Yemen reflects growing war between Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, and Iran, and between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim sects. But divided Arab World can’t keep ISIS in check
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
East Meredith, NY — Saudi Arabia has responded to the coup in Yemen as nothing but another instance of Iran’s “hegemony” in the Arab world, through its support of Houthi “agents”. On March 25 Riyadh mobilized a multinational retaliatory air attack on the rebels.
From their home region in the north the Houthis had proceeded to conquer, stage by stage, a large section of Yemen over the past several months, ending in coup d’etat. The rebels are now overextended and not uniformly welcomed nationwide.
The Houthi struggle for justice is unfairly portrayed as a sectarian initiative. The Houthis are Zaydi, a Shiite sect seeking equality in a Sunnite-majority state. However, the Zaydis are not far from the moderate Sunnites in their spiritual outlook. They are a primary opponent of Al Qaeda combatants in Yemen.
Through a relentless air campaign Saudi Arabia has halted this coup, but the underlying causes of the conflict have not been resolved. The resulting stalemate is responsible for a rapidly worsening humanitarian crisis in a very poor and deeply divided country.
Directly or indirectly, Yemen engages US-backed Saudi Arabia, Iran, other Gulf states and four other Sunnite-majority Arab countries. If not checked, Yemen’s hostilities could precipitate a regional war, or it could derail the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran at their very final stage.
Iran responds to this recently mobilized “Sunnite” coalition of nine Arab countries by supplying arms to the coup leaders; Tehran also backs them diplomatically. But Iran, like Saudi Arabia and the US, has no interest in generating turmoil in Yemen.
Washington has blessed Riyadh’s new gun diplomacy. It should be noted that, not long ago, it was the joint diplomacy of Washington and Riyadh which orchestrated a quick fix for the Arab Spring revolt in Yemen. The power transition formula was simple: West friendly Vice President Hadi replaced the dictator President Saleh.
Due to continued air bombardment as well as non-stop fighting on the ground- between pro-government factions of President Hadi and supporters of the coup- rushed diplomatic plans for a United Nations conference for May 28 in Geneva had been cancelled.
The Saudis have not yet achieved their military goals in Yemen and they are not likely to succeed soon. The coup leaders would negotiate but not retreat. Over many decades the Houthis, who constitute a third of Yemeni society, had tried to seek a fair share in governance, but they had been ignored.
Meanwhile, the AlQaeda fighters, who are a third force to contend with in Yemen, are gaining strength in the eastern and central regions of Yemen.
The Saudi leaders are mindful of the impact of Houthi developments on the internal stability of their nation: political awakening of an oppressed Shiite minority in the Eastern province of the Kingdom. The ongoing Saudi assault on the Houhtis could invigorate the solidarity bond between the two Shiite communities of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
In the Yemen civil war all parties are likely to lose ultimately, except for the radical Islamists. The spread of terror in the Mideast is alarming. In protracted civil wars existentially threatened populations are easily seduced by militant liberation theology which makes community survival contingent on submission.
What is happening in Yemen is taking place elsewhere in the region. Radical groups have established quasi state structures in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya. If not checked, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, and other radical groups could penetrate the rest of the Fertile Crescent area, namely, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. From Yemen Al Qaeda could sow instability in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf region.
From Libya the radical Islamists could initiate trouble in the rest of north Africa.
It is ironic that the Saudi-led approach to the Houthis is copying the US military approach against radical terror groups while Washington, itself, is reviewing its drone-dominated strategy of “war on terror”.
To defeat the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, a ground regional offensive could succeed, where many other approaches have so far failed. Collectively, land troops from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Turkey could reverse the progress of ISIL within weeks. But regrettably, no such smart efforts will come about in the near future, given the demoralized and divided rulers of the Arab states. It is all the more reason why Saudi Arabia and Iran must set aside their historic rivalry to address the Yemen crisis.
As a primary exporter of arms to the Arab Gulf nations the US is not neutral in the Yemen conflict. Washington should try hard to convince Saudi Arabia to work with Iran on mutual interests.
Saudi Arabia is incurring a heavy economic and moral cost in leading and financing a devastating military operation in Yemen. The current political demands of the rebels may not be realistic but they are understandable and amenable to change.
If a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Yemen is achieved soon enough international aid and economic empowerment from neighboring oil-rich, Gulf states would be urgently needed. More importantly, the political solution would require equitable power sharing among the central Yemeni tribes, parties and ethnic communities.