Robert F Worth writes: There is a scene in Safa al Ahmad’s remarkable BBC documentary, Yemen: The Rise of the Houthis [watch below], when a spokesman for the Houthi movement escorts her to a remote and unguarded section of the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. It is nothing more than a half-trampled barbed-wire fence, in a golden-brown landscape of dry hills and scattered acacia trees. “This means nothing, it represents nothing,” he says of the border. The Houthis, a once-obscure band of insurgents from the mountains of northern Yemen who adhere to the Zaydi branch of Shia Islam, have over the past few months taken over much of the country. “We cannot be defined by sect or confined by borders,” the spokesman says. “We will help oppressed people all over the world.” Then, flourishing a confident smile, he predicts the imminent demise of the House of Saud.
That moment of hubris, filmed late last year, acquired a sinister new meaning last week when Saudi Arabia launched a campaign of airstrikes on Yemen. The Saudis said their strikes — carried out with eight allied Arab and Muslim states — were meant to push back the Houthis. But the Saudis clearly intended their blitzkrieg as a blunt message to Iran, their great nemesis and rival, which has provoked the Saudis for several years now by providing money and weaponry to the Houthis.
Yemen, in other words, has become the latest proxy battleground in the sectarian struggle now playing out across the Middle East. It did not have to be this way. The Houthis, unlike Hezbollah and other Shiite movements, do not take directions from Tehran, and have received relatively small amounts of aid. (In the film, Houthi officials flatly deny any Iranian support, claiming they were equally close to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez.) Their Zaydi faith is doctrinally closer to Sunnism than to the Shiite Islam practiced in Iran. But the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states are feeling a profound defensiveness about Iranian power, which is on display every day in the wars in Syria and Iraq. They want to lay down a marker.
This chest-beating gesture could backfire catastrophically, even if it succeeds in weakening the Houthis. The Saudi airstrikes quickly destroyed most of Yemen’s military arsenal, including hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of American equipment. It will be all the more difficult now for any one faction to control the country. Militias of all kinds are sure to proliferate, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is based in Yemen and which has tried several times to detonate bombs on US-bound commercial airliners, will have more room to maneuver. All this could have terrifying consequences for ordinary people: Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country, and is rapidly running out of water. Getting food and water to 25 million people who are surrounded by a crazy-quilt of battling militias and jihadis could be almost impossible. [Continue reading…]
Brian Whitaker writes: The words “Iranian-backed” and “Houthi” are now coupled together in virtually every media report about the conflict in Yemen. Nobody – least of all, the Iranians – would deny that Iran supports the Houthis. But how extensive is that support and what forms does it take?
Where some kinds of support are concerned, Iran makes no attempt at disguise, as the International Crisis Group (ICG) noted in report last week:
“Since a Houthi delegation visited Tehran in March, Iranian support has become more vocal, promising economic aid that includes expanding ports, building power plants and providing fuel.”
But while “Iranian-backed” can be a factually accurate description (at least up to a point), it is also being used emotively to muster support for the Arab military intervention in Yemen. In their scaremongering about Iran, the Saudis in particular are now singing from Netanyahu’s song sheet. Writing in the New York Times, for example, Saudi propagandist Nawaf Obeid holds Iran – rather than the Saudi government – responsible for most of the kingdom’s ills. The Saudi leadership faces a number of issues,” he writes, “but most of them stem from Iranian aggressiveness.”
Some Saudis go so far as to assert that the conflict in Yemen is not about Yemen at all. Saudi Arabia needs to have a war with Iran, one of them coldly informed me last week – so it’s better to have the war on Yemeni soil than Saudi soil. [Continue reading…]
Abubakr al-Shamahi writes: The Saudi-led airstrikes on rebel targets in Yemen are showcasing Riyadh’s military might. The positions and bases of the Houthis, as well as army units controlled by former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, are being pummelled.
But what next? Are air strikes enough on their own? History says otherwise. Unless the push is to merely get concessions from the Houthis and Saleh in any negotiations, which now appears unlikely, the Saudi-led coalition will need forces on the ground to fight.
The obvious choice would be the Yemeni military. Yet this prospect appears to be diminishing by the day. The failure to restructure the military, the immunity given to Saleh for crimes committed during 2011, and even the Saudi decision to get Saleh back into the country, meant that come September 2014, Saleh was able to still maintain enough loyalty in the military to order them to largely step down as the Houthis took Sanaa.
Those units, which include some of the most elite in the army, now continue to advance across the country with the Houthis following closely behind. In response to this, the coalition bombing campaign has targeted the Saleh-controlled military, and military bases up and down Yemen are being destroyed. The consequence? The Yemeni military is being decimated and will not be able to secure such a highly weaponised country should these strikes not end soon. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The United Nations’ human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, warned on Tuesday that Yemen was on the brink of collapse, as his office said that heavy fighting in the southern port city of Aden had left its streets lined with bodies and its hospitals full of corpses.
Fierce clashes erupted on Monday as Shiite Houthi rebels, who are allied with Iran, pressed on with an offensive in Aden against fighters loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the exiled Yemeni leader, who is backed by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab states.
“The situation in Yemen is extremely alarming, with dozens of civilians killed over the past four days,” Mr. al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said in a statement. “The country seems to be on the verge of total collapse.”
“The killing of so many innocent civilians is simply unacceptable,” he added.
Houthi forces were reported to have pushed their way into Aden’s northeastern suburbs despite airstrikes by the Saudi Air Force and a naval blockade intended to sever the flow of weapons and other supplies to Houthi forces. [Continue reading…]
Vocativ: Saudis have found their poster boy for the multinational “Decisive Storm” campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — Mohammed bin Salman, the 35-year-old Minister of Defense. He also happens to be the son of the new Saudi King, Salman bin Abdul-Aziz.
Although Prince bin Salman lacks any military experience or education — he’s the youngest current defense minister internationally — he is quickly becoming one of the most influential figures in the kingdom and an internet celebrity in the Arabic-speaking world.
Since the beginning of the military operation in Yemen, Saudi Facebook users have created several fan pages in his honor and uploaded hundreds photos of him directing the war from his office, visiting soldiers on the battlefield and sitting in the cockpit of a fighter jet.
عندما شاهدت سمو الامير محمد بن سلمان يتحدث بالهاتف تذكرت المجيد الراحل صدام حسين قاهر المجوس pic.twitter.com/XyCYTn8fDt
— %عبدالله الاوتيبي% (@abdullah321882) March 30, 2015
غيرت صورة البايو .. طب و تخيّر صورتين للأسد محمد بن سلمان و كيف كمّـخ أذناب إيران pic.twitter.com/uYpuFiDe4f
— موجز الأخبار ™ (@11ksanews) March 29, 2015
Business Insider: The speed with which Yemen’s conflict escalated last week has taken many by surprise, with a Saudi-led Arab multinational force launching military operations after president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi fled the country by boat on March 25th.
And it’s especially awkward for the Obama administration.
Washington has held up Yemen as a counter-terror model, most notably during President Barack Obama’s September 10, 2014 speech announcing military operations against ISIS.
The idea is that the US would provide intelligence and forms of kinetic assistance (drones, special operations raids, and so on) to partner governments without committing ground troops or asking for internally disruptive political reforms.
The Yemen blow-up puts the administration in an awkward position. Saying the increasingly violent and ungoverned country is no longer a counter-terror model is tantamount to admitting that the premises behind the US’s anti-ISIS strategy are deeply flawed. But saying it is still a model means copping to just how narrow the US’s objectives in the Middle East really are.
A remarkable moment of candor on this front came on March 26 as it became apparent that Yemen’s recognized president had fled the country. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest appeared on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and was asked if Yemen’s breakdown in any way diminishes its appeal as a counter-terrorism model.
Earnest conceded that Yemen’s situation is dire, and then said: “The measure of the US policy should not be graded against the success or the stability of the Yemeni government. That’s a separate enterprise.
“The goal of us policy towards Yemen has never been to try to build a Jeffersonian democracy there. The goal of US policy in Yemen is to make sure Yemen cannot be a safe haven than extremists can use to attack the West and to attack the United States, and that involves trying to build up the capacity of the government to help us in that fight.”
IBT reports: The exodus of foreign diplomats and citizens from war-torn Yemen has surged in recent days amid Saudi-led airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed Houthi militias, who have taken over much of the country. China, India, Pakistan and Somalia have sent ships and planes to evacuate their citizens trapped in Yemen. The United States moved its embassy staff out of Yemen after suspending embassy operations in the capital Sanaa last month, and remaining military personnel were airlifted out last week. But the U.S. government has yet to announce any evacuation plans for Americans in Yemen.
Saudi Arabia’s campaign — which was coordinated with help from the United States — has Yemen landlocked, with the airports and major seaports shut down. Yemeni-Americans said they received no warning of the Saudi attack, and now they are desperate for alternate escape routes.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a San Francisco native who is currently in Sanaa, said he never received a response from the State Department. “The U.S. coordinated with Saudi on logistics, so they must have been aware of what was coming,” he told Al Jazeera. “And yet we received no warning. If India and Somalia can find a way to evacuate their nationals, why can’t the U.S.?” [Continue reading…]
Ian Black writes: Arab governments are watching the endgame of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme with barely-concealed alarm, fearing that the US is bent on a rapprochement with Tehran, not so much at any price, but certainly at the expense of its long-standing Gulf allies.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, has made clear its unhappiness with the emerging deal. Still, unlike Israel, which flatly opposes any agreement, Saudi Arabia has adopted a more subtle approach. Adel Jubeir, its ambassador to the US, pledged to wait to see the outcome before criticising it. Jubair also conspicuously refused to rule out the kingdom seeking its own nuclear weapons — a pointed reminder to Barack Obama of the nuclear proliferation risks if his Iran strategy does not succeed.
The Saudis have hinted for years that they would turn to Pakistan if they felt threatened by a nuclear Iran. Last year they displayed their Chinese-made intermediate-range ballistic missiles — capable of reaching Tehran — at a parade attended by the general who controls Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It was, said the Brookings Institution analyst Bruce Riedel, “ a very calculated signal”. [Continue reading…]
Adam Baron writes: Yemen has lately become a hot topic of rampant strategic pontification, pundits rushing to make bold sweeping statements that seek to explain the turbulence in this conflict-wracked nation as simply another front in a region-wide strategic context. But reality — as most who follow Yemen would attest — is far more complicated.
Last September, the Houthis — a Zaidi Shia rebel group — took effective control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, riding on a wave of popular discontent over the transitional government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. That government had been installed under a U.N.-backed deal mediated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to end the Arab Spring-inspired uprising against the country’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis quickly inked a deal with Hadi and other political factions, but tensions soon emerged. By the start of March, the government had resigned, while Hadi — after escaping house arrest by the Houthis in Sanaa — fled to Aden and declared it Yemen’s temporary capital. U.N.-mediated talks continued in search of a political settlement, while the Houthis moved to consolidate power. The power vacuum resulting from the steady collapse of Yemen’s political order had already proven a boon to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and deepened an economic and humanitarian crisis that had already left half of the country’s population food-insecure.
Any hope of an early resolution to the crisis among Yemen’s rival factions has been quashed by the Saudi-led anti-Houthi military offensive — euphemistically named “Resolute Storm.” Five nights into the air barrage, a return to calm seems as far away as ever, while the outcome of the Saudi-led intervention remains uncertain.
That’s because while the Arab League countries waging the air campaign portray the Houthi rebellion as a product of Iranian meddling, Yemen’s conflict remains in essence a local struggle for political power. It was spurred by the deterioration of central government control in the run-up to Saleh’s exit and then exacerbated by his successor’s inability to consolidate power — all of which created a perfect opening for the Houthis, whose complaints about corruption and widespread pernicious foreign influence seemed to resonate with more Yemenis than ever. The Houthi campaign, until the middle of last year, was largely a turf war against tribal opponents in the highlands of northern Yemen — a conflict in which Hadi and the central government alternately played mediator and disinterested observer. More recently, however, as the Houthis grew stronger, they began directly challenging Hadi and his backers — with the support of their ally of convenience, former President Saleh. Houthis forged the partnership with Saleh more than a year ago, fueled by their mutual distaste for the Islah party, a Yemeni faction that includes the bulk of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. [Continue reading…]
Reuters: Iran-allied Houthi militiamen pushed into the northeastern outskirts of the Yemeni port city of Aden on Monday amid heavy clashes with loyalists of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi apparently backed by Saudi-led air strikes.
Witnesses heard loud explosions and saw a thick column of black smoke and a jet flying overhead. Hadi’s supporters earlier said artillery and rocket fire hit the approaches to the city after the Houthis made a fresh advance from the east along an Arabian Sea coast road.
As the two sides fought over Hadi’s last bastion, humanitarian workers said an air strike in the northern Yemen district of Haradh killed 21 people at a refugee camp near to a military installation.
Reuters: Warships shelled a column of Houthi fighters and troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh as they tried to advance on the southern port city of Aden on Monday, residents said, the first known report of naval forces taking part in the conflict.
They said the vessels were believed to be Egyptian warships that sailed last week through the Suez Canal toward the Gulf of Aden. Egypt is a member of the Saudi-led coalition that has been targeting Houthi positions to stem their advance on Aden, a last foothold of fighters loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
An editorial for the Yemen Times says: Today there is an estimated 320,000 combatants spread across 11 factions in Yemen and all are preparing for war. The majority of these combatants are young people between the ages of 15 and 24. They are under-fed, under-equipped, and under-trained youngsters who have little knowledge of where this is heading, but what they do know is that there is violence coming down the road. In such a situation, their AK-47 is going to be their best friend and potential life saver, which they can not afford to let go silent in the near future.
These 11 factions are spread across the country and most have their geographic strongholds. The expected meeting point is the Taiz-Aden-Al-Baida triangle, with spillovers in every city across the country. The conflict is likely to be protracted given the incapacity of any party to declare a quick victory, and the human cost may be unprecedented. This is indeed a serious and frightening scenario for Yemen, considering that these factions are still actively recruiting and the war propaganda machine is in full swing. Today’s situation was rather difficult to imagine just a year ago. [Continue reading…]
Nussaibah Younis writes: Saudi Arabian air strikes against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have been touted as the latest escalation in a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. As the two countries continue to train, finance and equip rival militants in the Syrian civil war, and to support opposing sides in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Yemen, fears have been raised about where this now-militarised regional rivalry could go.
But talk of a proxy war risks over-estimating the level of power Saudi Arabia and Iran wield, and overlooking the local actors who truly shape the conflicts in question. The Houthi movement has been able to advance across Yemen largely because of its alliance with the ancien régime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because of its ability to tap into disillusionment with the poor performance of the Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi government. Though Iran may have helped to hone the effectiveness of the Houthi movement, it is neither the cause of nor a major player in the emerging Yemeni civil war.
That reality, however, is lost on a Saudi Arabia that is so fearful of Iran’s mounting influence in the region that it has instigated air strikes that are more likely to exacerbate than to resolve the conflict in neighbouring Yemen. [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: Oversized military trucks painted in desert beige hauled tanks in the same camouflage color down a dark highway late Saturday past glowing billboards in the Saudi Arabian town of Jazan.
With the border with Yemen little more than 20 miles away, the trucks captured on a video distributed by the news agency Reuters also carried a message: Suggestions of a ground incursion into Yemen, which is in the throes of a Houthi rebel uprising, may be more than just talk.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt have both spoken about the possibility of putting boots on the ground before. And on Saturday, Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen said he expected coalition troops to be in Yemen within days.
Saudi leaders have said that if troops do go in, they won’t leave until they have degraded the Houthis’ ability to do battle, CNN’s Ian Lee reported. The Houthis are apt guerrillas. A fight on the ground could prove bloody and lengthy. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The first three days of airstrikes by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia have destroyed Yemen’s fleet of fighter aircraft and crippled military command centers, dealing a blow to Houthi insurgents, a senior defense official in Riyadh said.
In a statement published Saturday evening by the Saudi Press Agency, Brig. Gen. Ahmed bin Hasan Asiri said that rebels “are no longer possessing” jet fighters. The coalition air raids also destroyed most of the groups’ arsenal of ground-to-ground ballistic missiles and command-and-control centers, he said.
Analysts say that the attacks are part of strategy to eliminate the air defenses, weapons arsenals and communication lines of the Shiite insurgents so as to ease the way for a potential land invasion. Many residents in the destitute Arabian Peninsula nation fear a ground assault, and. Gen. Asiri hinted that the Saudi-led campaign would continue, telling the news agency that the first phase of attacks had been “achieved.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: The meltdown in Yemen is pushing the Middle East dangerously closer to the wider regional conflagration many long have feared would arise from the chaos unleashed by the Arab Spring revolts.
What began as a peaceful struggle to unseat a Yemeni strongman four years ago and then mutated into civil strife now risks spiraling into a full-blown war between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran over a country that lies at the choke point of one of the world’s major oil supply routes.
With negotiators chasing a Tuesday deadline for the framework of a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, it seems unlikely that Iran would immediately respond militarily to this week’s Saudi airstrikes in Yemen, analysts say.
But the confrontation has added a new layer of unpredictability — and confusion — to the many, multidimensional conflicts that have turned large swaths of the Middle East into war zones over the past four years, analysts say.
The United States is aligned alongside Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and against them in Yemen. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who have joined in the Saudi offensive in Yemen, are bombing factions in Libya backed by Turkey and Qatar, who also support the Saudi offensive in Yemen. The Syrian conflict has been fueled by competition among all regional powers to outmaneuver one another on battlefields far from home.
Not since the 1960s — and perhaps going back even further — has there been a time when so many Arab states and factions were engaged in so many wars, in quite such confusing configurations, said Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Arab leaders vowed Saturday to back the embattled Yemeni president as a Saudi Arabia-steered coalition intensified airstrikes across Yemen, developments that could mark preparations for a possible land invasion targeting the country’s Houthi insurgents.
In the southern city of Aden, a hotbed of anti-Houthi sentiment and a possible starting point for a coalition ground assault, one politician described a situation of “great chaos” as the insurgents pressed their advance on the city. Meanwhile, the Saudi Press Agency reported that the desert kingdom’s navy had evacuated 86 diplomats from Aden by ship on Wednesday.
Support for Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who fled Aden for Saudi Arabia this past week, was firmly voiced by leaders of regional powers attending the Arab League summit Saturday in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh — a rare sign of unity in a region rife with war and divisions. [Continue reading…]
Kenneth M. Pollack writes: The news that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states along with Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Sudan have launched air strikes against Houthi forces in Yemen should give every American pause. Yes, the Houthis are Shi’a who receive some degree of backing from Iran, but this is a very dangerous escalation that is unlikely to improve the situation in Yemen and risks the stability of Saudi Arabia over the medium to long term. Moreover, the Iranian role has been greatly exaggerated in what is first and foremost a Yemeni civil war.
Even with U.S. assistance, the GCC and its coalition partners lack the capacity to break Houthi ground operations the way that American air power has been able to smash ISIS ground operations in Iraq and Syria. With enough American help, they could certainly inflict some harm on the Houthis, but they are unlikely to be able to materially shift the balance of power. If the airstrikes fail, as seems more likely than not, there is a real danger that these same states will decide to intervene on the ground—and that intervention will be largely composed of Saudi forces.
As I warned in a previous post on Yemen co-authored with the highly-regarded scholar of civil wars, Barbara Walter, a compelling body of scholarly research on civil wars has found that interventions into civil wars on behalf of the losing side rarely produce a rapid, negotiated settlement. Instead, they typically prolong the conflict, producing more death and devastation. Of greatest importance in this case, they also have a bad habit of overstressing the intervening state—especially when that state has limited capabilities and internal problems of its own. [Continue reading…]
Frederic Wehrey writes: Citing a request for outside intervention by Yemen’s deposed President Abd-Rabu Mansour Hadi, the governments of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, and Jordan have launched an aerial intervention against the so-called Houthi movement in Yemen. Egypt has four warships en route to Aden in southern Yemen and has expressed willingness to “send ground troops if necessary,” while Turkey is considering providing logistical support. Sudan and Pakistan are also reportedly joining the operation.
The Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah in Arabic, or God’s Partisans, are a Zaidi Shia movement that began a rebellion in northern Yemen in 2003–2004. In the chaos following the Arab Spring revolutions and the internationally overseen removal of Yemen’s long-serving authoritarian ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, the Houthis expanded their power base—apparently with Iranian support—to undermine the Saudi-backed Hadi government.
In 2014, the Houthis linked up with allies of the Saleh family, which is still angling for a way to recapture power, and rapidly pushed south, capturing the capital, Sanaa. They then moved on to Aden, where Hadi had fled before leaving the country by sea on March 25 (it was announced that he arrived in Riyadh on March 26). Meanwhile, a separate Salafi-Sunni insurgency led by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to rage in the south and east of the country, with the self-proclaimed Islamic State having recently raised its own profile in Yemen by publicizing a string of gruesome massacres. [Continue reading…]
Reuters: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Iran on Thursday of trying to dominate the Middle East and said its efforts have begun annoying Ankara, as well as Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab countries.
Turkey earlier said it supports the Saudi-led military operation against Houthi rebels in Yemen and called on the militia group and its “foreign supporters” to abandon acts which threaten peace and security in the region.
“Iran is trying to dominate the region,” said Erdogan, who is due to visit Tehran in early April. “Could this be allowed? This has begun annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is really not tolerable and Iran has to see this,” he added in a press conference.
The New York Times reports: Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.
Egypt must “fulfill the calls of the Yemeni people for the return of stability and the preservation of the Arab identity,” he said, alluding to the specter of Iranian influence.
His comments were one of several indications on Thursday that the antagonists on either side of the Yemeni conflict are bracing for a prolonged battle as Yemen — like Iraq, Libya and Syria — is consumed by civil conflict, regional proxy wars and the expansion of extremist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. [Continue reading…]