By Eric Vandenbroeck
30 Dec. 2017: Yesterday UNICEF reported that Yemen’s families cannot withstand another day of war, let alone another 1,000.
In 2009 my team and I already drew attention to al-Qaeda in Yemen which resulted in 2011 with Jihadists seizing most of the Abyan Governorate and early 2012, with militants claiming territory across the southwest amid heavy combat with government forces, whereby on 19 March 2015, the conflict escalated into a full-scale civil war.
When in March 2011 mass protests broke out to overthrow Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen also long had to contend with the fact that Saudi Arabia has the money, influence and tribal links to directly shape Yemeni politics according to its interests. The Saudis view Yemen as a subordinate power on the heel of the Arabian Peninsula, one that (if partitioned in a civil war) could potentially provide Riyadh with direct access to the Arabian Sea, but that if left to fragment, could also spread instability into the Saudi kingdom. The Saudis have thus relied primarily on their tribal links in the country to maintain influence and keep a lid on unrest, thereby keeping the central government in Sanaaweak and dependent on Riyadh for most of its policies.
When Saudi Arabia deployed troops in the al-Houthi-Ismaili borderland between Yemen and Saudi Arabia in late 2009, there were indications that the al-Houthis were receiving some support from Iran, albeit nothing that was considered a game-changer in the rebellion. With unrest spreading throughout eastern Arabia and the Yemeni state falling into a deepening political crisis, the Saudis next had to worry about Iran exploiting a second front through Yemen to threaten the Saudi underbelly.
The Gulf states played a pivotal role in the way that the Arab uprisings unfolded, manipulating their direction for seemingly altruistic, but ultimately self-interested goals. It is not the first time in modern history that the wealthy Gulf states have used their political, religious, and economic influence to shape and at times dominate other Arab governments. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in particular, has long sought to project power in the region, directly intervening in Yemen in 1934, and using its money and patronage to support military groups in Yemen against Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt in the 1960s, and against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
A war in Yemen involving a Saudi-led multinational coalition fighting against Houthi militias resulted in the deaths of more than ten thousand Yemenis, according and although no official figure of GCC casualties has been released, Saudi Arabia has admitted that more than five hundred of its own citizens have been killed as well.
With President Ali Abdullah Saleh gone and the resulting regime split into many factions, the Houthi movement became the single-largest political force in Yemen. The Houthis made a secret deal with Saleh to seize power in early 2015 and took control of most of the country. Over the past three years, the Yemeni civil war has morphed into a proxy conflict between the Saudi-backed internationally recognized Hade government and the Iranian-backed opposition led by the Houthis. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, meanwhile, is alive a well, thriving in the absence of order endemic in civil wars, and controlling various parts of the country.
The current role of Iran
The assassination of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, presumably carried out by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels on 4 December, was condoned by Iranian president Hasan Rouhani, the chief commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mohammed Ali Jafari, and the editor-in-chief of Kayhan, a newspaper close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In referring to the killing, Jafari went as far as to declare that the benefits Iran sees in the aftermath of Saleh’s assassination are a step toward fulfilling the goals of the 1979 Islamic revolution. “Iran’s allies in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain have taken inspiration from the experiment of the Iranian revolution,” he was quoted on the website Tasnim, a news agency close to the IRGC.
But Iran’s role and aims in the Middle East, often described as expansionist, are more complicated than what typically appears on the surface. In some countries, such as Lebanon and Syria, Tehran’s military intervention is proactive. But in a country like Yemen, Iran’s involvement was probably opportunistic.
Although Iran’s involvement in the Arab world can be viewed from a Shia-Sunni fault line, Iran is known to support Sunni groups if there is a strategic advantage to doing so.
It is far too early to know if Iran’s satisfaction with Saleh’s assassination in the long term will serve its interests in the Middle East. But clearly, the Islamic Republic has changed its public posture. Apparently, the fragmentation in the region that has worked to Tehran’s advantage has emboldened the regime. Now, the pretense has been lifted.
Eventually, the civil war will end, but for a country like Yemen, which is so geographically, religiously, culturally and tribally diverse, it will be only an intermission to hostilities.
Our earlier investigation involved tracing the little-known history of the creation of the modern Middle East: