Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Tue, Sep 8th, 2015

As Sana’a becomes Aleppo

Thus far the Saudi-led proxy war against the Houthi/Salih coalition in Yemen has mainly been continual and often indiscriminate bombing from the air. Although a minor force entered at the port of Aden and was able to drive the Houthi/Salih troops out, this was largely due to help from local militia, including those of Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaeda offshoot. 

The Old City of Sana'a, a UNESCO Heritage Site (photo: Daniel Martin Varisco).

The Old City of Sana’a, a UNESCO Heritage Site (photo: Daniel Martin Varisco).

It seemed from the start that no one in the coalition was willing to commit ground troops for what would be a gruelling advance, even with complete air support. As the Egyptians learned in their support for the new northern republic in the middle 1960’s, it is almost impossible to uproot Yemeni tribesmen on their own terrain. Nasser committed up to 55,000 Egyptian troops and lost at least 15,000. Reports are now saying that some 10,000 troops of Saudis, Somalis, Egyptians and other Gulf Arabs are entering the fray for an attack on Sana’a.

Sana’a is without a doubt one of the best preserved traditional cities in the entire Middle East. I have walked the streets of Sana’a since 1978, marvelling at the beauty and simplicity of this peaceful city. If you want to see its old splendour, look at this 1971 film by the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The city has expanded exponentially since then, as many rural Yemenis came to the capital and left their farms. As the world stands by in apathy to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where civilians are mutilated and killed every day by the bombing, we may witness the Old City, a UNESCO heritage site, go the way of Aleppo. Take a look at the picture above of Sana’a and imagine what it will look like if there is major bombardment and street to street fighting. All of this can be stopped, of course, but there appears to be no will for negotiation among the major warring parties. At this stage of the conflict it is ridiculous to take sides or say that any faction will “win” this bloody war. All are guilty, as Amnesty International has documented, of war crimes. All sides continue to broadcast intolerant rhetoric, polarizing Sunni and Shi’a in a way never before experienced in Yemen.


There are several scenarios for the next few weeks. Perhaps it is a bluff, massing troops to force the Houthis to abandon Sana’a. If so, it is quite a gamble, as there really is nowhere else for the Houthis to go, given the destruction of Sa’da and other northern enclaves. Also, any deal must involve Salih, whose troops are the real obstacle to any advance on Sana’a.  Perhaps the coalition thinks they can sweep into Sana’a on a well-armed blitzkrieg. But the only chance for any success would be to buy the loyalty and assistance of the local tribes.  Historically, trained soldiers and tribesmen do not work well together for a coordinated attack. There also may be reluctance, given that many of the residents of Sana’a have tribal roots outside the area of current Houthi control. Perhaps the planners of this ground operation simply have no respect for the major loss of life and destruction that an invasion of Sana’a would entail. One thing is certain: the damage already done by the bombing has made few friends among those sitting out the war in Yemen. It is not so much a matter of support for the Houthis or Salih among the local population as it is incredible frustration at the damage already done by the bombing. If the incoming troops think they will be welcomed with flowers, they should think again.

I sincerely hope the escalation of this conflict will force compromise. Continued fighting and exploitation of the Sunni/Shi’a divide will be disastrous for the entire region. All the development aid money in the world will not restore the loss of life and property and the emotional trauma caused by this needless war. Nor will a ground assault be successful without a major loss of life on all sides. It is time, indeed past time, for world leaders to weigh in on this devastation rather than expediting arms shipments for the killing and yielding to the dangerous rhetoric of hate cursing the Islamic world today. Yemen is being raped; this is not too strong a term for the humanitarian crisis that the fighting has brought. Take another look at the picture of the Old City of Sana’a above because you may never see it like this again.

About the Author

- Anthropologist and historian with 40 years of experience researching and working in Yemen. Varisco is currently the President of the American Institute for Yemeni Studies, Senior Fellow at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg of Bonn University, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.

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