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The war in Yemen

International media talk constantly of Huthi forces, but in reality the main military force in Yemen is now that of ex-president Saleh who, wherever he is, is doing what he promised: destroying as much as he possibly can.

Pro-democracy supporters on streets of Sana'a in March 2013. Pro-democracy supporters on streets of Sana'a in March 2013. Demotix/Luke Somers. All rights reserved.The war which has now started is what many of us feared for so long and hoped, against all rational thinking, would be avoided. And this time, let us not fool ourselves with misguided optimism, this will be long and as awful as any war can be. While political and even military internal struggles are hardly a novelty in Yemen, the new element is that the conflict has now added a major layer of international ‘proxy’ features which will only worsen the situation, making it reminiscent of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s-80s. 

Why is this the outcome of the 2011 revolutionary uprisings seeking economic development, justice and dignity, the end of kleptocracy and other good things? Who is to blame? Could it have been avoided? My earlier articles provide some of the background to understanding the current situation, and while many of these factors remain relevant today, and will remain so in the foreseeable future, the outbreak of full-scale war including foreign parties is an entirely unprecedented phenomenon which will affect Yemen’s people and the region for years to come. 

While Saudi Arabian involvement in Yemeni affairs is a longstanding fact, going back to the Imamate period and the earliest days of the creation of the Kingdom, this is the first time SA has taken the initiative to launch a major international military attack, albeit by air. 

It may not be particularly useful to non-specialists of Yemen to go into the details of the sequence of events since the Huthi coup of 6 February. But a rapid recall of the main events is important. After a month under house arrest in Sana’a, the legitimate internationally recognised president escaped to Aden where he attempted to establish a temporary government. Although the southern separatists, one of whose main strongholds is Aden, gave him at least tacit support, Huthis and former president Saleh military forces increased their attacks southwards and rapidly reached Aden itself.  The ‘popular committees’, ie local militias supporting him, are no match for Huthi/Saleh well trained and equipped forces. Since participating in the Arab Summit at Sharm el Sheikh, Hadi and his ministers are in Riyadh which has become their operational base.

Decisive Storm

On 26 March, Saudi Arabia launched air strikes under the name Decisive Storm demonstrating, among other points, that the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) can act without the US with whom their differences have increased recently [re Iran nuclear deal, Syria etc.]. They still have US technical and military backing, and firmly support the US through their arms purchases, as clearly demonstrated by the fact that Saudi Arabia has become the world’s largest arms importer in 2014 [USD 6.5 billion]. Of the USD 8.7 billion Saudi Arabia and the UAE spent on arms in 2014,  USD 8.4 billion is going to the US.

Regardless of the absence of a UNSC resolution under chapter 7 of the UN charter, Saudi Arabia and the GCC members (except Oman), decided to intervene. Having itself benefited from SA and UAE intervention to save its regime, the Bahraini ruling family was unlikely to disagree. They had no difficulty assembling an alliance of vassals, all of whom would be nowhere fast without GCC financial support. Sisi was unlikely to refuse given the billions of USD recently committed by Saudi Arabia to Egypt’s economic development, and its support when the US showed hesitation after his coup. None of the regimes financially and politically indebted to Saudi Arabia is in a position to refuse to join this alliance. Not only do the GCC states support these regimes, most of them dictatorial, but it is far more generous financially than the USA which, at the very least, pretends to set conditions of democratic procedures and support for human rights. Pakistan, Jordan, Sudan, and Morocco have all joined in.  To date, no ground troops are involved. 

No state other than Iran has condemned the intervention.

The people

Meanwhile the Yemeni people are trapped. A symptom of the situation is the fact that Yemenis are now seeking refuge in Somalia!  People are suffering daily destructive and murderous airstrikes. In addition to the fear and anxiety they cause, people have no idea how long these will last or who/where will be hit next. More than 500 people have been killed to date and 1800 wounded, certainly an underestimate.

Shortages of food are worsening with lack of imports of basic staples and fuel shortages for their transport. What food is available is increasingly expensive. Water is short everywhere but in addition the Huthis are cutting the supplies to the areas of their enemies: Aden has been without water for a week. Electricity is intermittent everywhere. 

The country is under blockade with destroyed airports. The few countries which used to allow Yemenis in without visas, Egypt in particular, have withdrawn this facility, leaving 4000 or so Yemenis stranded in a range of airports unable to go home or enter the countries concerned.

The already dire humanitarian situation is getting worse.  Before the current flare up, the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2015 was assessed at USD 747.5 million to assist 8.2 million people of the 16 million estimated to be in need of various forms of emergency assistance.  By 31 March this had only been funded to the tune of 8%.

Who is to blame?

The transitional regime remained toothless and at the mercy of the country’s traditional political forces.  In particular

-       The Yemeni political class completely failed to address the country’s fundamental problems [water, rural development, employment creation etc] and has spent the last few decades either enriching itself or involved in in-fighting between its various factions. 

-       The security reform only affected the top level, leaving the military institutions loyal to Saleh

-       The National Dialogue Conference was badly managed and unable to deal with the country’s main political factions

-       Interim president Hadi had no power base of his own and was at the mercy of the Islah party which had the upper hand, leaving all other main political forces to join the opposition

-       the international community failed to strengthen the transition. Nice words to and about Hadi are no substitute for financial means to effectively rule the country. The argument ‘no development without security’ ensured that development funding remained on the shelf while only military/security related investments were made. The country is now eating the fruits of this development with the well trained Saleh forces and others fighting throughout the country

-       The UN element of the transition was left under the management of an individual who soon lost the respect of the vast majority of Yemenis

-       The GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia, acted according to their real interests, namely preventing the emergence of a truly democratic entity in Yemen.

What now?

As has been demonstrated all too often and all too clearly, it is easy to start a war, a lot more difficult to put an end to it. The current intervention has destroyed a lot of the country’s military hardware, but it has failed to prevent the Saleh/Huthi forces from taking control of most of the city of Aden and all the major cities outside of Hadramaut. The so-called al Qaeda takeover of Mukalla [Hadramaut’s capital] is an exact replica of the manner in which Ja’ar and Zinjibar were taken over by Ansar al Shari’a [an al Qaeda clone] in May 2011; here again, for al Qaeda read ‘Saleh irregular forces’.

International media talk constantly of Huthi forces, but in reality the main military force in Yemen is now that of ex-president Saleh who, wherever he is, is doing what he promised: destroying as much as he possibly can, and the Huthis should beware.

The factional and tribal fights which are multiplying will see shifting alliances according to different criteria, but finance will be fundamental, reminiscent of the 1960s Civil war after the establishment of the Republic in 1962.

The humanitarian situation will continue to worsen with not only shortages of water, fuel and food, but in the absence of any means to earn an income, poverty will mean people are unable to buy the few goods on the market selling at inflated prices to make sure that the merchants, at least, continue to profit.  While the injured will find it difficult to get treatment [with or without money], the dead at least won’t have to worry about their future!

This war, like so many others, does not serve the interests of the majority of the population who seek development, a means of earning an income and of living healthy and happy lives with their families and friends. Looking back at the Vietnam War, won exactly 40 years ago this month, why the sacrifices of the thousands, indeed millions who died in the fighting? Why the health problems of those who suffered due to the dioxin and other chemicals poured onto the land by the US army?  Children today are still born deformed and veterans too poor to live without selling lottery tickets on the street.  Meanwhile the country has become a tourist paradise, with good cheap facilities and only a few posters and banners to remind people of the dreams of socialism and equity fought over so hard.  Coca cola and  KFC are everywhere…

The war in Yemen serves the interests of the wealthy, the leaders of the main factions who have already accumulated billions [in USD] by bankrupting the country for the past 4 decades. Yet again they are demonstrating a complete lack of humanitarian concern for the Yemeni people.  None of the leaders of the parties involved in the fighting has the objective of improving society, giving equal opportunities to all or using the country’s resources for the benefit of the majority.  None of them intends to invest in social welfare, health and education to improve the overall living and working conditions of the people.  Instead the beneficiaries are safe in their bunkers or their palaces in GCC states or beyond, politicking as ever while the people are being left without water or electricity when they are not being killed by starvation or explosives. And arms traders are laughing all the way to the banks.

Decisive Storm will continue: airstrikes will soon become counter-productive with the population on the ground being very diverse, thus ensuring that ordinary inhabitants are hit alongside any intended targets. In addition, the Huthis are already putting their prisoners in or near weapons stores, so can they still be targets? Saudi air drops of weapons have already fallen into the wrong hands. The offensive is unlikely to involve ground troops, but this can’t be excluded. Egyptians will be cautious after their humiliation in the 1960s civil war in the Yemen Arab Republic. The beautiful country many of us know and miss so deeply is being destroyed and its millions of generous and wonderful people are being driven beyond endurance.

The GCC/Saudi intervention was prompted by the immediate threat of a complete Huthi/Saleh take-over of the country and the prospect of having a regime closely allied to Hizbollah and Iran on their southern border.  While Iran manifested only marginal interest in Yemen and the Huthis until recently, giving them no more than occasional verbal support, it has now seriously increased its diplomatic support and backed it up with increasing material support.  There was reason to speculate that this sudden increased interest might be indirectly related to the nuclear negotiations and that they might well be willing to abandon the Huthis in exchange for some positive deal elsewhere.  Now that the nuclear deal is in sight, it remains to be seen whether this speculation has any foundation. This, of course, could help shorten the war in Yemen or, at the very least, reduce its intensity in coming months.  

The UNSC no longer speaks in one voice on Yemen, with Russia now having an independent view.  However, given the effectiveness of its earlier actions and decisions, this may well not be a particularly important factor. 

On a positive note, it can be safely said that the young democrats, hoping to develop a new politics for the twenty first century, with equity and well being for all, have plenty of time to reflect and develop their ideas. There is little prospect of putting them into practice for at least a decade.

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state will be published by Saqi books in October. Meanwhile you can still read Why Yemen Matters, Saqi books 2014


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