In Yemen, Foreign Intervention Is Futile

Foreign meddling is nothing new for the war-torn country. 

By: Hilal Khashan

Yemen has been subjected to foreign meddling for centuries. 

The British occupied Aden in 1839 and didn’t leave until over a century later. 

The Ottomans launched two campaigns in Yemen in the 16th and 17th centuries, both of which failed. 

The Egyptians fought a bloody war there between 1962 and 1967 before pulling out of the country. 

And in 2015, the Saudis launched Operation Firmness Storm to try to wrestle the country away from the Houthi rebels. 

But what all these external players have come to realize is that foreign military intervention in Yemen is futile. 

Its mountains are impregnable and its people are battle-tested. 

Still, that hasn’t stopped many from trying.

Saudi Incursions

Of all the foreign actors that have injected themselves in Yemen’s internal affairs, perhaps none has been more influential than Saudi Arabia. 

During Ibn Saud’s establishment of the Saudi kingdom in the early 20th century, he realized that, to secure the new country, he needed to secure its border with Yemen. 

This was particularly so after the Saudis seized Jizan and Najran with the signing of the Treaty of Taif, which ended the 1934 Saudi-Yemeni war.

After Yemen’s republican coup in 1962, which began the North Yemen Civil War, Saudi attention focused on containing the communist south and controlling the north. 

The government’s tight grip kept the Saudis out of the south, but thanks to generous financial support, they won the backing of northern tribes, keeping the central government in Sanaa politically weak. 

The Saudis failed to prevent a Marxist paramilitary group called the National Liberation Front from seizing power in the south after the British pulled out in 1967, leading to the establishment of the Arab world’s only Marxist country, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, also known as South Yemen. 

North Yemen’s president, Ibrahim al-Hamdi, tried to unite the north with the south and to curb Saudi influence but was assassinated in 1977. 

The circumstances of his death were never investigated and remain a mystery to this day.

Fast-forward four decades and the Saudis are again trying to impose their will on Yemen. 

They launched Operation Firmness Storm in 2015, aimed at recapturing the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, from the Houthis and reinstating the internationally recognized government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. 

Hadi was vice president during the 2011 uprising that led to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s resignation. 

Saudi Arabia helped to put down the uprising, thereby blocking a political transition from taking shape. 

The Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council’s 2011 initiative hijacked the peace process, appointing Hadi, a leading figure in the previous regime, as Saleh’s successor. 

But the move backfired, as the Houthis seized the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014. 

They responded to the Saudi-led military campaign by launching ballistic missile and drone attacks into Saudi Arabia – which have only increased in frequency in recent years.

Six years into the conflict, the Houthis are stronger than ever. 

Countless attempts to end the war have achieved little. 

Since the beginning of the conflict, the United Nations has sent three envoys to Yemen and engaged rebels in talks in Geneva and Kuwait, but to no avail. 

It also organized conferences in Stockholm to avert a full-scale offensive on Houthi-held Hodeida in 2018. 

But the Houthis have chosen to keep fighting, having gained momentum despite the Saudis’ involvement.

The Houthis’ determination isn’t the only thing keeping the war going, however. Iran has interests here too. 

The Houthis’ desire to control Yemen’s west coast, especially Hodeida port, is driven in part by Iran’s desire to dominate shipping lanes in the Red Sea. 

Iran, which has supported the Houthis throughout the war, wants access to the Arab region’s southern gate. 

To this end, Iran is also hoping to help the Houthis recapture the Hanish Islands, which were seized by Saudi-led forces. 

For Tehran, Yemen is also an ideal bridge to East Africa, a region Iran hopes to penetrate once it’s free of U.S. sanctions.

A Heavy Toll

Yemen’s collapse is a fall from grace for a country that the Greeks and Romans called “Arabia Felix” (loosely meaning “Happy Arabia”) and that was richer than its neighbors before the oil boom. 

The war has displaced millions and killed more than 330,000. 

Hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five have been left to starve, creating the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in two decades. (It’s also worth noting that addiction to qat, a plant narcotic used as a stimulant, is another major issue for the country. 

Some 90 percent of men, 73 percent of women and 20 percent of children under 12 years regularly use the narcotic, whose production consumes 60 percent of Yemen’s agricultural land and 30 percent of its underground water.)

The war destroyed the country’s infrastructure and decimated its military and security apparatuses. 

Reconstruction will cost hundreds of billions of dollars, money that Yemen doesn’t possess and can’t expect to raise. 

The country was marred by abject poverty and widespread inequality long before the war began. 

Its deep-rooted class, tribal, regional and sectarian divisions have been exacerbated by foreign intervention, further complicating its path to peace. 

The country is a jungle of weapons and unruly militias that have an interest in keeping the conflict going. 

Its wartime economy is so deep-seated that dismantling it might be even more challenging than reaching a political agreement among the warring factions.

The Yemeni national army is highly politicized, split into several factions that support either the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah Movement or former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress. 

Meanwhile, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has lost much of its power thanks to frequent U.S. targeting. 

The Islamic State never gained much traction in the country, having alienated the tribes with its brutality, and is unlikely to be much of a threat to Yemen in the future.

Inevitable Agreement

The Houthis are desperate to create new realities on the ground ahead of peace talks. 

Their relentless offensive to seize oil-rich Marib, the last government stronghold in north Yemen, has turned into a quagmire that has had a staggering human toll on both sides. (The Houthis are looking to capture Marib’s Safer oil production facilities to help finance their war effort.) 

The stalemate will pave the way to lengthy talks, likely leading to a shaky peace deal and loose state arrangement similar to several other Arab countries. 

The warring factions’ ties to regional powers prevent a more concrete resolution from taking hold.

The Houthis have committed more fighters to the battle for Marib than any other engagement in the six-year war. 

They have promoted it among supporters as a battle against hypocrites, apostates and Saudi occupiers. 

To Arab critics of political Islam, the Houthis describe the battle as a fight against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Yemeni chapter, Islah, which controls Marib. 

To the international community, they paint it as a fight against al-Qaida and the Islamic State, even though these groups operate in Yemen’s deep south, far from the areas the Houthis are fighting over now. 

The high death toll from the battle has alienated their primary base of military recruitment in Dhamar governorate. 

Their failure to seize Marib would undermine their plans to control the west coast and the Bab el-Mandeb strait. 

The outcome of this battle, inconclusive as it may be, could determine the future course of the war itself as well as Iran’s influence in the country. 

The Peace and National Partnership Agreement that emerged from the 2014 National Dialogue Conference failed to bring the country any closer to peace. 

The Houthis have scrapped plans for a new power-sharing constitution, determined to become Yemen’s dominant political broker. 

In southeast Yemen, the Southern National Salvation Council, which emerged in 2019, opposes the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC). It seeks to work with other Yemeni groups to launch a new, decentralized political system that recognizes pluralism. 

A north-based National Salvation Front is also in the works and will include the Southern Movement, which is currently at odds with the STC, Islah and the General People’s Congress.

The Saudi-led coalition is now led by Tareq Abdullah Saleh, who defected from the Houthi camp after they killed his uncle, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. 

He dislodged the secessionist, UAE-backed Salafist Giants brigade. 

His forces will most likely join the post-conflict Yemeni army as new political formations take shape in preparation for more peace talks.

Still, the factions are entrenched in their positions. 

The Houthis have control over most of the north. 

The STC faces stiff opposition in the south. 

Islah has created its own independent government, separate from Hadi’s. 

The Southern Transitional Council set up an autonomous administration in Aden and the surrounding areas. Meanwhile, these groups’ foreign patrons have their own desired outcomes. 

The United Arab Emirates wants to partition Yemen. 

In Mahra governorate, Oman and Saudi Arabia are competing for influence among the local population. 

And Iran is using the Houthis as a bargaining chip in its nuclear talks with the U.S.

These foreign players are unlikely to stop meddling in Yemen’s affairs anytime soon. 

The problem for Yemen is that its social structure and constant need for foreign aid make it relatively easy for its neighbors to attract groups desperate for assistance.

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