Syria has obscured the conflict at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula, where the region’s familiar frictions are causing bloodshed – and embroiling the West. Kim Sengupta reports
The US has become directly involved in a increasingly vicious Middle East conflict which has also drawn in two of the region’s major powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is not Syria, however, but Yemen, where many of the same struggles – between Sunni and Shia Islam, between Arab governments and the forces of Islamic State and al-Qaeda – are being played out.
In October, America was drawn into the war in Yemen for the first time, with a destroyer, the USS Nitze, launching a salvo of Tomahawk Cruise missiles at Houthi rebels onshore after rockets had been fired at another American warship, USS Mason. Undeterred by the Tomahaw The conflict betweenks, the rebels launched more rockets at the Mason. Iran, meanwhile, announced within hours of the American strike that it was sending a pair of destroyers to the same waters.
A few days earlier the conflict had come under rare international scrutiny when the Saudis dropped a 500lb laser-guided bomb on a funeral procession, killing 140 people and injuring 525 others. A few weeks before that, a Scud missile fired from Yemen struck a city 325 miles inside Saudi Arabia, showing that the capital, Riyadh, was within the range of ballistic missiles from across the border.
The conflict between the Houthis, backed by Shia Iran, and a Saudi-led Sunni alliance has claimed 10,000 lives in Yemen, and threatens to spread violence beyond its borders. The poorest country in the Middle East is now rapidly sliding into a humanitarian disaster, with three million people driven from their homes and 14 million suffering from severe hunger and malnutrition. The bloodshed continues to rise relentlessly, with repeated accusations of war crimes on both sides. Over a hundred hospitals and medical clinics have been hit, along with schools and colleges, in the 3,000 air strikes which have taken place so far. Dozens of power stations and water plants have also been destroyed.
But while headlines are dominated by Syria, and the Mosul offensive starting in Iraq, there has been little international focus on the carnage taking place in Yemen. The West has a clear link to what has unfolded there: the bomb dropped on the mourners was part of a massive amount of weaponry sold to the Saudis and other Gulf states by the US, Britain and other Western countries. London and Washington also provide intelligence, targeting and mid-air refuelling for warplanes.
The funeral massacre, which the Saudis blamed on faulty intelligence provided by the Yemeni army, led to calls by civil rights and aid groups for the US and Britain to halt arms supplies. Both governments said they would review their policies, with Britain planning to present a draft resolution to the UN Security Council, calling for an immediate ceasefire. But both countries have promised such reviews in the past; ceasefires, meanwhile, have come and gone in 14 months of bloody strife.
Large-scale fighting got under way in 2014 when the Houthis, followers of the Zaidi sect of Shi’ism, seized the capital, Sana’a, forcing the government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi into exile. Since then the rebels, who have the backing of army units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, have gained control in much of the north and west of the country.
The Saudi coalition began its bombing campaign in March 2015. There was talk initially of a ground force of Pakistanis and Egyptians going in, but neither country was willing to make a large scale deployment in the conflict. Since then the coalition has had a limited ground presence in Yemen, including an international mercenary unit of around 1,000, paid for by the United Arab Emirates and trained by American contractors with links to the highly controversial security firm formerly called Blackwater,
The Saudi-led states effectively withdrew from another coalition, organised by the US to bomb Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to focus on the Yemeni mission. But the Houthis have proved to be far more resilient than Riyadh and its Western backers had expected, and, with the attacks inside Saudi Arabia and on the USS Mason, as well as the near sinking of a UAE ship, they have shown their willingness to go on the offensive.
The rebels have begun to view Washington as being hand-in-glove with the Saudis, and anti-American feeling has risen as air-strikes take their lethal toll. Opposition to support for the Saudis has also grown in the US and UK. Ray Offenheiser, President of Oxfam America, said after the funeral bombing: ‘… Deference to Saudi Arabia has cost America its moral footing; many members of Congress agree. [In September] 27 senators, including top leaders, voted to block a sale of tanks and other defence equipment to the Kingdom in a direct rebuke to the Obama administration. While the measure did not pass, it was a sign of growing realisation in Congress that US support for the war in Yemen is indefensible.’
But the arms trade has been highly lucrative. The Americans have approved $115 billion worth of equipment sales to the Saudis since the start of the war. Britain’s figure is a much more modest, but still significant, $6.5 billion. Questions have been asked in Saudi Arabia, including by members of the royal family, about this massive outlay in a conflict with no end in sight, at a time when the economy is faltering due to falling oil prices. The budget deficit stands at a record £100 million; senior officials, including ministers, have taken a 20 per cent pay cut; government contracts have been frozen.
But it is not going to be easy for the Kingdom to extricate itself from the Yemeni quicksand. Riyadh has claimed that the rebellion is orchestrated by Iran as part of its plan to impose Shia hegemony in the Gulf. To the extent that it is portrayed as an existential struggle for the Sunni nations, compromise hardly appears an option. The Yemen war is also intertwined with the power politics of Saudi Arabia and the ambitions of Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the Kingdom’s young deputy crown prince, who is amassing power and has become the leading public face of the government.
The 31-year-old Prince, second in line to the throne, has put forward a programme of wide-ranging economic reforms at home and assertiveness abroad. He engineered the launching of air strikes without fully consulting others in the security apparatus. The head of the National Guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, for instance, was not even informed, and was out of the country when the warplanes took off.
Prince bin Salman was frequently photographed with troops and at military facilities when the campaign first began. There has not been much sign of that once the prospect of a quick triumph receded. But having been so closely identified with the mission, he is unlikely to agree to a deal which cannot be presented as a victory.
It is widely suspected in the Kingdom that Prince bin Salman wants to supplant the heir to the throne, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, his 57-year-old cousin. Prince bin Nayef, who has been lukewarm about the Yemen venture, is credited with conducting a forceful campaign in the past against al-Qaeda. Now taking advantage of the chaos, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has established its presence in five separate governorates in Yemen. The West’s problem with Yemen is unlikely to dissipate in the near future.
Kim Sengupta is the Defence and Diplomatic Editor of The Independent. He has covered around two dozen conflicts in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe as well as reporting on other issues from there and elsewhere in the world