Short of a full-blown ground invasion, the Saudi-led (and US-UK-supported) aerial bombardment of Yemen – Operation Decisive Storm – was probably the most dangerous of the available international responses to the Yemeni political crisis. That a ground invasion apparently remains on the table is either an indication of how misunderstood the drivers of the crisis are, or of a cynical willingness by neighbouring states to drag Yemeni civilians through another round of struggle for reasons of domestic legitimacy and regional dominance. Or both.
Civilian casualties from the bombings are already mounting, but the consequences will spread beyond this sad tally. Yemen imports around 90% of its wheat and all of its rice. With its runways bombed and airports closed, Yemen's already food-insecure population is in a dire humanitarian predicament.
At its heart, the Yemeni crisis is a continuation of a domestic power struggle that has been underway for more than a decade over the rightful successor/s to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the basis for their legitimacy. From a Yemeni perspective, the sectarian and regional geopolitical aspects to the crisis have been a sideshow to the local politics at play. However, Operation Decisive Storm risks unleashing a hell still (only just, and very imperfectly) contained by domestic power balances.
The military campaign is ostensibly to force the return to power of a weak and isolated president, Abdo Rabo Mansour Hadi, after he fled the country following a slow-motion coup by the northern rebel group, Ansar Allah.
Better known as the Houthis (after the family that has led the movement since 2002) the group has ties to Iran, though the duration and strategic depth of their association is a matter of conjecture. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have overstated the level of coordination between Iran and the Houthis to their domestic audiences. For example, members of the Iranian elite have touted Sana'a as the fourth Arab capital to join the Iranian revolution, while both Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni president have framed Operation Decisive Storm as saving Yemen from Iranian hegemony, calling the Houthis 'puppets of Iran'.
In reality, Iran's ability to drive events in Yemen through the Houthis is limited; hard evidence of Tehran's capacity to issue orders is scant. [fold]
That dearth of evidence is underlined by Saudi Arabia's willingness to assign geopolitical significance to symbolic or commercial ties, such as the new commercial flight route between Sana'a and Tehran.
The Houthis' success in Yemen is almost entirely a product of local political factors, military capacity, and support. The Houthis steadily gained influence by articulating widespread anger over the failures of Hadi's government, such as when it cut fuel subsidies in August 2014. The following month, Houthi militias overran the capital Sana'a with the acquiescence of factions of the military loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in 2012 but was granted immunity from prosecution (of whom more in a moment).
Tensions continued to build between the Houthis and President Hadi over an appropriate power sharing arrangement, and in January the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the president and other senior government figures under house arrest. In an apparent attempt to call the rebels' bluff, President Hadi and his cabinet resigned, leaving the Houthis militarily dominant but politically overstretched and increasingly unpopular. Hadi fled to the southern city of Aden, declaring it to be Yemen's new capital, and withdrew his resignation. On 25 March the Houthis, again drawing on parts of the military still loyal to Saleh, captured the al-'Anad air base just north of Aden and took Hadi's defence minister hostage. Hadi subsequently fled to Saudi Arabia from where he now praises the Kingdom's willingness to conduct air strikes in support of his leadership.
This snapshot of Yemen's political alliances makes some sense if one follows the fairly linear 'Saudi v Iran' script that permeates regional politics at the moment, but then it deviates and ties this logic in knots.
Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and his family have been informally affiliated with the Houthis since Saleh's removal from office following the 2011 protests. But prior to that, his regime fought six brutal wars against them between 2004-2010. For now, Saleh and the Houthis share a common enemy in President Hadi, although even that may have been put up for sale by Saleh over the weekend. Saudi Arabia has come and gone with the Houthis as well, invading northern Yemen to fight them briefly in 2009-2010, only to apparently investigate a closer collaboration with them last year against Yemen's Islah Party, elements of which are affiliated with Saudi Arabia's other bête noire, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Meanwhile, both the Houthis and Saudi Arabia are declared enemies of al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Former president Saleh, on the other hand, repeatedly released its members from prison and had his military abandon their posts and relinquish territory to them in an apparent attempt to illustrate just how chaotic Yemen could become if protests against his rule continued.
Despite the international tone to recent events, Yemen's predicament is very much a product of domestic political tensions and failures, the threads of which have been woven through the country's rivalries, palace intrigues, and humanitarian calamities for over a decade. Each of Yemen's contenders to power have sought political advantage by attaching their cause to wider regional preoccupations, whether sectarian rivalry, the war on terrorism, the rise of Iran, or a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Saudi Arabia's Yemen intervention is part of the broader regional trend of narrowly-based regimes shoring up their domestic legitimacy through external posturing – the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the Saudi invasion of Bahrain (2011), Iran's support of Hezbollah and Hamas, regional support for/against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and, of course, more recently the civil war Syria and Iraq. The list goes on.
The notion that outsiders now need to 'pick a side' between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen is extremely dangerous. The Houthis may well have imploded as they tried to govern the country, and been forced back into negotiations. But we will never know, so great is the desire for outsiders to be seen to be doing something. Anything.
Photo by Flickr user RA.AZ.