by Tahir Mustafa (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 2, Jumada' al-Akhirah, 1436)
The Najdi Bedouins’ attack on Yemen is illegal and immoral. Ultimately, it will also prove their undoing because Yemenis are natural fighters.
Has the “Saudi” regime bitten more than it can swallow in war-torn Yemen? By launching air strikes in the early hours of March 26 in Yemen — the announcement was made by “Saudi” ambassador Adel al-Jubeir in Washington, DC in the late afternoon of March 25 (local time) — the family-based regime in the Arabian Peninsula may have opened a Pandora’s box whose repercussions would be grave.
Al-Jubeir said his government had “consulted” the US that “supported the strikes” but was not directly involved in fighting. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State confirmed this in a statement soon thereafter expressing support for “Saudi” aggression. President Barack Obama also directed the Pentagon to provide intelligence on the Houthi militia’s movement and assets in Yemen to the “Saudis” and their allies as well as logistical support.
Five of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council — “Saudi” Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain — (Oman opted out), have joined the aggression against Yemen. Five other countries — Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan — also indicated various levels of support for “Saudi” aggression against Yemen that is completely illegal under international law. Despite dressing it up as a response to appeal for help from the “legitimate government of Yemen” and protecting Yemen’s “sovereignty,” the Saudi action has no legitimacy. In February, “Saudi” Arabia and its allies had presented a resolution to the UN Security Council to allow the use of force in Yemen. It was rejected.
The so-called legitimate government that the Saudis are referring to does not exist. Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the former president is a fugitive from justice. After an unidentified plane bombed his hilltop compound in Aden on March 25, he fled the area. Later it was revealed that he had fled the country on a boat since Aden airport was captured earlier in the day by Ansarullah, the Houthis’ military wing, and was shut down. Hadi is believed to have fled to “Saudi” Arabia, the abode of all dictator-fugitives from justice.
He was forced to resign in January under mounting public pressure and was placed under house arrest in Sana‘a. On February 21, he managed to escape from the capital together with his former defence minister Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi. The two fled to the southern port city of Aden and took refuge there. Fighting erupted in Aden on March 19 when forces loyal to yet another former president Ali Abdullah Saleh attacked Aden’s International Airport. While unsuccessful in capturing the airport, it caused major disruption. The airport was captured by Houthi forces on March 25 but this proved a temporary victory. Forces loyal to Hadi appear to have retaken the airport but the situation in the southern port city remains fluid.
Initial “Saudi” strikes resulted in the killing of at least 18 civilians in Sana‘a. This number will definitely rise as more attacks are carried out as they were on Sa‘ada and Taiz later in the day. There was immediate reaction against such brazen foreign aggression. Iran and Russia both condemned the attacks. Iran’s Foreign Minister Dr. Javad Zarif called on “Saudi” Arabia to immediately cease its military aggression against Yemen. He said the air strikes would lead only to greater loss of life.
“Military action from outside of Yemen against its territorial integrity and its people will have no other result than more bloodshed and more deaths,” he told the Arabic language al-Alam television channel. Dr. Zarif also called for an “urgent dialogue” among the Yemeni factions “without external interference.”
There was strong condemnation from Moscow as well. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said, “Such a scenario cannot lead to the conflict’s settlement by definition.” The Chinese were a little more circumspect in their condemnation but they also opposed foreign military aggression against Yemen. Surprisingly, even the European Union foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, raised concerns about the situation in Yemen, saying, “The latest events in Yemen have dramatically worsened the already fragile situation in the country and risk having serious regional consequences.”
The UN has remained mum despite clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a member-state. On March 24, Hadi had sent a letter to the Security Council asking for a resolution to approve the deployment of troops from “willing countries” to save his regime. His letter to the Security Council as reported by Reuters news agency called upon the 15-member body to authorize “willing countries that wish to help Yemen to provide immediate support for the legitimate authority by all means and measures to protect Yemen and deter the Houthi aggression” (emphasis added). He was holed up in a remote corner of Aden and the small force still loyal to him was disintegrating in the face of advances by Ansarullah fighters as well as forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, yet he claimed to be the “legitimate authority.” The letter was almost certainly sent at the behest of the Saudi regime.
Even before these dramatic developments, the Saudi regime had dispatched troops, artillery and armor to the Yemeni border ostensibly to “prevent fighting from spilling over” into its territory. The move, however, was widely seen as an act of aggression aimed at the Houthi militia that has made impressive gains since it took control of the capital Sana‘a last September. The Saudis had already made their intentions clear when they convened a meeting on March 21 attended by members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Presided by the new strongman, Saudi Interior Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the GCC member-states decided to exert “all efforts” to preserve Yemen’s stability.
Two days later (March 23), Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal announced that Arab countries would take all “necessary measures” to protect the region against “aggression” by the Houthi movement if a peaceful solution could not be found. And what would these Arabian regimes that have no legitimacy in their own countries, do? Their track record shows that they can only instigate trouble — like producing and financing al-Qaeda and takfiri terrorists. Their fallback position is to appeal to the US, their guardian angel, to do something.
What the Saudis are really good at is to stoke sectarian conflict. The Houthis are Zaydi Shi‘is. Their home base is in the north of the country but as great fighters, they have made spectacular advances deep into the south. On March 22, they captured Ta’iz to the northwest of Aden. They also captured al-Anad military base some 60 km outside Aden before making their thrust into the port city itself. The airport had already been stormed by forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Saleh on March 19. The attack force was led by a unit of police commandos headed by Brigadier General Abd al-Hafez al-Saqqaf.
In the surreal world of Yemeni politics, Hadi had “sacked” al-Saqqaf a few weeks earlier, an order the latter rejected because he argued, quite rightly, that Hadi was no longer the president. General al-Saqqaf continued to occupy his office as well as his post. When the police commandos stormed the airport, troops loyal to Hadi were rushed to defend it. These were dispatched on the orders of Major General Mahmoud al-Subaihi, who still claimed to be the country’s defence minister although he together with Hadi had already resigned in January. There was a standoff at the airport because pro-Saleh forces were not strong enough to banish Hadi loyalists completely. Enter the Houthi militia a few days later and Hadi loyalists were routed. The airport is now shut down because of security concerns. Also, al-Subaihi was captured and sent to Sana‘a.
“Subaihi was arrested in the city of Houta” in Lahij Province, Mohammed Abd al-Salam, a spokesman for the Houthi movement, said in a statement aired by the Houthi-run al-Massira television on March 25. The Houthis appointed Major General Hussein Khairan as the new defence minister. To reassure people, a spokesman for the Houthi movement said the rights of people in southern Yemen would be respected.
Yemen has become a battleground for an odd assortment of forces. Here is a rough line-up. In addition to the Houthis, forces loyal to former president Saleh are fighting against the dwindling forces loyal to Hadi. There are also groups that are supported by “Saudi” Arabia. These include al-Islah Party; the terrorist outfit Da‘ish (ISIS) with their signature suicide bombings and killing of people even in masjids as was evident on March 20 in Sana‘a; al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP); and the Salafis. Then there are tribal leaders pursuing their own agenda including the southern secessionist movement, al-Hirak al-Janoubi. At the tail end are other small groups like the Arab nationalists and Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).
It is quite revealing that the Saudi regime as well as the US have abandoned all pretence of opposing the terrorists and are now openly on the side of the Da‘ish terrorists, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Islah. For years, the US has been fighting against al-Qaeda and carried out drone attacks against its leading members including the killing of US-born cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son Abd al-Rahman in September 2011.
While it is too early to tell what course future events will take, certain conclusions can be drawn even at this early stage. It would be premature to write off the Houthis. Air power has seldom, if ever, forced determined fighters from abandoning their positions. Is the Saudi regime prepared to send in ground troops — a bunch of amateurs that flee at the first sound of gunfire from the opposite side — to fight the Houthis? The latter have proved adept at fighting well-armed groups. They routed the Yemeni army last September before taking over Sana‘a.
If the Saudis harbour any illusions that Yemen would be as easy as Bahrain, they are daydreaming. The two scenarios are very different: Yemen is a vast country with mountainous terrain and Yemenis will not tolerate foreign intervention in their affairs for too long. Even those that may be calling for Saudi intervention today will turn against the invaders. Besides, in the eyes of most Yemenis, whatever little credibility Hadi had — and he had precious little to begin with — he is now seen as a Saudi puppet.
After fleeing Aden, he popped up in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in the company of Saudi Defence Minister Muhammad ibn Salman on March 26. The Saudi attack will also help recruit more people to the Houthis’ cause because civilians are getting killed and people know who the aggressor is. It also cannot be ruled out that there may be Houthi incursions into the medieval kingdom along the long common border. Is the Saudi regime prepared for a long drawn out battle?
It is one thing to support takfiri terrorists to cause mayhem in another country; it is an altogether different proposition to have one’s own forces involved in fighting, especially when they have such a poor track record. That explains why King Salman tried to hire Pakistani troops for the border war when he summoned Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to Riyadh on March 5. While Islamabad politely declined, the decision appeared to have been dictated by the Pakistani military that is already stretched thin on numerous fronts at home. Would Pakistan now join the air war against Yemen, as its Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam hinted on March 26 saying it was “considering the Saudi request”? If so, what would be the consequences if a Pakistani plane were shot down and the pilot captured by Houthis? Have the Pakistani rulers thought through the consequences of their action carefully?
The Saudis want to instigate sectarian warfare in Yemen, a trap the Houthis have avoided so far. And they must be very careful not to fall into one now. When they first took control of Sana‘a last September, they did not indulge in any reprisal attacks against the Sunni majority. Instead, they concentrated on improving security and the chaotic traffic situation in the capital. This won them grudging admiration from all segments of the population, including their opponents.
The next phase of the struggle will be a lot harder. In addition to confronting forces loyal to the fugitive former president Hadi, there are terrorist groups on the loose. Now there is also external aggression from “Saudi” Arabia. The Houthis must resist the temptation to fall on sectarian loyalties.
The Yemenis’ grievances are based on economic, political and security considerations. There is mass unemployment. According to UN statistics, at least 43% of the population lives below the poverty line. There is an explosive growth in population and few employment prospects for youth. The Saudis prefer to drop bombs on Yemenis than give them employment. True, some Yemenis have made it big in the oil-rich kingdom — the Bin Ladens immediately come to mind — but that was decades ago.
With no known resources to rely on for income and massive official corruption, the people’s woes have multiplied. These are compounded by the growth of tribal-based militias that have terrorized people. American involvement in the form of drone attacks and stationing Special Forces has only added to instability. Since 9/11, Yemen has been the special target of US ‘benevolence.” In fact, US aggression against Yemen predates 9/11. In October 2000, the USS Cole was blown up in Aden’s harbor bringing Americans into the country in a big way. Their drone strikes have killed hundreds of people.
Such attacks have intensified hatred for the US and acted as magnet for terrorist groups. It would be in the interest of the Houthis and indeed all Yemenis to establish peace and security as soon as possible and establish a system based on the rule of law, constitution and justice. Revenge killings must be avoided even if there are provocations from takfiri terrorist groups, as there will be, like the March 20 twin attacks on masjids. Tribal conflict must also be avoided.
Their greatest challenge now is to confront the “Saudi menace. Perhaps, the Najdi bedouins’ mistake may cost them their kingdom. Should this cruel family be consigned to the dustbin of history, it would bring great relief not only to Muslims but to all people around the world.