyadh launched the assault, despite the massive associated risks, in its effort to draw clear red lines for the United States about changes in the regional order precipitated by the US-Iran nuclear pact.
Saudi Arabia fears that its status as America’s main ally in the Arab world is imperilled by the US-Iran rapprochement. With the imminent withdrawal of embargoes and sanctions, and the presence of its own treasure trove of oil and gas resources, Tehran could challenge Riyadh’s position as a regional power.
In addition to demonstrating its resolve for the benefit of the Americans, Saudi Arabia seeks to dissuade Iran from intervention in its backyard. To buttress this point, the Saudis continually portray the Houthis as Iran-backed Shias, whereas in reality the Houthis are followers of Zaydism - theologically distinct from the Twelver Shiism in Iran. Moreover, the Houthis are being supported by followers of Abdullah Saleh’s who are not Shias.
Geostrategic interests in the naval chokepoint of the Sea of Aden, Bab al-Mandab also prompted the Saudis to undertake this operation. The oil trading countries in the coalition were apprehensive that the internal conflict in Yemen may spill over to the narrow strait through which approximately 3.3 million barrels of oil pass each day. The Houthis, if unchecked, could put a screw on this strategic area and threaten Saudi’s oil economy.
The confrontation between Houthis and Saudis had been brewing for some time.
Following the deadly suicide attacks on two mosques in Sanaa, that killed 137 people, the Houthi-controlled Supreme Revolutionary Committee called for “general mobilisation” to confront and eradicate terrorism. On March 20, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement, in a series of speeches accused Hadi of being a sympathiser of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and of commissioning terrorism against the Houthis.
Armed Houthi fighters formed an alliance with the Special Security Forces (SSF) loyal to Saleh to confront Hadi and his forces in Aden. The Houthi-Saleh coalition took control of the airport, military and government facilities in Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz.
Taiz is the 12th province to come under siege by the Houthis and is located midway between Sanaa and Aden. After repressing anti-Houthi protests in Taiz, the joint Houthi-Saleh coalition launched airstrikes on President Hadi’s Maasheeq palace in Aden.
The UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, called an emergency meeting of the Security Council to discuss the “rapid downward spiral” in Yemen. He warned that the violent confrontations were leading the country away from political settlement. He urged all parties to exercise maximum restraint and engage in “peaceful dialogue”. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Saud al-Faisal, warned the United Nations that “if no peaceful solution to the Houthi coup” was reached, Saudi Arabia was willing to take “the necessary steps”.
Hadi sent a desperate call for help to the Gulf Cooperation Council, requesting it to deploy its Peninsula Shield forces to contain the Houthi advance and implement a no-fly zone over Houthi-Saleh controlled territory. Sunni Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, had been increasingly uncomfortable as Ansar Allah (the wing of Houthi militiamen), allegedly backed by Iran, moved to expand their control towards southern Yemen.
The US commended the military action taken by the coalition against the Houthis and offered support “including intelligence sharing, targetting assistance, and advisory and logistical support for strikes against Houthi targets”. The US’ acquiescence to the intervention can be seen as an attempt to placate Saudi Arabia. US-Saudi relations have been strained because of the US-led P5+1 Lausanne talks with Iran over its nuclear programme.
The attack on Yemen embarrassed Pakistan as the Saudis announced that they were part of the coalition. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is indebted to the Saudis as he enjoyed their hospitality in exile. Notwithstanding the sensitivity of Pakistan’s relationship with Iran, he had little choice but to reassure Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz of the support of the Pakistani Army in this operation. Though Saudi media sources have claimed active Pakistani involvement in the anti-Houthi operation by dispatching naval ships and jets, Pakistan’s Defence Ministry maintains an ambiguous stance, hinting that its assets are to be used for the defence of Saudi Arabia.
The operation’s proclaimed intent of “protecting the Yemeni people” is very dubious. The Saudi regime had been wary of “Iranian expansionism” in Arab lands. The unsuccessful Saudi attempt to depose Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the US-Iranian reconciliation over Iran’s nuclear programme were seen as major setbacks. Operation Decisive Storm has momentarily stoked Saudi nationalism and it is portrayed as part of Saudi Arabia’s unswerving efforts to thwart the resurgence of Shiite forces in the region.
The Saudi military intervention has the potential to turn the conflict in Yemen into a regional war. Its enervating foray, besides overstretching its alliance partners by putting considerable strain on their military and financial resources, also risks bringing out in the open the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Even with US assistance, Saudi Arabia and its allies lack the capacity to effectively disrupt Houthi operations on the ground. If the airstrikes fail, the coalition will be compelled to intervene on the ground, further aggravating the situation. Saudi Arabia, a country that is itself grappling with significant internal challenges, is in no position to lead an out-and-out land invasion in Yemen. In 2009, the Houthis had captured many Saudi villages and towns before they returned to Yemen.
The roots of the conflict in Yemen are purely political. Yemen has little history of sectarian discord. Instability in the country has historically been due to the competition for resources, power and control. The powerful parties have maintained their position through systems of inclusion and exclusion, divide and rule. Though the Houthi movement derives its ideology to some extent from Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini, Iranian role in the current political upheaval is vastly exaggerated.
Arab League states, meeting in Egypt on March 29, announced the creation of a joint Arab military force to tackle the “unprecedented” rising threats to the region. This joint military is bound to be viewed as a dangerous Sunni-Arab nationalist force against minority groups in the region. Turkey, Lebanon and Iran may also get sucked into this sectarian vortex. Moreover, most of these Arab states have minority Shia populations and are gambling their internal stability.
Scholarly research on political unrest and civil wars has proved that foreign intervention on behalf of the losing side rarely produces the desirable outcomes - as in the case of the 1962 Yemen civil war, when Gamal Abdel Nasser cornered himself in a diplomatic pothole by intervening. Ironically, Operation Decisive Storm has itself disrupted all chances of besieged President Hadi reestablishing himself and coming back to power in Yemen. The air strikes are destroying the physical infrastructure of the Yemeni state, from which it will take decades to recover. The Saudi-led coalition needs to reopen their history books and take lessons from the past.
(The writer works as a Research Associate with the Delhi Policy Group)