In Yemen – as in much of the Middle East – Islam is at war with itself. As Saudi Arabia’s Sunni fundamentalist ruling family and Iran’s equally uncompromising Shia-based Islamic Revolution play out their deadly rivalry, the fault-line between the Shia and the Sunni traditions of Islam defines the conflict, as on so many of the region’s battlefields.
But in Yemen the picture is particularly complicated. Here it is far from a clear case of two opposing forces slogging it out between themselves. No less than six main combatants are engaged in the conflict, and the separate motives of each create a tangle of competing ambitions and a criss-crossing of the Sunni-Shia boundaries.
To list the six antagonists: first, the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels; then the lawful president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi; next, AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular); followed by IS (Islamic State); then, Saudi Arabia; and finally – most surprising of all, perhaps –Yemen’s previous long-serving president, Ali Abdullah Saleh who, forced from office in 2012 as a casualty of the so-called Arab Spring, still aspires to play a leading role in his country’s affairs.
Adding even more complication to a desperately complex situation is the astonishing alliance between Saleh, backed by the Yemeni security forces that have remained loyal to him, and the Houthis, whose chronic grievances led to their uprising and the splitting of the nation. This Saleh-Houthi liaison is certainly a mariage de convenance, for it was against the Saleh régime that the Houthis, consistently complaining of discrimination, fought no less than six wars between 2004 and the uprisings in 2011 that led to Saleh’s loss of power. Yet here we have a working alliance between them which, as far as Saleh is concerned, could reasonably be interpreted as a renewed bid for supreme power.
Saleh’s sights are clearly set on ousting his one-time deputy, President Hadi, and the government he has led from February 2012. During the Arab Spring President Saleh faced widespread armed protests. Finally, unable to restore stability, he was induced with great reluctance to leave office and transfer the powers of the presidency to his deputy, Hadi. The new president took over a country in a state of chaos. When in September 2014 the Houthis captured the country’s capital, Sana’a, and installed an interim government, Hadi fled to Aden, and from there, on March 26, 2015 to Saudi Arabia.
He arrived just about the time of the first Saudi air-strike against the Houthis. The Saudis, exasperated by Iran’s continued support for the Houthi rebels and fearful of a Shia takeover on their southern border, had decided to come to the aid of Yemen’s beleaguered president. A subsequent Arab League summit endorsed the Saudi intervention, and no less than ten Middle East states agreed to unite behind Saudi Arabia to form a fighting force dedicated to defeating the Houthis and restoring President Hadi to office.
What of the other combatants?
AQAP (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular), led by Nasser al-Wuhayshi, a Yemeni former aide to Osama Bin Laden, was formed in January 2009. Although a totally Sunni organization, its long-term objective is to topple both the Saudi monarchy and the Yemeni government, and to establish an Islamic caliphate on jihadist lines in the Arabian peninsula. So AQAP opposes both the Shi’ite Houthis and Sunni President Hadi.
The recently established Yemenite affiliate of Islamic State is just as Sunni-adherent and fundamentalist as AQAP, but it seeks to eclipse the al-Qaeda presence. Intent on extending the reach of its parent organization into the Arabian peninsula, it therefore opposes not only the Shi’ite Houthis, but also the anti-Houthi Sunni alliance led by Saudi Arabia, the Sunni AQAP, and Sunni President Hadi.
And the Houthis, to whose struggle for control of the country Saleh has now allied himself, what of them? They are a fundamentalist Shia group which takes its name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a revolutionary leader who launched an uprising against the government in 2004 and was killed by the Yemeni army later that year. The organization’s philosophy is summarised with blinding clarity by their flag, which consists of five statements in Arabic, the first and the last in green, the middle three in red. They read:
“God is Great,
Death to America,
Death to Israel,
Curse on the Jews,
Victory to Islam”.
The Houthis have been supported for years with weapons and other military hardware by the élite Quds force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. This has enabled them to overrun large areas of the country, including the capital, Sana’a, which remains in their hands despite nearly two years of military effort by the Saudi-backed coalition to oust them.
The ferocity of the Saudi-led campaign, which has seen more than 9,000 people killed and 2.8 million driven from their homes, has alienated large sections of the population. It has incidentally provided Saleh with a political advantage which he is busily exploiting.
On August 21, 2016, during an interview on the state-run Russia24 TV channel, Saleh announced that “the new government” was ready to allow Russia access to all of Yemen’s military bases. His “new government”, the result of a formal liaison between the Houthis’ Revolutionary Committee and Saleh’s General People’s Congress party, was a reference to a joint 10-member Supreme Political Council, launched on August 6.
“We are ready to provide all facilities to the Russian Federation,” he said. “We extend our hand to Russia to cooperate in the field of combating terrorism.”
This was a bold play at power politics. He was cocking a snook at the US-supported Saudi coalition, and providing Russian President Vladimir Putin with the opportunity of strengthening Russia’s dominant position in the Middle East following its active involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Saleh has also gone on TV to rile against the Saudi-led military effort. In doing so he has caught the public mood. Recent indiscriminate, or poorly targeted, bombing operations have struck hospitals, schools and markets. As a result the US military is distancing itself from the war, and the French charity Médecins Sans Frontières has withdrawn from six hospitals after one was bombed resulting in the death of 19 people.
Thoroughly disillusioned with the Saudi-led coalition, in mid-August the public joined in mass demonstrations in support of the new Houthi-Saleh governing council. Meanwhile the latest US-led peace initiative envisages a national unity government including Houthi representation. Saleh may yet pull off his bid for a return to power.