The Yemen Crisis only recently grabbed my attention during the usual morning routine of reading the news over breakfast. Lately, a story of violence, destruction, extremism, and political crisis breaks nearly everyday. Not only are there too many civil wars going on right now to cover, they tend to read like sports articles and analysis: just statistics detailing the offense and defense executed on the different sides. I’m still focused on Syria and Palestine, but Yemen has had enough compelling details that somehow don’t add up. I had to carve out a couple days to research and digest the matter. Basically, something stinks and I want to know what’s up.
When the news is called out blow-by-blow, it rarely gives any significance to history, and usually standing in one place, most reporters cannot keep up with all the moving parts. Before starting this article, I was only clear on the fact that Saudi Arabia’s air campaign in Yemen was against a militant faction called The Houthis, who deposed President Hadi from office and palace some time early this year. Hadi fled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Houthis had staked claim over the government by controlling the capitol, Sanaa. Rumors of al-Qaida and Islamic State expanding their presence, thanks to the chaos of the scene, had been circulating.
There is a religious and tribal connection that can be traced back generations, even if the exterior of the conflict is a modern political one. There is of course a Shia muslim versus Sunni muslim conflict at play, with Shi’ite Houthis holding a majority in the north while Hadi comes from the Sunni south. Iran is majority Shia, Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni. Al-Qaida is Sunni and Houthi is Shia.
Both Houthi and Al-Qaida roots go back in Yemen as early as the fall of the Soviet Union and their occupation of Afghanistan in 1991.
Osama Bin Laden operated a training camp in Afghanistan and believed that Yemen had an important role to play in global jihad. His influence produced Islamic Jihad in Yemen, Army of Aden, and eventually al-Qaida in Yemen throughout the nineties, so that by September 11th, 2001, there was already a developing history of Yemeni attacks from Islamist militia against western nations.
Hussein al-Houthi established the Believing Youth movement in 1992 to teach Zaidi Islam through school programs and summer camps. Teachings included lectures from Hassan Nasrallah, now Secretary General of the Lebanese political party with armed forces, Hezbollah. With 20,000 student attendees of the summer camps by 1995, there was a growing cult-like following in reverence of the al-Houthi family.
President of North Yemen throughout all of this is Ali Abdullah Saleh. He earned a vicious military career in the Yemen Arab Republic military from 1960 to 1980. By 1983, he was President and remained there until the Soviet-backed South Yemen collapsed with the disintegration of the U.S.S.R. He swiftly absorbed the whole of what is Yemen today and became the first President of the new unity government.
Southern secessionists threatened the rule of Saleh. He utilized jihadists from Afghanistan, the same as early al-Qaida groups in the early nineties, to squash insurgencies from Marxist secessionists. In 1994, a Vice President is appointed by the name of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, for his military role in keeping the movement down. His role in the government becomes ceremonial.
Houthis were relatively quiet until anti-west sentiment developed after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. They got Saleh’s attention as their numbers had grown and they had become increasingly militant. Without any particular provocation, members of the movement were arrested. Hussein al-Houthi did not wait to be arrested, so he started the first Houthi insurgency against Yemen in June 2004 and was killed on September 10th. Every year since, there has been some kind of offensive measure from the Houthi movement. By 2011, they played a meaningful role in the revolution that ousted Saleh.
That revolution was part of “The Arab Spring,” which is an ongoing struggle. It has been a violent process but also led to international reforms and liberated many people from oppressive government rule. The nations still seeing great unrest are dealing with waves of humanitarian crises, civil war, and terrorism. The Yemeni Revolution has been one of the most unstable movements in the bunch. First, it left the old regime in place. Second, it was the failure of regional factions to form a respectable committee to support militant forces.
Water and Qat
One compelling aspect of the whole conflict is that Yemen is experiencing the greatest water crisis in the world. The prospect of Yemen being the first to run out of water has been rumored for many years, and yet, to this day, nothing is properly being done about it. Post-revolution reforms were met with a lack of political will from Hadi’s government. Social instability is a massive distraction.
In a nation where 75% of men are addicted to a legal stimulant-narcotic known as qat, where food crops are being replaced by the demand for and profit from qat, where water drilling is unregulated, where nearly half the population is hungry, where cultivation of qat is estimated to be responsible for as much as half of the disappearing water table (6.5 feet per year), there is a country with a severely torn social fabric, whose people are reeling and desperate, as something is deeply corrupting the government.
For about one year after the revolution, Saleh remained President but essentially powerless. His successor, Hadi, was elected amidst unrest and instability. He was unopposed. By 2014, it seemed that his rule, though flawed, was likely to continue with reelection in 2015. This is when the Houthis started to dig in.
What Led to Saudi Air Strikes
On January 22nd, Hadi was run out the Presidential Palace, resigning from office along with his entire cabinet, escaping to Riyadh, where Saudi Arabia took him as the President-in-exile. Abdel Malik al-Houthi became the first President of the Revolutionary Committee of Yemen.
Houthis rose to victory, building their control and support from the north, and in the summer of 2014, they descended upon the central capitol of Sanaa. But when they took the city by force and marked their territory like a gang, dissolving parliament and forming this farcical Revolutionary Committee, a considerable portion of the Yemeni public, Arab Gulf Cooperation Council, and United Nations called it an unwelcome coup d’tat.
It took about two months of failed peace talks mediated by United Nations for Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily. The UN condition was that Hadi would remain in office and his government would be restored. That is a difficult pill to swallow, so it is understandable that they would capitulate. February and March continued without the successful formation of a new government. Al-Qaida and Islamic State representatives continued to infiltrate the insecure nation, to fight the Houthi uprising and to thwart the return of Hadi’s regime.
Rutgers Associate Professor of Middle East studies, Toby Jones, speaking on Democracy Now, points out that Yemen has been a fractured, troubled nation for longer than the Houthi insurgency. He acknowledged that the Houthis had accomplished nothing “but [to] kill a thousand Yemenis.” Both politically and socially, they are stuck, but he stresses that they are one among many factions calling for political solutions while staging peaceful protests. He says:
The Houthis aren’t the only ones who have put pressure on Sanaa’s old central government. Pressure has come from the south, it’s come from tribal confederations, all of whom have suggested that the political dialogue, the national discussion, about the post-Arab-uprising political rapprochement that was necessary, had been a deeply flawed process. The Houthis didn’t call for war, and they coordinated closely with actors on the ground. They’re the ones who were being attacked, even though they’re the ones who have been calling for a political settlement to a deeply broken system all along. The fact that the Saudis have recast this in a language that the Houthis are the villains and the ones acting dangerously is remarkable.
Toby is not merely sympathetic; it is documented that Houthi protests in Sanaa were violently squashed with Yemeni security forces under Hadi, opening fire on protesting crowds.
With the claim that Iran was backing the Houthis, that they represented a threat to national security because of their control of a Saudi border region, and that militants had produced a humanitarian crisis, Saudi Arabia launched Operation Decisive Storm on March 25th. Toby points out that Houthis have no desire to invade Saudi borders, and that the humanitarian crisis happened in their backyard for more than a decade. “This is a place that has rapidly run out of water,” Toby continues. “It has very little in the way of natural resources. The Saudis are just making a bad situation worse.”
After Saudi Air Strikes
The mission of Decisive Storm was to degrade Houthi capability and was announced as a success on April 22nd. The following mission, Renewal of Hope, evolved immediately on the 23rd. In a personal narrative from Casey L. Coombs, an American journalist stuck in war-torn Sanaa and landlocked thanks to Saudi bombing, describes the desertion of a usually thriving city and the difficult circumstances of taking a commercial flight in an occupied nation where Saudi jets have bombed the airport. Shuttled around on a motor-bike taxi, he was unable to find a Western Union or other common services, and he points out,
The one market that appears unaffected — at least in terms of supply — is qat, the mildly narcotic plant that is almost universally chewed in Yemen. A qat dealer once told me that the qat is recession-proof — the qat markets are always up and running.
The story about Iran supporting the Houthis militarily has been published many times in numerous publications, yet the assertion is flawed. Beyond the possession of weapons traceable to Iran, there is no evidence of direct collusion as a proxy actor. Merely tracing arms to a weapons manufacturing nation is virtually irrelevant, and the double-standard glares when you look at al-Qaida or Islamic State weapons that are traceable to the United States. If this criteria holds true, then all the conspiracists are justified in accusing the U.S. of supporting The Islamic State.
It is however out in the open that the Saudi government helped keep in place a failing regime with Hadi as the head, keeping him surrounded by former President Saleh’s family members.
April and May were characterized by failed ceasefire attempts and continued bombardment from the Saudi-led coalition, which included all Gulf-region nations and other allied countries. Accusations from the UN against the coalition have surfaced recently. Reports have circulated about the dropping of cluster bombs, an indiscriminate weapon of mass destruction. Al-Qaida continues to be targeted in the south by American drones, even as jets bombard their Houthi enemy.
On May 11th, Saleh announced his alliance with the Houthis after his home in Sanaa was bombed by the coalition, killing three guards while leaving him apparently unscathed. This lends all forces loyal to Saleh over to the Houthi cause, to engage in a desperate attempt at retaining power.
Revelations from Hani Mujahid
A former al-Qaida member and informant to Yemeni anti-terrorism units under Saleh has cast alarming accusations on the deposed President and his military between 2006 and 2011. Hani Mujahid provided information that could have thwarted two terrorist attacks, one targeting Spanish tourists, the other targeting an American Embassy.
That Saleh was both creating and controlling al-Qaida in Yemen through this U.S.-funded anti-terrorism program in order to continue receiving revenue is credible and supported by U.S. authorities. The post-revolution government that was backed by Saudi and U.S. diplomats left many of these military officials in place.
The Houthi coup which forced Hadi into exile points mostly to the political impossibility of reforming an old regime into a satisfactory democracy by using that same old regime. Yet this plan is what the international players are fighting for. The strongest question is, “Why?”
It is possible that Hadi is currently supported because during his three years of rule, he gradually reorganized the military with a certain obsession for cutting out the Saleh power hub. Interestingly, the work has continued in exile. Yesterday, following the Mujahid revelations, by Presidential Decree (in exile) Hadi relieved Brigadier Ammar Mohammed Abdullah Saleh (nephew of President Saleh) from his post in Ethiopia.
Hadi’s presence is virtually by proxy, making few public appearances. His strategy has focused on international relations, unlike his predecessor, who could work with opposing factions in a masterfully sociopathic kind of way, but politically effective in dealing with homegrown issues. Hadi, as Vice President, and now President, cannot be disconnected from the corruption, from aiding al-Qaida. He pushes back against Saleh’s rule, but not substantially. His relationship to real civilians is disconnected after 21 years at the top of Yemen’s government.
Where The Wheel Turns Next
On June 3rd, peace talks were arranged for June 14th, in Geneva, moderated by the United Nations. This came after the deaths of at least 58 Yemenis under coalition bombing last week. The conflict has seen over 2000 related deaths, with many more injured, and half a million refugees since the start of the Houthi insurgency.
On the same day, Former Senator and Co-Chair of the 2002 House-Senate Joint Inquiry into 9/11, Bob Graham, called for the declassification of allegations concerning Saudi Arabia’s financing of al-Qaida members which led to 9/11, declaring:
If the American people knew the full truth, I believe there would be an outrage that a country which alleges to be such an ally of ours has engaged in so many actions that have been so extremely negative towards the United States.
In Yemen, public support for a Houthi regime is simply vanishing, despite all the damage done by coalition air strikes. It is strange that Houthis would be willing to align with Saleh, the same man who had their leader killed. They might gain forces loyal to him, but they will lose public support.
That Saleh would turn against al-Qaida is not surprising considering that he used them to get on America’s good side. When a Saudi air strike degrades Houthi territory and capability, al-Qaida is conveniently there to dig in.
Saleh intentionally manipulated America’s War on Terror toward personal gain. Saudi Arabia did not commence air raids on this government. It was only when that government was removed that they stepped in, with America and allies at their back. If Houthis succeed, which is impossible, then Saleh will continue his power. If Hadi is put back into place, then a very similar situation will indeed continue, with al-Qaida targeting both Houthis and the regime.
This is a nation that needs to focus on social stability, food production, and water conservation. It can’t do that with any of these factions. It could take years to build a government and the water crisis should have been handled years ago.
I am no more clear about who is running Yemen than anyone else, but if you trace the contradictions far enough, a pattern emerges. The wheel of this story turns all kinds of corners, but eventually it gets somewhere and parks.