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Divide and Don’t Conquer | Mellanöstern Tidningen Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
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Published On: Mon, May 8th, 2017

Divide and Don’t Conquer

The Saudi-led coalition that launched a devastating bombing campaign on northern Yemen has continued over two years. It is largely a coalition of those willing to be bought (such as Egypt, Sudan and Somalia) alongside the Saudis and the UAE. The rest of the GCC states are on the sidelines, with Oman opting out altogether. The coalition has adopted a rent-a-war approach, approach, in which Saudi or Emirati military are rarely to be seen. Both countries have hired Yemenis as mercenaries to kill their fellow Yemenis. I suppose this is one way of showing the world that it is really a Yemeni civil war and not foreign aggression from outside.

One of the oldest strategies for winning a war, or at least maintaining a regime, is the principle of “divide and conquer.” The Zaydi imams practiced this with expertise, working with certain tribes against other tribes rather than developing a central state with a military force. Former President Ali Abdullah Salih continued this practice, playing off tribal and regional rivalries at the same time as feigning alliances with foreign players. There is no longer a united front in play to benefit from the widespread insecurity and lack of agreement of the various factions. Framing the current war as a battle between Yemeni groups: two coalitions, the Huthis and Salih against Islah, Hiraak and even al-Qaida, leaves little chance that any of these groups can win an outright victory and unite Yemen as a viable state.

It is now apparent that the coalition has a major fault line: Saudi softening toward the Muslim Brotherhood by working with Yemen’s Islah party does not go over well with the Emiratis, who I suspect despise the Brotherhood more than they do they Huthis or Salih. Emirati support for Egypt’s Sisi should come as no surprise given Sisi’s disdain for the Brotherhood which he overturned. The recent protests in Aden on May 4 against Hadi’s dismissal of two figures popular with the Emiratis confirm the fact that enmity toward Salih and the Huthis does not mean support for Hadi who appears to be disliked, and even hated, by just about everyone. Aden Governor Aydarus al-Zubaydi, fired by Hadi, is not going to go away quietly. The idea that Hadi could ever be reinstated in a unified Yemen is wishful thinking. Yet the Saudis have no choice but to hang on to him, since his return is their fig leaf justification for the damage they inflict on Yemen. Their only chance of a political settlement would be to  send Hadi off in retirement to an exile palace next to Ben Ali.

Recent rumors of an immanent coalition attack on Hodeidah, the crippled port that supplies the trickle of humanitarian aid to the north, appear to reflect rhetoric rather than strategic planning. The Saudis would like to cut off even the minimal aid going to areas controlled by Salih and the Huthis, but the Emiratis do not seem on board with this. In addition to the humanitarian issue, an assault on Hodeidah, which is heavily populated, would result in a major loss of life, since the local population has little love for the coalition mercenaries. Unfortunately, it is hard to see what strategy prompted the war in the first place, so anything is possible, especially with Trump on his way to visit and no doubt praise the Saudis.

Billions of dollars worth of missiles and bombs will never conquer Yemen from the air, especially after the northern population has suffered so terribly over the past two years. Thus far it has been obvious that there is no viable ground war, despite the hiring of mercenaries to defeat Salih’s troops. With the Russians implying that any ground attack on Hodeidah or Sanaa would cross a red line, even the new American hawks might think twice before blessing such a plan. Trump’s people are surely aware that Putin’s red lines are much redder and fixed than those of Obama in Syria. So the fact that the two main coalition partners, the Saudis and the Emiratis are themselves divided makes conquest an impossible quest. Meanwhile, the suffering continues as the world looks the other way.

About the Author


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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, a Senior Postdoctoral Scholar at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and an expert advisor to MENA Tidningen.