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The Half-Forgotten War in Yemen

K. P. Fabian retired from the Indian Foreign Service in 2000, when he was ambassador to Italy and PR to UN. His book Commonsense on War on Iraq was published in 2003.
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  • May 06, 2016

    The UN-sponsored talks to end the war in Yemen, which started in Kuwait on 30 April, were suspended the next day without results as the Saudi-supported Yemeni government-in-exile walked out on the plea that the rival Houthis attacked and captured a military base in the north in violation of a cease-fire that had been more or less holding since 10 April. On their part, the Houthis have accused the Saudi-supported Yemeni government of violating the cease-fire “4000 times”. The Kuwait talks were preceded by numerous separate meetings with the warring sides by the UN mediator Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed. A veteran UN official from Morocco, Ahmed was appointed to the position in April 2015 within a month of the war started by the Saudi-led coalition with airstrikes on Houthi-held areas.

    The toll of the war in Yemen so far is 9,400 dead, of which 4,000 are women and children. Further, 16,000 people have been injured, and 21 million, equal to 80 per cent of the population, are badly in need of humanitarian assistance which is not reaching them always. To understand what is happening and why it is happening, we need to go back at least to the dawn of the Arab Spring in Yemen in 2011.

    Fall of Saleh

    The Arab Spring started in Tunisia where President Ben Ali, in power since 1987, fell in January 2011. He was followed by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt who had held office since 1981. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of Yemen, had an even longer tenure in office. He was President of North Yemen from 1978 and President of united Yemen since 1990. Even before 2011, the public had been calling for reforms. But, after February 2011, Saleh faced public agitation calling for his resignation. He tried to play a smart political game by announcing a referendum on a new constitution, but that did not work. He had support from Saudi Arabia with which he had cooperated for years. He was badly injured in an assassination attempt, and he rushed to Saudi Arabia for treatment. But even the Saudis came to the conclusion that it was not feasible to let Saleh continue in office. Saleh, however, reneged on a Saudi Arabia-brokered deal, which involved his leaving office by a particular date. Finally, when he found himself rapidly losing support, Saleh relinquished office in February 2012. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (born in 1945), who had held the office of the Vice President under Saleh since 1994, succeeded Saleh as President. Hadi was formally elected President in an election held in February 2012 in which he was the sole candidate.

    The Houthi Revolt

    It is to be noted that Saleh did not abandon all political ambitions when he resigned. He wanted his son to succeed him. Since that did not work out, he was looking forward for an opportunity to fish in troubled waters. And that opportunity came when the Houthis revolted. The Houthis’ complaint was that the new constitution drafted by a National Dialogue Conference, which envisaged Yemen as a federation of six regions, abridged their autonomy in certain matters.

    Here a word or two about the Houthis is in order. They belong to a branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism. The Zaidis make up one-third of the population and had ruled the north under a system known as the imamate for about a thousand years. The imams combined political and spiritual authority. In 1962, there was a military coup which led to a civil war between those who supported the Imam and those who wanted to abolish the imamate. Egypt and Saudi Arabia intervened militarily, Egypt in favour of those who carried out the coup and Saudi Arabia for restoring the Imam. Saudi Arabia lost in this war and North Yemen became a republic. The north and south became united only in 1990. But within a few years, a civil war broke out between the north and south, which the north won due to Saudi support. The resulting Saudi influence led to Wahhabism gaining ground in Yemen, which the Houthis resented.

    An armed conflict erupted between the Government in Saana and the Houthis when an attempt was made to arrest Sheikh Hussein Bedridden al-Houthi on whose head was placed a bounty of USD 55,000. A religious leader of singular charisma, al Houthi was adored by his people. His slogans included Death to America and Death to Israel. President Saleh, a close partner of President George Bush in the latter’s Global War on Terrorism did not approve of such slogans. The armed conflict lasted between June 2004 and February 2010, with interruptions, and led to 25,000 dead and 250,000 displaced. As early as September 2004, Sheikh Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi was killed, but the Saleh government refused to hand over his body. The Houthis took part in the agitation that brought down Saleh. Subsequently, the new Hadi government handed over the body and a huge funeral was held in June 2013.

    It is against this backdrop that the Houthi rebellion which commenced in 2014 needs to be viewed. By March 2015, they took over the capital Saana and placed President Hadi under house arrest. Saleh who had fought with the Houthis for years when he was President found the troubled waters he was waiting for. The Yemeni Army was well equipped, but Hadi had only a tenuous hold on it. Many of the military officers and senior bureaucrats remained loyal to Saleh. The Houthis are ferocious fighters and with the support of Saleh they made rapid gains. Saana fell, and Hadi was kept under house arrest for a while. Later, he escaped to Riyadh via Aden where he had some support.

    Saudi Intervention

    Riyadh had been watching the developments in Yemen with growing anxiety. King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud took over from his brother King Abdullah who died in January 2015. King Salman appointed his son Mohammed, 30, as Defence Minister. Mohammed took the lead in deciding how to respond to the crisis in Yemen. Riyadh decided to intervene militarily and restore Hadi to office after defeating the Houthis. Pakistan was asked to send troops, but Islamabad declined. Egypt, a recipient of substantial financial help from Saudi Arabia, was also reluctant to send troops. Riyadh argued that Iran was behind the Houthis and that it was all part of a larger Sunni-Shia confrontation. That argument was hardly convincing.

    The US was finding itself in a difficult situation. As the Houthis advanced, about 1,000 US Special Forces engaged in fighting the AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) had to be withdrawn since the US did not want to get involved in a ground war. However, since Saudi Arabia was upset over the nuclear deal with Iran, Washington was obliged to lend military support by way of intelligence, logistics, and weapons. Without US support, Saudi Arabia and the coalition (Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Senegal, and Sudan) it led would not have been able to carry out either the bombing campaign known as Operation Decisive Storm or its successor Operation Restore Hope.

    In short, the storm was not decisive and hope is yet to be restored. Currently, Yemen is divided into four areas, held by the Hadi government, the Houthis, the AQAP, and the Islamic State. The last was not there before the Saudi intervention. There is no reason to believe as of now that the Saudi-led intervention will succeed in restoring Hadi’s control over the whole of Yemen.

    There is no evidence that Iran has lent military support to the Houthis. Nevertheless, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have enforced a naval blockade resulting in much misery for the 21 million who need humanitarian assistance.

    Will the Saudi-led coalition prevail and make the Houthis surrender their weapons and withdraw from the capital before a political settlement is arrived? There is hardly any chance of that happening. In fact, the UN Security Council has erred in passing a resolution calling upon the Houthis to surrender weapons before a settlement is arrived at. There is no point in putting the cart before the horse.

    * * *

    India had a number of its citizens in Yemen. The Indian Armed Forces mounted Operation Raahat (Operation Relief) in April 2015 and rescued by sea and air 4,640 Indians and 960 foreign nationals belonging to 41 countries. India is alert about protecting its citizens abroad and can move fast when evacuation is required.

    For Yemen, known in antiquity as Arabia Felix (Happy Arabia), there is much sorrow in store as of now. The Romans used to contrast Arabia Felix with Arabia Deserta.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.