Surging chaos in Yemen

(Part 1)

 By  Asif Haroon Rajayamen

Harking back into the history of Yemen which stretches back to 3000 years, it will be worthwhile to know certain essential details about the country. It lies at the tip of Arabian Peninsula and it borders Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to the north and Oman to the east. Yemen is strategically important because it sits on the Bab alasif haroon-Mandab strait, a narrow waterway 40 km wide linking the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden situated along its western flank, through which much of the world’s oil shipments pass. Control of this strategic choke point by Iran backed Houthis would impact Egypt, KSA and Israel since their free passage through the strait could be jeopardized. Military movement of Israel towards the Persian Gulf could be blocked. Socotra, 200 miles off Yemen Coast is at the crossroads of strategic waterways of Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In 2010, Former President Gen Ali Abdul Saleh had allowed the US to convert Socotra into its military base to conduct drone war.

Yemen’s area is 527, 970 sq km and its eastern, central and northern regions are desert and western region is rugged and mountainous. Vast and treacherous desert in southern KSA stretching up to Sudan is a nightmare for ground movement for both the neighbors. Relatively, it will be extremely difficult for poorly equipped Yemen Army to mount a ground offensive against KSA and reach up to built up areas in depth. In summer, temperatures touch 54 degree centigrade and coastline is humid. Overwhelming majority are ethnic Arabs, but 35% have some African blood as well. Majority in Yemen are Muslims, and comprise of two main religious groups called Zaidi Shias (42-45%) and Shafi’ Sunnis (52-55%).

Tribalism remains the sole driver of politics in Yemen. Tribal Sheikhs guide Yemeni politics. Their proportion in parliament has been over 50%. Tribes control over State institutions remains unchanged since 1962.  Main tribes are Hashid, Bakil, Azd, Bariq, Banu Hamdan, Banu Harith, Humaydah, Banu Judham, Maqil, Qahtanite, Sabaean. Tribal areas of Marib, Shabwa, Radaa and Amran are the hotbeds of security disturbances.

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Middle East where nearly half of the population lives below poverty line. Instability and large-scale displacement, as well as weak governance, corruption, resource depletion and poor infrastructure, have hindered development. Unemployment, high food prices and limited social services mean more than 10 million Yemenis are believed to be food insecure.

In the north of the country, a group known as the Houthis, also now known as Ansarullah, takes their name from Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi. Many people belonging to the Houthi groups are Zaidi Shia. Their beliefs and their religious rituals have more in common with Sunni rituals than with mainstream Shia in Iran. Notwithstanding that Yemeni Sunnis nurture some old grievances against the ruling class of Zaidi dynasty, by and large Zaidis and Shafis have traditionally co-existed and do not mind offering prayers in each other mosques or listening to the Khutba of Zaidi/Shafi Khateeb during Friday prayer. However, Zaidis despise the Saudis and their Wahhabism. Zaidi dynasty of Imam Zaidi Bin Ali ruled North Yemen for 1000 years. Yemen is in general not as sectarian as other Gulf countries.

The Ottomans ruled most Yemen for a century from 1538 onwards, till they were expelled in 1635 after a prolonged struggle led by Zaidi Imamate and established Zaidi rule. Once again the Ottomans ruled North Yemen from 1849 to 1918. Their defeat in 1st World War forced them to vacate North Yemen. The last Imam Ahmad son of Imam Yahya was overthrown in 1962 by a pro-Soviet group of nationalist officers and Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was taken over by Abdullah Al-Salal belonging to Houthi tribe. During his rule, YAR saw civil war between Yemeni Republican forces supported by Egypt and Royalists, supporters of deposed Imam supported by KSA and Jordon. Some 26,000 Egyptian soldiers lost their lives in the protracted war. Under no-win situation, Gamal Abdul Nasser and King Faisal agreed to end their involvement and let the Yemenis to choose their own government. In 1967, Salal’s regime was overthrown and he was replaced by Abdul Rahman al-Iryani. In June 1974, Army officers led by Col Al-Hamdi staged a bloodless coup and seized power. He was assassinated in 1977 and his successor Ghashmi was killed in 1978. After him, Gen Ali Abdel Saleh took over power and he seriously worked for the unification of two states.

Going through the history of the south, the British seized Aden in 1839. Opening of Suez Canal in 1869 enhanced the significance of Aden Port, giving reason to the British to further expand their control over southern regions. While the Ottomans ruled northern part till 1918, the British ruled South Yemen as a protectorate till 1967. After the withdrawal of the British, National Liberation Front assumed political control and Marxist South Yemen was named People’s Republic of South Yemen and later renamed as People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970. North-South relations became friendly when Hayder Bakr was elected president in 1986. Rapprochement helped Saleh in merging north with South Yemen on May 22, 1990. Saleh became the president of united Yemen, Hayder PM and Ali Salem Vice President with Sana as capital. However, southerners soon began complaining of political and economic marginalization by the government in Sana, and fought a civil war in 1994 in a failed attempt to reverse the unification.

After annexation of Kuwait by Iraq three months later, when Yemeni leaders criticized KSA rulers on account of allowing foreign troops on their soil, in reaction, 850, 000 Yemeni workers were expelled from KSA. It added to the economic woes of Yemen and led to internal unrest and political instability and eventually to civil war in 1994. Vice President Salem announced secession of South Yemen. Saleh’s forces defeated southern forces and re-annexed South Yemen.

Houthis have also always felt that they did not receive a fair share of Yemen’s not so big oil revenues and other spoils. They have been fighting with what seems like just about everyone over the last ten years. They’ve taken on the Yemeni State in six wars starting in 2004, fought Yemeni and foreign Wahhabis. President Saleh hailing from Hashid tribe treated the Zaidis as the main enemy, rather than al-Qaeda which had reappeared by 2004 in Yemen. He and KSA succeeded in getting the West to believe that the Houthis were an Iranian proxy. He killed the Zaidi leader, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi in 2004. Saleh’s Army fought a war against Houthis in Saada from 2004 till 2010. KSA backed Saleh’s war against the Zaidis. In 2009, the Saudi Army skirmished with North Yemeni tribes over the Saudi-Yemeni border barrier, the smuggling of drugs, weapons and immigrants, as well as grazing rights. Tens of thousands of refugees fled the area. In their bid to put down Zaidi insurgency, Saudis lost 133 men. Most recently Houthis battled with the al-Ahmars, the leaders of Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation, Hashid.

The Arab Spring in 2011 infected Yemen as well and infighting among warring tribes intensified. It allowed the alliance of tribes led by Sheikh Sadiq al Ahmar of Hashid tribal federation to protest against the Saleh regime and to expand their territorial control in Saada and neighboring Amran province. Saleh forces had also to fight the Al-Qaeda from 2011 to 2012 whose presence in Yemen and in Arabian Peninsula as a whole had grown considerably and they had taken control of the cities of Jaar and al-Husn. The U.S. drone strikes killed large numbers of rebellious tribesmen and Al-Qaeda fighters.

In the wake of growing unrest, in 2012 the US and KSA led Gulf Sheikhdoms forced President Saleh to quit and hand over power to his Vice President Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. The deposition of Saleh disconcerted the Houthis. Drop in oil prices and reduction in oil royalties due to these tribes further incensed them and exacerbated the situation thereby impelling Hadi to seek Saudi financial assistance. A national dialogue initiated by Hadi proved inconclusive since the Houthis didn’t buy his idea of making Yemen a federation of six regions. They feared that the plan would leave them weakened.

The Houthis gained control over Yemen’s capital Sana in September 2014 which alarmed both KSA and the US. President Hadi was forced to share power with the Houthis and the coalition of North Yemen tribes that had helped them enter the capital city. Hadi agreed to form a national unity government. Reportedly, to make Hadi unpopular, Houthis propagated that he at the behest of US and KSA had backtracked on the power sharing agreement and wanted to revert to authoritarian rule. The Houthis allied with the former President Saleh and some parts of the dysfunctional Yemeni Army, decided to take on the State. Houthis felt emboldened because of split loyalties of Yemen’s security forces, with some units backing Hadi, and others the Houthis and Saleh, who has remained politically influential.

Saleh-Houthis team-up, division in Yemeni Army and backing of Iran tilted the military cum political balance in favor of Houthis. But for Saleh’s support, Houthis could not have gained series of victories in Sana and elsewhere. The other thing which encouraged Houthis was when Hadi’s own party, the Yemenite General People’s Congress, ejected him. However, Hadi is supported in the predominantly Sunni south of the country by militia known as Popular Resistance Committees and local tribesmen as well as KSA, Gulf States and the US.

Houthis eventually seized the presidential palace and other Yemeni government buildings on January 20 and placed President Al-Hadi and other leading figures under house arrest. He and his cabinet were forced to resign on January 22. The Houthis formally formed a Yemeni transitional government on February 6 and five-member Presidential Council that would rule for up to two years. Hadi’s defense minister Mahmoud al-Subaihi was arrested in the city of Houta” in Lahij Province and transferred to Sana. Maj Gen Hussein Khairan was named as the new defense minister for the country. The Houthi are now the main force in the country and Yemen is under the control of President Abdul-Malik al-Houthi.

Hadi, recognized as the legitimate elected leader fled to Aden on February 21. Later, he rescinded his letter of resignation as president and declared that he was forming a government-in-exile. He declared Aden the de facto capital of Yemen on March 7. The US, France, Turkey, and their Western European allies closed their embassies in Sana. Soon afterwards, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE relocated their embassies to Aden from Sana. The U.S. troops also left the country. When Hadi’s Foreign Minister sought military intervention by KSA led coalition and establishment of no fly zone over air space of Yemen on March 23, the Houthis realizing the gravity of the situation hastened to gain control of as many Yemeni military airfields and airbases, such as Al-Anad, as quickly as possible.

Yemen Army forces allied with Houthi movement’s Ansarullah fighters took over the international airport of the southern port city of Aden on March 24, 2015 after intense fighting with forces loyal to Yemen’s fugitive President Hadi. Airport was captured in haste to block routes of escape of Hadi. By the time the Houthis and their allies entered Aden on March 25; Hadi had fled the Yemeni port city on a boat and taken refuge in KSA. With Hadi in hand, it became easier for Riyadh to prevail upon the Arab League to legitimize the war on Yemen.

In the wake of turn of events in Yemen, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, and deputy supreme commander of the UAE’s military, visited Morocco on March 17 to talk about a collective military response to Yemen by Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt. On March 21, Mohammed bin Zayed met KSA’s King Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud to discuss a military response to Yemen. Only Oman refused to join the war in Yemen since it has friendly relations with Tehran. These meetings took place when Hadi was giving frantic calls to the United Nations, Egypt and the GCC to send troops into Yemen. The coalition comprises five Gulf Arab States and Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, and Sudan.

Sudden change of fortunes in Yemen was a huge setback to Hadi’s backers. Washington saw its arms support worth $500 million to Sana since 2007 to keep the Al-Qaeda under control going in waste. Responding to Hadi’s call, on March 26, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait began an air war against Houthi controlled targets in Yemen. Barack Obama declared Saudi-led air strikes legitimate, but the US showed no interest in taking direct military action in Yemen in support of joint Arab campaign. It contented in establishing a Joint Planning Cell with Saudi Arabia to coordinate US military and intelligence support. On 29 March, the Arab League decided to form a joint military force to combat Yemeni rebels. Both Egypt and Jordan have agreed to join it. The Saudi invasion of Yemen has drawn condemnation from Iran, Russia, Iraq and Syria, as well as Hezbollah. Russia moved the UNSC on April 4 for halt in air strikes. However, the United Nations and European Union have not condemned the air strikes.

KSA is expectantly looking towards Pakistan to join the coalition and has sought fighter jets and warships. Pakistan government is walking on thin ice since on one hand it cannot overlook the demands of its time-tested friend and ally, and on the other there is heavy pressure of the opposition parties, media and civil society urging the government not to get involved in Yemen war, particularly because of so many domestic constraints. Joint session of the parliament is in progress to arrive at a consensus response action. Seeing the trend, the course of mediation to end the crisis and find a political solution will override the course of getting involved in Yemen war. However, all are on one page with regard to the defence of KSA whenever it gets threatened. So far there is no threat to the integrity of KSA or to the Holy places. Pakistan and Turkey are playing a key role in defusing the crisis which has all the potential to snowball into a bigger sectarian war.

The writer is a retired Brig, war veteran/defence analyst/columnist/author of five books, Director Measac Research Centre and member Board of Governors TFP.


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