When the Gaza Strip was being pounded and thousands of innocent civilians including hundreds of children were being massacred by Israel last year, the rest of the Arab world was mere onlookers and took little or no effective action, military or otherwise, to protect the Palestinians.
When tens of thousands of civilians were being killed and millions displaced in Syria, with the United Nations General Secretary describing the situation as the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, the Arab countries played politics and aggravated the crisis by backing one armed group or another. There was little courage or a collective Arab response to take on the Syrian regime.
Suddenly Saudi Arabia has mustered courage to flaunt its military might – not against Israel, with whom it shares many Iran-centric goals, or against Bashar-al Assad’s Syria, but against Yemen’s Houthi fighters. The rebels, having ousted President Abdul Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi, were yesterday advancing towards the southern port city of Aden despite eight days of air attacks by Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces comprising more than ten countries. The rebels now control much of the country, which is known for its quality coffee, silk-route fame frankincense, ancient relics, and, of course, Bilqis the Queen of Sheba, whose story is mentioned both in the Bible and the Quran. Yemen is also the home base of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In recent weeks ISIS has also made its presence felt by setting off bombs in two mosques during Friday prayers. But, mysteriously, Saudis do not attack al-Qaeda or ISIS terrorists in Yemen, though they have occasionally taken part in the now-virtually-unheard-of Western air attacks on ISIS targets in Syria.
Why then are the Saudis pounding Yemen, killing in the process hundreds of innocent civilians?
The Houthis are Zaidi Muslims. Zaidis are Shiites but different from the Shiites of Iran. They are closer to Sunni Islam and make up 40 to 50 per cent of Yemen’s population. But the crisis in Yemen is not a sectarian conflict between the Zaidis and the Sunnis though the Saudis are trying to portray it as such.
The Houthis take their name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi who led a rebellion against the government in 2004. But he was killed by Yemeni troops. The movement is now led by Abdul-Malik al-Houthi. The Saudis have little love for the Houthis, with whom they fought an unsuccessful border war in 2009.
Not long ago, the Saudis were the biggest backers of the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a Zaidi Shiite, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 to 1990 and unified Yemen from 1990 till he stepped down in 2012 under a plan worked out by the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) following months of pro-democracy demonstrations – Yemen’s Arab Spring.
Saleh was replaced by Hadi, also a Zaidi, who was Saudi Arabia’s chosen candidate. Hadi was slow in introducing reforms, but quick in carrying out orders from Saudi Arabia and the United States. During North Yemen’s civil war in the mid-1960s, the Saudis backed the Zaidi rulers of Yemen, while Egypt and the then socialist bloc backed the military rebellion. While the civil war was going on in the north, the Sunni-dominated South Yemen was under British rule. The South gained independence in 1967 and subsequently became a socialist state. In 1990, the two countries formed a union and it is said the discovery of oil was a key impetus for unification.
The present crisis arose when the Houthis lost confidence in President Hadi. The Houthi rebels also known as Ansarallah (Supporters of God) captured the capital Sana’a in September last year and forced Hadi to share power with the Houthis and allied tribes. Though Hadi agreed to the deal, he quietly planned a military response to the Houthi rebellion with Saudi and US help. The Houthis’ success was also due to the support extended by Yemen’s military commanded by officers loyal to former President Saleh. The Houthis could have killed or imprisoned Hadi. When the Houthi leaders’ suspicions of Hadi’s intentions increased, they forced him to resign, let him go to Aden and then flee to Saudi Arabia.
According to Yemen watchers, the Houthi rebellion is supported by most Yemenis – the Zaidis and the Sunnis alike. Even Hadi’s own party, the Yemenite General People’s Congress, removed him from leadership. The Houthis formed a transitional government in February after Hadi resigned.
The crisis in Yemen also has a regional dimension, with Iran being accused of supporting the Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia detests Iran and fears a pro-Iran state on its southern border. Already Iran is in Iraq. Tens of thousands of Iranian military advisers are helping Iraq in the fight against ISIS. Iran is also in Syria, where it is propping up the Assad regime. Iran is also in Lebanon -- and in Bahrain, too.
On the other hand, the United States fears that if the Houthis take control of Yemen, Iran may become privy to its secrets and gain access to US communications and weapons systems in Yemen.
Besides, the US and Saudi Arabia also fear that if the Houthis take control of the port city of Aden, they will be in a position to blockade the Red Sea.
But Saudi Arabia’s action will only exacerbate the crisis. Air attacks do not win wars. Invasions succeed on the performance of the ground troops. The Houthis say they are ready for a long-drawn-out war, if and when the Saudi-led coalition forces cross the border.
History shows that, like Afghanistan, Yemen is also a graveyard for invaders. The Ottomans and the British had learnt bitter lessons. Egypt sent 70,000 troops to Yemen during the 1960s’ civil war and historians call this misadventure Egypt’s Vietnam.
Besides, the Saudi-led aggression is a violation of international law and the United Nations Charter. Ousted president Hadi has no locus standi to call for international military support, because he has resigned. Saudi Arabia and its regional and Western allies, however, won’t accept this position. This is the dangerous legacy George W. Bush left behind. He turned the UN rules on the use of force upside down and invaded Iraq. It was a bad precedent.
In August last year, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt launched air attacks on Libya. They drew hardly any criticism for not seeking UN approval for the attack. Similarly, there is little discussion in the mainstream media about the legality or illegality of Saudi Arabia’s military action. Compare this with the avalanche of criticism Russia drew for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine. What a lopsided world we live in!