by NewsStand

The Saudi led intervention in Yemen has only just started, but it is already difficult to predict any positive outcome to it, such are the risks and unknowns involved in it. Seen largely – through Western eyes – as another chapter in the ongoing regional war between Shia and Sunni, there is actually more to this conflict than a mere sectarian divide. The events unfolding right now could be the endgame to developments going as far back as 1990, with the failed unification of Yemen gradually turning into a fragmentation process that became more apparent after 2004 and has been fast-tracked in 2011 by the “Arab Spring”.

The name of the ongoing operation – “Decisive Storm” – sounds like the title of a bad Hollywood thriller, and it probably doesn’t deserve any better. Presented as the joint effort of 10 nations led by Saudi-Arabia, the announcement of this coalition wasn’t made by the Saudi King or his son (the minister of Defence), but by the Saudi Ambassador to the US, which is quite telling already. The official reason for launching air-strikes against the Houthi “rebels“, who control the capital and most of North and West Yemen, was the ousting of the supposedly legitimate President, Abd Rabbuh Masur Hadi, who had taken refuge in his home town of Aden and was forced to flee to Saudi-Arabia, as Houthi forces were closing in on the former capital of the South.

This trigger event though is only the latest development in a series of wars, sectarian struggles and political feuds in a country that has not really been at peace ever since it was united, in 1990. In fact, the misguided process of unification and its end-product, the Yemeni version of the “Arab Spring“, have brought back all those elements of dissent and outside meddling that had been the trademark of politics in this corner of the Arabian Peninsula.

A failed State from the outset ?

In its current borders, Yemen is the product of a now failed attempt at gluing together two countries, with different historic, religious and political backgrounds. Indeed, up until 1990, North and South Yemen were separate entities.

The North had been a Shia Zaydi Kingdom, until a coup fomented with the help of Nasser’s Egypt turned it into the “Yemen Arab Republic“, in 1962. For several years, a civil war tore the country apart, with the monarchist rebels inflicting very painful losses to the Egyptian expeditionary force, up to the point where some in Egypt considered Yemen to be their “Vietnam“, just as Afghanistan should be to the Soviets some 20 years later.

Oddly enough, it didn’t seem awkward at the time that the Zaydi (Shia) rebels were being funded, supported and armed by the Saudi Wahhabi monarchy, which is now launching airstrikes against the sons and grand-sons of their former allies. This is also the same Saudis who had been at war with the Zaydi Emirate in the 1930s, annexing three provinces (Assir, Najran and Jizan), a loss the Yemenis have never completely forgotten nor forgiven. But Yemeni politics and history are no strangers to reversals of alliances, as recent events also have shown.

The South on the other hand became the pro-soviet “People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen” in 1967 and was formed mainly out of two areas, around the former British colony of Aden and the Hadhramaut region, home to the bin Laden dynasty. Civil war was no stranger to the history of that State either, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the unification of both entities didn’t go exactly smoothly.

Internal dissent and outside interference

As has been noted more often than not, the population of the North and South are quite different in certain regards. There is definitely a sectarian divide, but up until a few years ago it has never been a key element to the infighting and power struggle going on within Yemen. The situation could be described more accurately as a sectarian divide coinciding with differences in power structures and clan or tribal allegiances.

In addition to internal dissent, the Saudis also did their best to stir things up, always playing a game of divide and conquer – or divide and weaken – directed at a potentially dangerous and more populated neighbour in the South. With the Yemeni central government never managing to bridge the gap between the various factions, tribes, and religious groups that were the driving forces in the country’s political landscape, this was enough to make sure things got sufficiently out of hand for Yemen not being able to overcome the difficulties inherent to any unification process.

In the eyes of the Saudis in particular, the existence of a Republic at their Southern border, even though not a model democracy, was deeply resented as a risk to the foundations of their own monarchy, given the intense exchanges that existed between both countries, in particular through the numerous Yemenis who made up a substantial part of the immigrant work-force in Saudi-Arabia. The formerly Shia Emirate and Kingdom that had existed in Northern Yemen added to that resentment, as it had been an intolerable challenge to the Wahhabi fundamentalists in Riyadh.

Settling old scoresAgainst all these odds, a single man managed however to stay in power from 1990 until the “Arab Spring” of 2011. Ali Abdallah Saleh, already president of North Yemen since 1978, avoided assassination by rival tribal leaders, but he mainly accomplished this performance by letting the country slip out of control, leaving fundamentalist Sunni forces in the South and East slowly build-up their influence, with the help of the Saudis. He remained basically one among a number of regional leaders, whose power base extended from the capital Sanaa to most of the Zaydi North.

His eviction from the Presidency however, in the aftermath of the mass protests that took place in Sanaa in the Spring of 2011, should not be construed as a victory for pro-democracy forces. Rather, it was the fundamentalists and their Saudi sponsors who took over, while being careful enough not to be too visible in Western media. These Sunni tribal leaders, all of them Salafis and some of them open supporters of Al Qaeda, had advocated for a fairer share of the State (and its benefits) for as long as Saleh was in power. What they couldn’t get through negotiation, they finally took through a pseudo-revolution …

Saleh was ousted, but he hadn’t given up on reclaiming power either for himself or his clan and family. In one of those reversal of alliances that Yemen is familiar with, Saleh and part of the army chose to get into some form of agreement – some might call it an implicit alliance – with the Zaydi Houthis of the North. For years, Saleh had been a staunch adversary of the rebels and had waged several campaigns against them, starting in 2004. After 2011 however, he realized that the Houthis were the only force left with a chance to turn the tide.

The Houthi take-over

In September 2014, the Houthis were finally able to take hold of the capital, Sanaa. Although they are a Shia group, who did never hide their sympathies for the Islamic Republic of Iran as well  as their opposition to Israel or the US war on terror, one shouldn’t consider their victory as that of a sectarian group only.

Of course, there’s no denying that the sectarian rift has deepened again in the last ten years, through an combination of elements, not least President Saleh’s wars against the Houthis from 2004 on. Having accused them of being religious fundamentalists with strong ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Saleh contributed to raising the antagonism between the Northern Zaydis and the Salafi groups and Al Qaeda franchise which established bases in the South and East around the same time.

This rationale of sectarian violence should not be overstated though. The Houthis in particular have always been very vocal in making demands that include a wide array of social, economic and political matters, thus diversifying their following far beyond the Zaydi tribes only.

In that regard, it is interesting to observe that the Houthi offensive which led to the taking of Sanaa in September of last year actually started because of an end of the State subsidizing oil prices. The doubling of fuel costs and the loss in purchasing power among ordinary Yemenis of various creeds and political “couleur” gave the Houthis a much wider support, one that could help explain their spectacular military success.

A broken country

On the other hand, the Houthi leadership also made use of the popular support they had gained in order to get even with some of their oldest and fiercest enemies, in particular Ali Muhsin, the former head of the army’s 1st armour division, who had been so relentless in his war against the Houthis. Other political adversaries were also victim of intimidation tactics. The closing of various religious schools, in particular the Al-Iman mosque of Sanaa, which had been run by a former associate of Ossama bin Laden, bears testimony to the sectarian dimension of this war.

Overall however, the fault lines in Yemeni politics have been blurred by years of nepotism and outside meddling, and the latest cycle of violence should be seen more as the confrontation between various confederations of interests rather than two sides entrenched in clear-cut and opposing views. The ancient and long established tribal structures are being reshaped not only by the new alliances that have been formed, but also by the social and political demands of ordinary Yemenis, in the urban areas in particular. 

To put it simply, and based on events on the ground, the Houthis and the supporters of the Saleh clan, many of them in the military and among Sunni tribes opposed to Saleh’s successor, are facing a coalition of three forces: the Salafi inspired tribes in the South and East, the local Al Qaeda franchise in Yemen (AQAP), and the Islamic party “Al-Islah“, sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Saudi encirclement syndrome

While the conquest of the capital Sanaa didn’t cause any foreign reaction – that is no action either from the US or the Saudis – recent territorial gains by the Houthis and their allies seem to have changed the nature of the game. Two simultaneous developments have contributed to this development.

The Houthis and their allies among the military who remained loyal to former President Saleh have pushed forward in two directions that must have set off alarm bells all over the region, as well as in Washington. On the one hand, they have consistently advanced towards the Southern port of Aden, which they control now at least in part, despite the Saudi airstrikes that have been launched for over a week now. A stronghold of Saleh’s and the Houthis’ enemies, some of whom had to be evacuated to Egypt and Saudi-Arabia, Aden is vital for its access to the sea and its control over part of the South.

In another even more important move, the Houthis have also been trying to get to the port of Mocha, located on the Red Sea. This is truly a development of strategic significance, as any success in claiming the port would enable the Houthis to take hold of the coastal area close to the Bab el Mandeb – the Mandeb Strait – which commands entry to the Red Sea. The Mandeb Straight is just as vital to navigation through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal as the Straight of Hormuz is to the Arabian/Persian Gulf. It is a crucial artery not just for Yemen and Saudi-Arabia, but also to countries such as Egypt, Sudan and others.

Seeing the Mandeb Straight fall into the hands of a force supposedly – and probably – helped by Iran was the “red flag” that called for the formation of the Saudi led coalition. For the Saudis in particular, entrenched as they are in their sectarian war against Iran and the “Shia Crescent“, the Houthi take-over of Yemen and the Mandeb Straight would feel like one more piece in their encirclement by the Iranians.

According to the Saudis’ logic, they already consider Iraq – in its Shia parts – as well as Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah areas to be part of an arch of encirclement on their Northern flank. But this Saudi syndrome of seeing the invisible hand of Tehran everywhere, including in places where it wasn’t present sometimes, goes further still. The Eastern oil rich provinces of the Kingdom also have a Shia majority. So has Bahrain, despite being ruled by a Sunni family. Seeing another piece of the puzzle fall “into Shia hands“, this time in the South, must have pushed the Saudi leadership over the edge.

A fictional coalition

A careful study of the “coalition” that was put together sheds an interesting light on its nature. Officially, the air, land and sea components that have been assembled under the operational leadership of Saudi-Arabia look impressive. In fact, they are all but impressive. The airstrikes will certainly do some damage to Houthi infrastructure and will impede their ability to deploy much further than they already have. However, it remains to be seen whether these airstrikes will prevent the Houthis and their allies from taking control of Aden and, more importantly maybe, Mocha and the Red Sea coastal areas around the Mandeb Straight.

Ten nations have joined in the common effort of pushing back the Houthis, although only two or three of them really do matter militarily. This almost looks like the local equivalent to George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing“. The token armies of the Gulf States are not going to put fear into the heart of the Houthi mountain warriors or the Special Forces of the Yemeni army who remained loyal to Saleh. With even a country like Sudan in the coalition, you might wonder why the Saudis haven’t also thrown Somalia into the mix !

An under-strength military force

The only heavy weights in this rag-tag confederation are Egypt and Pakistan. Both countries however have trouble in their own backyard and are unlikely to be to looking for another fight.

In truth, the Egyptians have a strategic interest in keeping open the access to and from the Red Sea. Their naval presence there and in the Gulf of Aden could point to some willingness on their part to also organise limited operations along the coast, in order to prevent any take-over of these areas by forces too friendly to Iran. But Egypt has already gotten a bloody nose the last time they fought a land campaign in Yemen and they are certainly not going to commit ground troops to a lengthy campaign.  

The situation is not all too different for Pakistan, which has insisted that its participation is about protecting the integrity of Saudi Arabia, meaning implicitly they might agree to some cross-border operations, in case the Yemenis should have the stupid idea of trying to take back the provinces they lost in 1934, but Pakistan certainly isn’t keen on any confrontation with a locally backed insurgency. They have already one back home and that is plenty enough for them to take care off.

The military ties between Saudi-Arabia and Pakistan are probably the strongest and closest and it reaches quite far back actually: Pakistani military and volunteers have always figured prominently among the Saudi National Guard. The latest example of this is the crack-down on the Bahraini Shia revolt in 2014, which was done mostly with Pakistani “mercenaries” under Saudi command.

But however well equipped, the “Saudi Arabian National Guard”  is a force intended first and foremost for domestic purposes, like quelling unrest or violence that might erupt among the Shias in the oil-rich Eastern province. There is a big question mark about the ability of this force to conduct a ground campaign against a much more potent enemy.

The fact that Saudi-Arabia is the first weapons importer in the world, and is literally armed to the teeth, shouldn’t count for much in that regard. When Saddam’s army invaded Kuwait in August 1990, the “bluff” that is the Saudi army was called right away and the King himself turned to the US to shield him against the Iraqis. This inherent military weakness of the Saudi State, despite all the high-tech gear they’ve been buying in the West, is going to turn into a real problem, once they realize that airstrikes alone are not going to be enough to reign in the Houthis.

Decisive Storm” as a sign of Saudi weakness

For too long, the Saudis have been seen as sitting idly by as the Houthis and their allies were growing in strength and finally taking the upper hand. This hesitancy points to some structural issue with the traditional tools of Saudi “power projection“. The Saudis have chosen to get involved themselves, which they very rarely do. Usually, they rely on their proxies to do their bidding, but it seems this hasn’t been possible anymore in Yemen.

Riyadh’s influence among the anti-Houthi forces has vastly diminished over the past months and years. On the one hand, the clan most loyal to them, the Al-Ahmar clan, has lost ground with domestic reform in Yemen not going well. On the other hand, Al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen could not be used either as the spearhead of a pro-Saudi counter-offensive, for various reasons.

Thus, the Saudis were left with no other option than going in themselves, with the help of a regional coalition built along instructions that were probably discussed with Washington. The most interesting about this coalition is actually not so much who is in it, who also who isn’t.

Oman in particular, Yemen’s neighbour to the East, has declined to join. This rebuttal of a major Saudi initiative follows another big step taken by Oman in refusing Saudi-Arabia’s project of creating a “Union of the Gulf States“. In the large Shia-Sunni confrontation that is going on, this appears like a serious crack in the Saudi armour.

But other States usually more aligned with Riyadh have also voiced their dissent or concerns in regard to the position to adopt vis-à-vis Iran. In fact, with the notable exception of Saudi-Arabia and Bahrain, all other members of the “Gulf Cooperation Council” had approved the draft agreement between the US and Iran, back in 2013. And Kuwait went as far as refusing to sign the “Internal Security Pact” elaborated by Riyadh, another piece of legislation aimed at countering Iranian influence in the region.

The Saudi move against Yemen must be seen as what it is: a desperate attempt to turn the tide, made by a regional power that is  feeling more and more cornered.

The signing of a US-Iran agreement and the American position

It’s no coincidence the Saudi led expedition comes at a time when things are shaping up regarding a final agreement between the US and Iran. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the US will abandon their traditional alliance with the Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia, but it would lose some of its strategic influence and would force the Saudis to work-out some compromise of their own with the mullahs in Tehran, a thought that must be unbearable to contemplate for some people in Riyadh !

Saudi-Arabia needs the US, just as the US need Saudi-Arabia, for altogether different reasons. This is probably why the Saudis got the blessing from Washington when they announced – through their ambassador – the establishment of a coalition and the launch of operation “Decisive Storm“. As long as a deal has not been finalized with Iran, Washington wants to keep all options on the table, even if it means backing a military campaign on a peripheral theatre of operation with very limited chances of success.

To the US, the whole thing is more about “containment” than actual “roll-back” of the Houthis. The Americans were also made to look bad by the rebels, when they evacuated their embassy – in a bit of a hurry – and lost the Al-Anad airfield, which had been used up until then for drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. It didn’t look good at all, particularly not when the US President had claimed six months earlier that the anti-terror cooperation with Yemen was getting better and would keep getting better in the years ahead.

Rumour even has it that the Houthis managed to get hold of sensitive documents detailing secret CIA operations in the region, as well as the identities of the – few – human intelligence sources the US had in Yemen, possibly even among AQAP personnel. Looking at things from that angle, there is certainly a desire in Washington for some damage limitation and face saving, but the American support for the Saudis will remain marginal.

The Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia at risk

This leaves the Saudis very much in charge of the whole operation. Soon, they will realize that their airstrikes won’t be enough to provoke a decisive push-back of the Houthi rebels and their allies. Logic would call for a compromise at that point, which is always a possibility. With players like the Saudis at the table, they might however chose to go “all in” instead, a gamble with huge risks involved for the monarchy itself.

If they succeed militarily, the Saudis will only have created more instability on their southern border, with no central power in control in Yemen, and various groups and factions taking their piece of the territory, including Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and possibly other Salafi/Takfiri groups. What these organisations will be able to do with the newly gained operational freedom is up for debate …

If on the other hand, the Saudis fail to achieve any decisive success, the House of Saud itself will see its foundations weakened, at a time when it needs to look as strong and stable as possible. After having broken up to some degree with the Muslim Brotherhood, being confronted on its Northern border with a hostile Islamic State and having probably failed to prevent the “rapprochement” between the US and Iran, the Saudi royal family will probably look an easier target to all the Salafi, Wahhabi and Takfiri groups of any denomination that have always considered it an abomination against Islam.

Nobody will be able to say the Saudis haven’t been warned. The last time they got involved in Yemen, back in 2009, they lost several planes, had hundreds of soldiers taken prisoners and even saw the Houthis raid Saudi border areas. With an operation on a much larger scale going on, the stakes would be exponentially higher, not just for the Houthis, but maybe and more so for the House of Saud.

Getting involved too heavily in Yemen might be like looking into the abyss without even noticing …