The situation in Yemen is a complicated conflict largely driven by longstanding local grievances and animosities.
As the conflict in Yemen has transitioned from an insurgency against the central government in Sanaa by the northern tribes led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, into a civil war, a number of outside players have joined the fight. This has made the situation much more complicated. Americans have a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms. There is a presumption that the sides in any conflict can be divided into “good guys” and “bad guys” and that the U.S. should intervene on behalf of the good side. Usually, though, the situation is much more complicated and nuanced and many times there are no “good guys.” This is particularly true in Yemen. Consider these:
1. The war is not a sectarian conflict. The Houthis have, for years, harbored legitimate grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen. The grievances have been shared by other northern tribes. This accounts for the broad-based support for the insurgency and for its rapid success. The Houthis have a broad base of popular support throughout Yemen and will be very difficult to defeat with outside intervention. Houthi ability to protect communities against the advance of al-Qaeda, achieve a level of political participation and root out corruption has only enhanced their popularity.
2. The Houthis are not a client of Iran. Houthi relationship with Iran has been overstated by Saudi Arabia, which has tried to frame the conflict as a Sunni-Shia conflict and as an existential threat to Sunni monarchies. Houthis are Zaidis (Fiver) Shias, whereas Iranians are Twelver Shias. To frame the difference in Christian terms, Twelvers are Church of England and Fivers are Pentecostal. They are both Protestant, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at their beliefs and practices. As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthis are a Yemeni movement supported financially, politically and sometimes militarily by Iran. Iran supports the Houthi movement because an independent, inclusive government in Yemen would remove another Arab state that might ally its adversaries. This support, however, does not necessarily translate into control over Houthi activities.
3. This is not a binomial conflict. The Houthis have a very bad relationship with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia, Jorden, UAE, and to some extent the U.S, have intervened on behalf of the internationally recognized government of Abed Hadi, AQAP and the Islamic State. The southern tribes quietly have been waiting on the sidelines, ready to take advantage of any chance to assert their independence. The motivations of these outside forces are not ones that the U.S. should be associating itself with. There are no “good guys.”
4. The Houthis don’t want to govern Yemen; they just don’t want anyone else to govern either. They are interested in a high degree of autonomy and local issues prevail over national issues.
5. The war is remaking the regional geopolitical system. As Saudi Arabia has attempted to assemble a coalition to confront the Houthi movement and its allies, one key player is missing. Pakistan, a long-time military ally of Saudi Arabia has elected to remain neutral. As relations between Iran and the U.S. appear to be improving, much to the dismay of Jerusalem and Riyadh, Pakistan, with a long border with Iran, may be reconsidering its geopolitical alignment. An emboldened Iran, with the ability to peel away Sunni countries from the Saudi Arabia led alliance system, does not bode well for Riyadh’s geopolitical goals.
6. Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen is very risky. The bombing campaign alone is unlikely to achieve the Saudi-stated objective of creating a “stable and safe” Yemen. Eventually, a major ground incursion will be required. The Houthis, intimately familiar with the mountainous terrain, able to use the terrain effectively to confront an invading conventional army and to provide refuge against air attacks, will be very difficult to defeat. The inevitable collateral civilian casualties resulting from the air campaign will increase the local popularity of the Houthi, who can portray themselves as defending Yemen against an invading foreign army. Yemenis will remember the 1962 Egyptian air campaign in Yemen. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia are playing with fire. Yemen, like Afghanistan, has shown itself to be the graveyard of empires.
The situation in Yemen is a complicated conflict largely driven by longstanding local grievances and animosities. Saudi Arabia has intervened in order to prevent an independent government that they are unable to control from taking power right next door. Why the U.S. would want to get involved in this mess, with no national interest at stake, is unclear. We would be better off telling the Saudis that if they get themselves in trouble, they are on their own.
This article was originally published at DonLiebich.com and has been used here with permission.