By Pier Francesco Zarcone*
ROME (IDN) – The US government intends to increase military aid to Saudi Arabia in its war against Yemen, according to recent reports. For the vast majority of the general public the news may be surprising, given that the ongoing conflict in Yemen is almost “non-news” as a result of the almost complete silence of the mainstream media. More importantly, most people probably do not know the causes.
From monarchy to republic
A summary reconstruction of the troubled and bloody history of Yemen can start in 1962, when a military coup backed by Egypt deposed the last monarch, Zaydi Shiite Muhhammad al-Badr, and the Republic was proclaimed.
However, mountain tribes – supplied by Saudi Arabia – continued to support the king, leading to a bloody civil war in which Egyptian troops intervened directly (it was Nasser’s small Vietnam).
The civil war ended at in the late 1960s (partly because of Egypt’s disengagement as a result of defeat in the Six-Day War against Israel) thanks to agreements between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which essentially “dropped” al-Badr. Victory went to the Republicans. So much for the north of Yemen.
In the south, controlled by Britain, which had set up the Federation of South Arabia, the National Liberation Front (Marxist) started a guerrilla war in 1963 against the British, finally forcing London to grant independence to South Yemen, where the People’s Republic of Yemen (which became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970) was established in 1967 with Aden as its capital, and with the distinction of being the only communist state in the Arab world.
Attempts at unification between the two Yemeni Republics date back to the early 1970s, but to no avail until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1990, North and South Yemen reunited. It was an unhappy union, because the communists in the south soon realised their error and in 1994 tried to secede. The army remaining loyal to the unity government, much stronger than the secessionist army and also supported by elements in the south, subdued the rebellion during the same year.
It is interesting to note that the rebels had received help from Saudi Arabia which, regardless of the profound ideological difference with them, did not look kindly on Yemeni unification, which it considered could become a dangerous pole of attraction for the hegemonic pretensions of Riyadh over the Arabian Peninsula.
At this point we jump to the present century.
Revolt of the Houthi
To understand current events, it is necessary to explain who are the Houthis and their movement Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God. They are part of Yemen’s large Zaydi Shiite minority (an ancient Islamic current present only in this country, more akin to the Sunnis than to the rest of the Shia world) and take their name from their first military commander, Hussein Badr ad-Din al-Houthi.
The Ansar Allah movement was established in 1992, sponsored by the al-Houthi family to revive Zaydi Shi’ism in the country, but not limited to that: it was also involved in obtaining more space for participation in Yemeni political life, better conditions for social development and recognition of legal status for its religious confession.
This profile also had important economic implications within the family sphere: for example, Sunni male heirs could expect up to twice the share of females, while for inheritance for the Houthi had to be divided equally, regardless of the gender of heirs.
Relations with the Yemeni government plunged after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 – as the Houthi took sides with Saddam Hussein – and the repression ordered by President Abdullah Saleh led the Houthi to armed revolt.
This became an active component of the wider sphere of Yemeni politics in 2011, when rebel leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi spoke out in support of the popular movement, calling for the resignation of Saleh. Disappearing from the scene in late 2011, the interim presidency was assumed by Field Marshal Rabbih Mansur Hadi (originally from the south), who was elected president the following year with a two-year mandate (elections boycotted by the Houthi).
Contrary to the one-year extension to the presidential term, the Houthi took up arms and in the autumn of 2014 captured the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. With a political agreement imposed on Hadi having little success, the Houthi occupied the presidential palace, had Hadi resign, imprisoned him, dissolved the Parliament and formed a revolutionary committee to govern the country.
In February 2015, Hadi escaped from Sana’a to Aden, where he proclaimed himself the legitimate president and established his capital.
The United States, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf monarchies gave their support to Hadi, but the Houthi also had to deal with the local section of al-Qaeda which had managed to occupy some areas in the central part of the country.
Despite not being able to occupy Aden, the Houthi – backed by part of the Yemeni army, including units that remained loyal to former President Saleh – extended their territorial control, reaching up to the important Strait of Bab el-Mandeb and, marching on Aden, seized the international airport and on March 25, 2015, forced Hadi to flee and seek refuge in Saudi territory.
The following day, Saudi Arabia announced the creation of a coalition of Sunni states to restore Hadi to power and began the bombing of Yemen. The coalition was nominally made up of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan, but the main effort came from Saudi troops.
Once again, the absence of any legal cover (even if formal or formalistic) to this bellicose intervention stands out. A coalition with a blatantly anti-Iranian motivation given that Tehran – for geo-strategic, political, economic and religious reasons – was obviously on the side of the Houthi. It was clear, moreover, that their victory in Yemen would have dangerous consequences for Saudi Arabia and the Arab petromonarchies, because it could give fresh impetus to their religiously, politically and economically oppressed Shiite minorities (in Bahrain, the Shiites have a numerical majority). That also would mean an extension of the area of Iranian influence in the region.
Also for this reason – and even though Saudi Arabia is known to be the creator and financier of a vast worldwide network of radical mosques and seminaries, breeding grounds for various kinds of extremists – on the Yemeni issue it also enjoys concrete Western support, particularly of the United States and France. The coasts of Yemen are under naval blockade by the US Fifth Fleet and French aid consists of supplies and mercenaries through the military base in Djibouti.
On paper, it should have been a short-term conflict, if for no other reason than the overwhelming superiority of the Saudi coalition. However, once again – and at least to date – it has been demonstrated that it is illusory to take victory for granted on the simple basis of numbers (that is, not considering the human factor and real motivations).
Those resisting Saudi aggression know why and what they are fighting against; what is in doubt, however, is the degree of awareness of the troops of the reactionary Arab monarchies or their moral support. What we do is know that French mercenaries and US pilots in Saudi ranks fight for a bonus of about 75,000 dollars per mission, and the reward for their Saudi colleagues consists of a Bentley automobile donated by Prince Walid bin Talal.
Until now, the war in Yemen has been a total disaster for the Saudis and their allies, and meanwhile the Hadramaut region has become a real “sanctuary” for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The Houthi and their allies have demonstrated an unexpected degree of resistance and capacity for counter-attack which has shown the coalition up in a very bad light due to the unnecessary loss of military and war materials considered ultramodern (in this regard, the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar has called Aden “the graveyard of AMX Leclerc tanks” of which the French Armed Forces are so proud).
This could not fail affect cohesion of the coalition itself. In fact, Pakistan, Egypt and the Emirates have quit in a big way.
Today, Yemeni capacity for retaliation against Saudi airstrikes allows them to launch missiles that can even reach military bases near Riyadh, but the fact remains that, in the silence of the international community, the Saudis are massacring Yemen from the skies, creating a situation of absolute humanitarian emergency.
Moreover, it is mostly civilian installations and population centres devoid of real health care that are being bombarded. There are about three million internally displaced and at least 200,000 people have fled abroad; the need for food assistance is very high for about 80% of the population, together with the shortage of drinking water, electricity, fuel and medicine.
Yet another demonstration of the futility of international organisations is the fact that, with the United Nations having started to accuse Saudi Arabia of using unconventional weapons such as cluster bombs and chemical weapons – the precursor for an accusation of war crimes – Riyadh is threatening to reduce the funds its pays to the United Nations and all its agencies (including UNRWA), as well as have Saudi ulema issue a fatwa classifying the United Nations as an “enemy of Islam”.
Neverthless, unexpected shadows are also being cast over Saudi Arabia. It is well known that allies of the United States can never be sure of the duration of the bond with Washington, not knowing when they will be badly and suddenly “dumped”, with or without legal cover.
Washington has drawn up legal cover at the expense of Riyadh: on September 9 last year, the US Congress approved the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), which makes it possible to act against Saudi Arabia to obtain compensation for damage caused on September 11, 2001, by terrorists who were Saudi nationals. Damage related to 3,000 deaths, destruction of the World Trade Centre – estimated at 95 billion dollars – and the destruction and loss of public services, for a total of at least 3,000 billion dollars!
A “sword of Damocles” is now ready, and time will tell.
* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: la Quinta (The Fifth). This article originally appeared in Italian under the title Yemen: Una Guerra Imperialista Silenziata in Utopia Rossa. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 30 March 2017]
Photo: Yemeni capital Sanaa after airstrikes, 9 October 2015. Credit; Wikimedia Commons
IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate