Saudi Arabia‘s US-backed aggression against the sovereignty of Yemen is a textbook example of how local conflicts are internationalized – and become tripwires for regional wars and even global conflagrations.
Like Libya, Yemen is yet another Middle Eastern country that doesn’t really exist: it is actually at least two separate countries, perhaps three – the southern provinces, which are primarily Sunni, the northern tribes, who adhere mostly to they Zaydi form of Shi’ite Islam, and the area around Sa’na, the capital, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, where all Yemen’s clashing cultural, political, and religious factions meet.
The north/south division dates back to the nineteenth century British colonization, when, in 1839, the British seized the port city of Aden and administered it as a subset of the Indian Viceroyalty. It became a major trading center after the opening of the Suez canal, and the Brits pushed outward, extending their influence throughout what had been a land perpetually divided between the Ottoman Empire and local imams, including the distinctive Zaydis in the north. In 1911, the Zaydis rose up against the British and their local collaborators, abolished the north/south division negotiated by the British Foreign Office, and established the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen under Imam Yahya. Yahya’s dream was to recreate the ancient Qasamid dynasty, founded in the seventeenth century: a "Greater Yemen" extending into what is today Saudi Arabia as well as the whole of modern Yemen.
In the 1960s, the de-colonization movement in the Arab world took on a Nasserist, socialist form, and this was manifested in Yemen in the form of a coup against the king by Nasserist officers, who then established – after a three-way civil war pitting royalists against republicans against ultra-leftists – the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), in the south, which became a de facto member of the Soviet bloc, and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north.
The two Yemens warred with each other constantly – as well enduring violent internal conflicts – reflecting the religious, ideological, and historical differences that have plagued the country for centuries, but agreed to merge in 1990, after the Soviet bloc collapsed and the PDRY was left without Russian subsidies. Yet the "merger" was weak from the very beginning, and old divisions soon reemerged.
The southerners formed a secessionist movement, as did the Zaydis in the north (although they said they only wanted autonomy), and to complicate matters al Qaeda moved into the ensuing chaos – providing the central government in Sa’na with the perfect excuse to ask for outside intervention on its behalf.
As US aid and "advisors" poured into Yemen, the central government used this in order to cement what amounted to a de facto dictatorship. Government troops largely ignored Al Qaeda, which has very little popular support and poses no real threat to the central government’s authority, and concentrated their fire on the southern independence movement and especially the Houthi insurgency in the north. The latter – who are now in control of large swathes of the country, and have sent the "president" into hiding – have their origins in the "Believing Youth," which sought to revive the Shi’ite Zaydi religious tradition in order to counter Sunni fundamentalist preachers – precursors of al Qaeda – proselytizing with some success in the north. The Houthi counterinsurgency movement has defied the efforts of both the central government and the Saudis to suppress them, albeit not without considerable losses on their part: thousands of civilians were killed in the conflict, with hundreds of thousands displaced.
In spite of US-based news accounts reporting the current conflict to be between the Saudis and "Iran-backed rebels," the evidence for the Tehran-Houthi connection is tenuous to nonexistent. There is no evidence of Iranian involvement beyond political (i.e. rhetorical) support. Indeed, as Christopher Boucek and Marina Ottoway report in their book, Yemen on the Brink, "some Yemeni officials have confided that such assertions are unfounded." Doctrinal differences between the Zaydi sect of Shi’ism and the Iranians over important theological issues within Islam preclude Tehran from providing any substantial support for the Houthi insurgency beyond mere words. Neoconservative pundits who point to the Houthis’ success with alarm mirror the propaganda of al Qaeda, which denounces the Zaydi "takfiris" (apostates) in similarly hysterical terms. The Houthis, for their part, have never attacked Americans or American interests in Yemen, as acknowledged in a series of classified cables sent by the no-longer-present US embassy.
All of which underscores the present conundrum faced by US policymakers in the region. The neocons are screaming that US air strikes in Tikrit are helping the Iranian-commanded Shi’ite militias defeat ISIS, while in Yemen we are backing the Saudis against the supposedly-but-not-actually Iranian-backed Houthis. They are right to point out the obvious contradiction, but wrong in their proposed resolution – which seems to be to play the Sunni card and oppose the Iranians (or, more accurately, the Shi’ites) at every opportunity. Apparently the neocons’ calls to smash ISIS have been conveniently forgotten.
As with most of the current problems in the region, it all goes back to the Iraq war. That war handed the Iranians de facto control of Iraq: although the initial plan was for the neocons to anoint their favorites, Ahmed Chalabi and his gang, as the "democratic" rulers of the country, things didn’t work out that way (and Chalabi, it turns out, was canoodling with Tehran all along). Instead, the Ayatollah Sistani, chief of the majority Shi’ite sect, threatened an all-out rebellion if direct elections weren’t held. The Shi’ite parties won that election, and subsequent elections, and today Iraq is an Iranian ally. That’s why thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had to die – in a war to make Iraq a Shi’ite theocracy.
Now that Iraq is in the Iranian camp, it was only natural they would turn to their Shi’ite allies when ISIS arose to threaten Baghdad. This enraged the neocons, who – forgetting their own role in handing Iraq to the Iranians – are now targeting Tehran. The Iranians are taking care of ISIS for us, precluding US "boots on the ground," much to disappointment of John McCain and Lindsey Graham. It doesn’t count as a war in their book unless American blood is being spilled.
The same irony abounds in Yemen, where the Shi’ite Houthis are viscerally hostile to Al Qaeda, and are, indeed, the only indigenous force capable of defeating them and rooting them out. Yet that would preclude a Saudi-US intervention – and we can’t have that!
What’s happening in Yemen is a local problem, with causes that are strictly confined to the long and tumultuous history of that dirt-poor country. Foreign intervention, whether from the British, the Saudis, al Qaeda, or whomever, has only led to endless war and not improved the lot of the people by one iota. Now the Americans are using the "war on terrorism" to impose their will and re-order the Yemeni polity when they can have no real understanding of what is – or ought to be – going on there. Washington and Riyadh are internationalizing a conflict that is Yemeni in origin, and will only be resolved by the Yemenis themselves.
As I have written on many occasions, the "Sunni turn" – the US playing the "Sunni card" in Iraq and Syria – has been a disaster on so many levels that it’s hard to keep count. In Iraq, it led directly to ISIS – the mutant offspring of the so-called "Arab Awakening." In Syria, where US-backed "moderate" jihadists defected en masse to the ranks of our enemies, it led to the empowerment of ISIS and Al Nusra. And now in Yemen it is leading to the destruction of the Houthis – a long-suffering and valiant people – at the hands of our Saudi allies and their 10-nation alliance of despots. To add stupidity to deadly folly: our anti-Houthi pro-Saudi orientation is acting directly against our interests, which are supposedly focused on eliminating al Qaeda from the scene. In this instance, as in Syria, we are on the same side as al Qaeda. How does this make sense to anyone but Bibi Netanyahu?
Each time we intervene where we have no business intervening the "blowback" hits us right in the face – and provides yet another excuse for yet more intervention. It’s an endless cycle, one that won’t come to an end until and unless we rid ourselves of this succubus – this Empire – that is costing us so much.