May 24, 2015

Yemen under Attack: Civilians Pay the Price

Yohannan Chemarapally

YEMEN has been experiencing political turmoil for many years now. The problems in the country have been exacerbated after the ouster of the long ruling president, Ali Abdullah Saleh from power in 2012. An interim government was formed under the leadership of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi following Saleh's departure. Hadi was Saleh's deputy but he did not have the kind of support his predecessor had. Under his watch, the country had to function without a representative government. President Hadi under pressure from his backers in the Gulf refused to acknowledge the realities on the ground in Yemen. Extremist elements, like the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) became more active in the last three years, despite the relentless drone attacks launched by the Americans. It was however the rise of the influence of a political force known as the "Houthis" that has triggered the current conflict. The Houthis belong to a Shia sub-sect known as the Zayedis. They have been fighting the central government and Saudi Arabia for the last two decades. DRAMATIC RISE OF THE HOUTHIS After taking over the capital Sana in September last, the Houthis and their allies have extended their control to some of the major cities in the country, including Taiz, Yemen's third largest city. They have captured Aden in the first week of April despite the continuing air assault by the Saudis and their allies. Hadi had fled from Aden just before the Presidential Palace there was captured by the Houthis and their allies. The dramatic rise of the Houthis has not been taken kindly by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis and the Saudis have fought brief wars in the past too. The Saudi government has been claiming that the Houthis are proxies of their main regional rival Iran, a majority Shia country. Both the Houthis and the Iranians have stoutly denied the charge. The last thing Iran wants is to get involved in another regional conflict. Iran is helping the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq in tandem with the Americans. In Syria, the Iranians are helping the Syrian government fight the Islamist hordes that have converged on the country with the backing of the regimes that are currently bombing Yemen. The Houthis were unsuccessful in forming a cohesive government that was acceptable to all the disparate political groups in the country. Many Sunni tribes preferred to align with al Qaeda rather than accept the leadership role of the Houthis. In the southern part of the country, a separatist movement was gathering momentum. The al Qaeda dramatically increased its suicide bombings. The last major suicide attack in Sana in the third week of March targeting a Shia mosque killed more than 140 people and seriously injured more than 350. Those killed included security personnel and relatives of top officials. It was this attack which prompted the Houthi leadership to order its forces which are in a tacit alliance with sections of the army supporting former President Saleh, to move to the South of the country. It was at this juncture that Saudi Arabia and its allies decided to launch their massive air war on Yemen. The other countries participating or supporting the unremitting Saudi led air attacks on Yemen which started in the last week of April are the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt. The Saudis initially named Pakistan as also being part of the coalition. Many of the countries joining the Saudi led coalition are recipients of huge amounts of Saudi largesse. The Egyptian economy has been bailed out by the infusion of Saudi and UAE loans and aid. Pakistan has been dependent on Saudi financial assistance and oil subsidies since the time of Zia ul Haq. Pakistan has helped out the Saudis militarily on several occasions previously. The Pakistani government has however issued a statement saying that it would thwart any threat "to Saudi Arabia's territorial integrity". The Pakistani defense minister and the army chief have been in Riyadh to consult with the Saudi leadership. Neighbouring Iran and the Shia minority in Pakistan will not take kindly to open Pakistani participation in the Saudi led war against a fellow Muslim country. The war so far does not seem to be going according to the script visualised by the Saudis. Now there is talk of a ground invasion to reinstall their man back into the Presidential Palace in Sana. According to reports, the Saudis have deployed heavy artillery and positioned 150,000 soldiers along its borders with Yemen. The Egyptian Navy has blockaded Yemeni ports and has stationed troop ships along the Yemeni coast. For a successful invasion and occupation of Yemen, the Saudis will need the help of the Egyptian Army, the Arab world's biggest and most powerful fighting force. If Egypt does send its army into Yemen, it will be second time it will be doing so. However, when the Egyptian army first intervened in Yemen in the sixties, they were fighting on the side of anti-monarchist republicans. The Yemeni ruling family at the time were Zaidis, like the present day Houthis. But the Yemeni monarchy was then supported by Saudi Arabia and the West, which were dead set against the pan-Arab anti-imperialist ideology propagated by Gamel Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian leader who overthrew the monarchy in his country. Nasser was aiming at the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. President Abdel Fatah al Sisi, who claims the mantle of Nasser, seems to have no qualms in supporting the same Saudi monarchy. Till the sixties, Egypt under Nasser was the main ideological enemy of the House of Saud. Today it is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was the defeat of the Egyptian army in the 1967 war with Israel that led to the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Northern Yemen. South Yemen was an independent country then. It was the only Arab country ruled by Communists at the time. The US is providing intelligence backup to the Saudi led attempt at regime change in Yemen like it had done in the early sixties. The Obama administration had signed weapons deals worth more than $90 billion with the Saudi monarchy in the last five years. Saudi Arabia has been provided with 84 new jet fighters, 160 new helicopter gunships, heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and anti-tanks missiles. US officials claim that they were not consulted beforehand on the Saudi decision to declare war on Yemen. The Saudi move to launch an all-out air offensive against Yemen is being interpreted in Washington as a sign of Saudi anger against the Obama administration’s effort at rapprochement with Iran. Besides, the Saudis don't want a government with an independent foreign policy in their backyard. The IS is on the Saudi borders with Iraq. The Iraqi government also views neighbouring Saudi Arabia with suspicion. When Yemen did not follow the American/Saudi diktat during the first Gulf War, the Saudi expelled more than a million Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is among the poorest nations in the region. The Saudis are asserting that the bombing will continue until the Houthis are militarily defeated and Hadi restored to power in Sana. The Houthis show no sign of retreating but the chaos and the mayhem caused by the Saudi led bombing have come as a shot in the arm for the al Qaeda affiliated forces in Yemen who freed 300 prisoners after taking over the city of Al Mukalla in Hadhramaut province. Among those freed is the al Qaeda commander in the region. This is the first significant gain from the Saudi led attacks as the militant Islamists are staunchly anti-Houthi. The Saudis and the Qataris have on previous occasions shown that they have a preference for groups like the al Qaeda and the IS. In Syria and Iraq, it is Saudi and Qatari financing and arms that led to the initial surge of these groups. DIVIDING THE COUNTRY There are reports that the Saudis and the US have a back-up plan of once again dividing the country into two. The Saudi led alliance's focus on the port city of Aden is said to be part of this strategy. The secessionist Southern Peoples Committee has been getting funding from American and Saudi sources. The Houthis while vowing to resist foreign meddling in the internal affairs of the country have indicated that they are open to dialogue and power sharing with the other key players in Yemeni politics, barring the AQAP and other radical Islamist groups. As expected, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt. Saudi Arabia's attack was a unilateral action. Very few countries have condemned it. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov did say that the UN Security Council should urgently "act in a principled manner" on the Saudi military intervention. He had earlier said that the situation in Yemen had similarities with what happened in Ukraine and that there were "obvious double standards involved". The US he said supported the fleeing president of Yemen while refusing to extend the same courtesies to Viktor Yanukovich, the president of Ukraine after he fled from Kiev. The Saudi led assault has not spared even power and water utilities. According to reports put out by humanitarian aid agencies, hundreds of civilians have already perished in the bombings. According to the reports, refugee camps have also been hit. The UNICEF has said that 62 children are among those who have died as a result of the aerial bombings. Thousands of people have fled from their homes as a result of the indiscriminate Saudi bombing. Before the Saudi led attacks, more than 334,000 Yemenis were residing in refugee camps forced out of their homes because of the fighting between domestic foes. The United Nations Human Rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein said that the situation in Yemen "is extremely alarming". He warned that the country seemed to be "on the verge of total collapse". Because of the blockade imposed on the country by the military alliance led by Saudi Arabia, no humanitarian aid is reaching the country.