Saudi Arabia’s nominal goal of restoring President Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi in Yemen looks increasingly unattainable as the kingdom is being dragged deeper into a sectarian war.
Despite a victory against the Houthis in Aden this week — where Hadi had held out after being forced out of the capital, Sana’a, by Houthi rebels in February and before he fled to Saudi Arabia — four months of bombing have done little to set back a group the Saudis see as a proxy for their regional nemesis, Iran.
United Nations mediation has gone nowhere. A truce announced last week was immediately broken.
Garrett Khoury argues at The Eastern Project that the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen is similarly pointless. He wonders what the Saudis were thinking when they first conceived of the operation in March.
The answer seems to be that their own shock and awe campaign would send the Houthis scurrying for cover and ready to agree to President Hadi’s return to power. They have gotten themselves into Yemen and now are finding it tremendously difficult to get out. Meanwhile, their air war only turns more Yemenis, regardless of where they fall on the sectarian divide, against the Saudis, who they blame for exacerbating the political and humanitarian situation.
According to the United Nations, some 3,000 Yemenis have been killed in fighting in the last three months, half of them civilians. Over a million have had to flee their homes and 21 million are in need of immediate help.
Saudi fears of Iranian influence notwithstanding, there is little evidence that the Houthis coordinate much with the Middle East’s largest Shia state. Iran did come to their aid after they evicted Hadi from Sana’a. But the Houthi rebellion had been festering for years without Iranian involvement.
The conflict came to a head earlier this year when the Houthis allied with troops loyal to Hadi’s predecessor and longtime Yemeni ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh to block constitutional reforms that would have split Yemen up into six autonomous regions. The Houthis say Hadi’s plan would have eroded national unity.
The war is no longer about constitutional reforms nor about Hadi’s restoration, however. Peter Salisbury reports for World Politics Review that few of the groups fighting the Houthis care much about the still internationally-recognized president.
In fact, one of the biggest problems the Saudi-led coalition faces is the extent to which Hadi and his advisors have struggled to build lines of communication with resistance forces, leading Riyadh to lean increasingly on Yemen’s Sunni Islamists, who just a year ago it named members of a terrorist organization.
In 2012, the kingdom facilitated Saleh’s ouster, hoping to stop Islamists from hijacking another “Arab Spring” uprising. Saleh’s forces now fight with the Houthis while the Saudis have come to see the Islah party, Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood, as the lesser evil.
In most cases, resistance to the Houthis is driven by perceived threats to local autonomy, according to Salisbury — especially in the former South Yemen where separatists worry that an Islah victory over the Houthis could see one northern regime replaced by another.
It was Saleh, a northerner, who presided over Yemen’s unification in 1990.
The Saudis have little choice but to allow Islah a role in the fighting. It is better organized and more heavily armed than the southern independence movement. It also has a wider support network.
Yet doing so risks putting the lie to the claim that Riyadh’s intervention is an attempt to restore the country’s legitimate president to his rightful place and complete Yemen’s political transition to democracy, rather than a sectarian war for political primacy in Yemen.
More worryingly for Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, the Al Qaeda branch in Yemen also present itself as an anti-Houthi front, raising the prospect of an alliance of convenience between a Saudi-backed Islamist coalition and Islamists terrorists.