Mellanöstern och Nordafrika Tidningen
Published On: Mon, Apr 3rd, 2017

The Toxic Proxy War over Yemen

A little over two years ago a coalition led by Saudi Arabia began a bombing campaign against its southern neighbor, the poorest and most populous country on the Arabian Peninsula. Although it was named “Decisive Storm,” it has proved to be far more divisive than decisive. This has led to a virtual military stalemate and a devastating humanitarian crisis. When a pyrrhic victory was declared by the coalition a mere month after the bombing started, the equally oxymoronic operation dubbed “Restoring Hope” was launched as a sequel. In fact the only thing restored was the continued aggression on all sides, leaving most Yemenis with hardly any sense of hope.

Yemen Peace Project team speaking to U.S. Congress

The war in Yemen is by all accounts a proxy war between the Saudi regime, which seeks to make its Wahhabi Salafi brand the paradigm of Sunni Islam, and Iran, which since the 1979 revolution has sought to expand its “Twelver” brand of Shi’a beyond its borders. Thanks to the American invasion of Iraq, once a major enemy of Iran, Iraq is now firmly aligned with Iran, as is Syria and the Hezbollah who control southern Lebanon. The northern flank of the “Fertile Crescent,” while not solidly “Shi’a”, is more sympathetic to Iran than any of the states on the Arabian Peninsula.

In contrast with regard to Yemen, the Zaydi brand of Shi’a Islam has never been a clone of the Iranian version. In many legal issues Zaydi Islam was closer to the Sunni schools and the Zaydi imamate as a polity ceased to exist in 1962. During the rule of Ali Abdullah Salih, Yemen was certainly no ally of Iran. Salih was a critical enemy of the nascent Huthi movement, which grew up in resistance to the Salafi propaganda against them, as well as Salih’s authoritarian rule and his dependence on American military support.

In addition to their rivalry with Iran, the Saudi regime, in which a royal family skims off much of the nation’s natural wealth for palaces, fancy cars and lavish lifestyles, is understandably concerned about a democratic state on their border. The idea that Yemen would ever invade and take over Saudi Arabia is absurd. During the civil war of the 1960s, the Saudis supported their fellow autocrat, Imam Badr, against the new republic supported by Egypt’s President Nasser. After the republic was formed, Saudi funding of Yemeni tribes and ministries accompanied their export of a conservative and intolerant Salafism that eventually led to the kind of resistance that the Huthis developed. When the Salafi school of Dar al-Hadith opened in Dammaj, in the middle of the Zaydi heartland, it villified the Zaydis as the wrong kind of Muslims.

The current conflict in Yemen is a complex political war using religious affiliation as a veneer. The alliances in the conflict blur genuine religious differences. The Huthis and Salih, once bitter enemies, are allied against the Saudi coalition. The Saudis, who had not long ago branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, are allied with the Yemeni Islah party (a Brotherhood clone) and by default also with the al-Qaida offshoot in the sense that both are against the Huthis and Salih. These are temporary and extremely porous alliances of political expediency. Consider that the American drone war in Yemen against al-Qaida (now known as Ansar al-Shariah) parallels the Huthi interest in eliminating this terrorist group. Yet the very group that the drones is supposed to be targeting is allied with Saudi Arabia against the Huthis and Salih.

In the Trump era, when truth has been twittered away and narcissistic bluster defies all logic, the facts on the ground mean nothing. The visit of Saudi prince Muhammad bin Salman to Washington has resulted in yet more weapons to be sold to the Saudis and increased exaggeration of the power and interests of the Huthi/Salih alliance. On March 29, the head of Central Command, Joseph Votel, told a congressional committee that there are “vital interests at stake” for the United States in the Gulf alliance’s fight against the Huthis. Vital interests? Reacting to the inflammatory rhetoric of Huthi propaganda is hardly a vital interest that would call for increased American military support to defeat a group that has the support of a majority of Yemen’s population and shares American hatred of al-Qaida in its territory. The idea that a Yemeni state, especially after the devastation that it has suffered, could blockade the entrance to the Red Sea is ridiculous. Trump’s advisors, like the Islamophobe Steve Bannon, seem hellbent on pushing an apocalyptic scenario in which Islam in any form is now the Antichrist of Western civilization. We now have an eschatological proxy war in the making on top of the current destruction in the Middle East.

Meanwhile Yemeni men, women and children are killed by all sides every day, but this receives scant attention in daily papers and major media outlets, which have given wide coverage to the violence against civilians in Syria and Iraq, especially the rise of the terrorist group of Daesh or ISIS.  It appears that over 400,000 Syrians have died since the fighting to topple the Asad regime began in 2011. In the aftermath of the American invasion of Iraq, as many as 500,000 died, directly or indirectly due to the fighting and its impact. Every day more die due the battle to reclaim Iraqi and Syrian territory from Daesh or ISIS. The death toll in Yemen due to fighting on all sides is not as catastrophic, at least 16,000 overall if not more since 2011. But the Saudi-led boycott of the areas controlled by the Huthi/Salih alliance, in addition to the insecurity in areas where Ansar al-Shariah (formerly al-Qaida) and Daesh are active, has created a situation in which a majority of the Yemeni population is facing a severe shortage of food, water and medicine. The UN estimates that over 14 million Yemenis are food insecure and over 3 million are internally displaced.

Every human rights organization, as well as the UN, is aware of the humanitarian crisis that gets worse every day from the lack of a viable resolution to a conflict that is not winnable in a military sense. On Thursday a group of three activists, including two Yemeni women, spoke to congress on behalf of the Yemen Peace Project, a non-aligned organization. Before they spoke about this crisis, the Yemen Embassy parroted the Saudi propaganda against any peace initiative by unfairly branding the speakers as pro-Huthi in a letter sent to the members of congress. No embassy should have the right to lobby congress or challenge who is invited to congress. These voices advocating peace are needed at a time when Trump is ignoring human rights and plunging American military involvement even deeper into the Middle East. The Saudi debacle in Yemen, coupled with the obvious militant response of the Huthi/Salih alliance and the spread of al-Qaida terrorism, will restore no hope to a people who continue to suffer a toxic catastrophe on all fronts.

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.