What if the Saudis win? Avoiding massive sectarian bloodshed in Yemen

Saudis won’t pull the triggers – AQAP, IS and various Sunni militias will do that – but they and their Sunni and American allies will be politically and morally culpable.

Steven A. Zyck
11 April 2015
Protest in Jakarta against Saudi aggression in Yemen. April 8,2015

Protest in Jakarta against Saudi aggression in Yemen. April 8,2015. Demotix/Baby Swaransky. All rights reserved..As the Iraqi army and Shia militias seized the Iraqi city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (IS), they unearthed a number of mass graves containing the bodies of Shia men and boys. Witnesses speak of IS fighters taking at least 1,700 captured Iraqi soldiers and sorting out the Shias from the group. They were then lined up in front of freshly dug trenches and murdered in droves. Many more such graves will likely be found in the coming months in and around Tikrit, Mosul and elsewhere.

The world, despite its revulsion, did not do enough to prevent these attacks. And in Yemen today Saudi Arabia, its Sunni allies and the United States are in fact helping to create conditions where similar attacks on Shias may once again occur.

Starting in September last year, the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia movement, proceeded to take over the capital and large portions of the country, including its major population centres. The Houthis brought some fighters and hardware, but most of their military might came from the large portion of the Yemeni armed forces loyal to the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

As the Houthis expanded control, President Abdo Rabbu Mansur Hadi fled the capital and then the country – calling on the Arab Gulf countries to intervene militarily and help re-install his government. A Saudi-led coalition of 10 predominantly Sunni Muslim countries then waged an air campaign against the country, leading to intensified fighting, civilian deaths and a deepening humanitarian crisis. The US backed this move with intelligence and logistical support and expedited weapons shipments to the Gulf. Further background on the situation is available in Helen Lackner’s most recent article in openDemocracy.

The situation on the ground is bad and getting worse by the day, but a far worse future could lie ahead for Yemen if the Saudis and their allies win. The Saudis have helped to stir up sectarian fervour by publicly accusing Iran of backing the Houthis and by assembling a Sunni coalition to battle the Houthis and their allies. The Saudi-led coalition is fighting against the Houthis alongside – though not in coordination with – fervently sectarian groups, particularly al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), IS and various conservative Sunni militias.

These groups – AQAP, IS and conservative Sunni militias – together view the Houthis as religious heretics defacing Islam who, accordingly, need to be slaughtered, not merely defeated in battle. And if Houthi-aligned military units are destroyed or convinced to abandon the Houthis – and if the Houthis are on the run and relatively defenceless – Yemen’s estimated 8 to 10 million Zaydi Shias will likely face vicious attacks.

The Houthis and Yemen’s Zaydis, have few allies to defend them in such an eventuality. Iran, which is believed to have provided the Houthis with some training, intelligence and limited weaponry, would have little ability to protect the Zaydis. The logistics and politics of getting aid or forces across or around the Gulf and into Yemen would render any meaningful Iranian role impossible.

While many experts have called for negotiations to end the conflict, there is little apparent hope for negotiations at the moment. Senior Saudi officials have called for the complete defeat of the Houthis. Riyadh is hoping to avoid the embarrassment the Saudi armed forces faced in late 2009 and early 2010 when they reached a draw – some would say a defeat – when taking on the Houthis in the mountains of northern Yemen. Redemption requires victory, not an even-handed negotiated settlement.

Furthermore, an intensified attack on the Houthis is Saudi Arabia’s way of showing Tehran that it is ready and willing to bomb Iran and its nuclear and military sites if it feels threatened in the wake of the ongoing P5+1 nuclear talks. This message will be diluted or inverted if the Saudis are seen to be timid or ineffectual in a small, poor country such as Yemen.

This is all to say that the Saudis will likely try to win by any means necessary and that the Houthis and Zaydis more broadly will be left defenceless in the coming months. President Hadi’s government will have little chance of even securing the country’s largest cities, and his forces will have little interest in safeguarding the Houthis.

Houthis in particular and Zaydis more broadly will be easy targets for their enemies, and it is easy to imagine a situation in which thousands upon thousands of Zaydi Shia men, women and children face the sort of fate that Shia soldiers faced in Tikrit at the hands of IS. The Saudis won’t pull the triggers – AQAP, IS and various Sunni militias will do that – but they and their Sunni and American allies will be politically and morally culpable.

As the United Nations, international aid agencies, governments (particularly the United States) and militaries around the world think about the humanitarian and security situations in Yemen, they must put in place immediately actionable plans that can, without delay, be enacted to prevent large-scale sectarian violence against Yemen’s Zaydi Shias.


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