Yemen: Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam

The war on Yemen has left thousands dead and created hundreds of thousands exiles. Pictured: Yemen capital Sanaa. (Photo: Richard Messenger / Flickr Commons)

The war on Yemen has left thousands dead and created hundreds of thousands exiles. Pictured: Yemen capital Sanaa. (Photo: Richard Messenger / Flickr Commons)

Cross-posted from View from the Left Bank.

1.

And then there is Yemen where a ragtag coalition – hardly worth the name – of Saudi-paid mercenaries is trying unsuccessfully to crush a rebellion and democratic movement (inaccurately referred to as a Houthi-ethnic revolt) in order to restore “their man,” Abd-Rabbuh orted against that country, this despite the fact that a major U.S.-supported war continues to devastate the country.1 Unless using Democracy Now!Truthdig, or Foreign Policy In Focus as main news sources, it is unlikely that people within the United States even know there is a war going on, to say nothing of the whys and hows, or where Yemen is even located.

Peace talks between warring factions in Yemen that collapsed a month ago, are scheduled to resume in a couple of days in Switzerland. They will coincide with a week’s ceasefire between the warring parties more than likely to be put in place at the same time. As a part of the ceasefire, Saudi Arabia has agreed to temporarily suspend its bombing campaign. While statistics vary as to casualty rates (with sources friendly to the Saudis claiming 2,500 dead, an Australian source gives a much larger, 6,000 figure) often missing from the picture is that war has already created 200,000 refugees, people who have fled the fighting which has engulfed essentially the whole nation. In the political vacuum created by the war, Al Qaeda has strengthened its position in the country’s southern regions.

While some sources say that the Obama Administration is less than enthusiastic about this Saudi-led war, essentially to return former Yemeni president and Saudi ally Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi to power, Washington’s actions suggest that they are very much involved, as a part of the Obama Doctrine, first articulated in a May, 2014 West Point speech, to give its local allies more military responsibilities so that the United States can concentrate its security efforts more substantially on Asia. Beyond giving more military responsibility to Washington’s U.S. allies – Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia – the Obama Doctrine appears to have as a long-range plan the continued pulverization of Middle East states formed as a result of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the destruction of Iraq and Libya being the first steps of a broader process. The vision is to break up what had been stronger (if authoritarian) Arab states into smaller post Sykes-Picot ethnic units. In the pre-Obama Doctrine phase the United States played a more dominant military role, in the current period, more of that responsibility is pawned off to the regional allies.

If Yemen is any indication, the plan is not working very well.

Despite mounting evidence of Saudi atrocities and possible war crimes as a result of Riyad’s air campaign in Yemen against civilians – mostly done by U.S. provided jet fighters using largely U.S. made weapons – the Pentagon recently announced on November 16, that the U.S. has approved a $1.29 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia.2 As reported in an article on the arms sale that appeared at Truthdig, the U.S. State Department on Friday approved the sale of over 10,000 bombs, munitions, and weapons parts produced by Boeing and Raytheon. This in addition to one of the biggest arms deals in history done by then U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, totaling more than $60 billion in U.S. arms to the kingdom a few years ago.

  • Yemen’s importance to the United States is a result of its strategic location at the mouth of the Bab El Mandeb Straits, southern entrance to the Red Sea and a major oil, natural gas and commodity shipping lane, one of the world’s major maritime “choke points.” The only acknowledged U.S. military base, Camp LeMonnier, lies nearby in Djibouti, on the African coast just across Bab El Mandeb from Yemen.

Saudi Arabia has given three reasons for its war against Yemen: 1. To restore President Hadi to power. 2. To crush the Houthi Rebellion 3. To limit what it continually criticizes as the growth of Iranian influence there. None of these reasons stands up to scrutiny. Hadi’s government had failed to address the country’s deepening economic and social crisis. This was the main reason for his removal from power. True enough, the Houthis – a Shi’ite offshoot group with strong roots in Yemen’s northern regions – have long been a thorn mostly in Saudi’s sides, they have legitimate grievances against both the Sana’a government and the Saudis who have continually interfered with Houthi political and religious life along Yemen’s border with Saudi Arabia. Finally while Iran has offered the Houthis aid, they are a completely indigenous movement with one of the strongest and most able local militia’s in the region. Although repeated in the U.S. media ad nauseam, the claim of them being an Iranian proxy is grossly exaggerated.

When the Houthi led coalition overthrew the Hadi government in late February, early March 2015, they entered into negotiations with a dozen Yemeni parties to come up with a power-sharing agreement. What were its main points:

  • The Houthis had agreed to a power sharing agreement with a reduced role for Abd-Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, ie – they, and the other parties involved, were willing to let Hadi remain in place.
  • They had agreed to withdraw their militia’s from the country’s capitol, Sana’a to be replaced by a national unity security force that United Nations experts had prepared. In return, the Houthis would have gotten about a 20% share of government control. But Hadi rejected these terms as did the Saudis and while the negotiations were still in progress, Hadi called for and got Saudi military support; the Saudis started their bombing campaign.

Other more pertinent reasons for Saudi’s Yemen offensive exist.

While there are a number of factors involved, the Saudi’s great concern was to prevent the Arab Spring spreading to the kingdom, the political winds of which threatened the regime’s legitimacy: Stop it in Yemen before it spreads to Saudi Arabia. One of the main reasons the Saudi’s fear political change in Yemen is that they worry it could have a spillover effect within the Saudi kingdom itself; about 10% of Saudi population is Shi’ite and resides mostly in the country’s oil rich eastern regions not far from the Persian Gulf. A systematically repressed (and rebellious) population the Saudi royal family fears a political change in Yemen could stimulate demands for political change in the Saudi kingdom itself, something it understands – with the examples of Tunisia and Egypt in mind – that it probably could not control.

There are other factors as well.

  • Saudi Arabia considers Yemen little more than its backyard, and has intervened in that country repeatedly. It simply does not tolerate a government in Sana’a that it cannot control and that is precisely what appeared to be taking shape earlier this year as the Hadi government first wobbled and then fell not to the Houthis alone but to a coalition of forces.
  • Finally, the Saudi offensive in Yemen is something of a “consolation prize” offered by, or at least tolerated by the Obama Administration. As is well-known, the Saudis and the Israelis adamantly opposed the nuclear deal concluded between Iran and what is referred to as the P5 + 1 (Permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). While much attention in the media and the U.S. Congress was placed upon Iran’s nuclear energy program, there was much less emphasis given its political consequences: the United States and Europe entered into a less confrontational relationship with Iran, Iran’s regional influence has grown some and that of Israel and Saudi Arabia somewhat declined. These considerations, much more than fears of Iran’s nuclear capability, were behind Israeli and Saudi opposition, an opposition which they made repeatedly crystal clear. And in classic contradictory fashion, the hallmark of the train wreck that has been U.S. Middle East policy for some time, at the same time that Washington was toning down its rhetoric with Iran, helping to ease regional tensions a bit, it was simultaneously ratcheting up those tensions with major arms sales and transfers to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and in the Saudi case, despite some reservations perhaps, giving important intelligence and logistical support to the Saudis concerning Yemen.

2.

Probably one of the main reasons for the reopening of negotiations in Geneva stems from the fact that for the Saudis, the war in Yemen – their public statements aside – is going badly, very badly. Their bombing campaign – no replenished with more U.S. weaponry – has done a lot of damage to the country’s civilian population but not hurt the Houthis and their military allies (many supporters of an earlier Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh) on the ground. The Houthi-led coalition has destroyed a number of Saudi ships in the Red Sea, they have overrun a number of Saudi positions along the border. Indeed the Saudis are rather notorious for the ineffectiveness and poor training of their ground army, which is good for little more than police activity. It has proven to be no match for the battle-hardened Houthis.

This situation – the ineffectiveness of the Saudi ground forces – has led Hadi and the Saudi government to ally itself, and rely more and more heavily on, of all things, Al Qaeda of the Arab Gulf.  The same forces which since 2002 the United States has been targeting with drones in order to neutralize them are now part of the Saudi-led military effort in Yemen. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has tried to put together a kind of grand alliance, allies to help it do the fighting, with the Saudis essentially doing what they do best – spending money to buy mercenaries. It had hoped that both Egypt and Pakistan, Moslem countries with strong militaries, but enter into the fray on its behalf, but to no avail. Although the Saudis helped the Egyptian military overthrow the Morsi government in Cairo, Egypt, which a half century ago, got burnt badly by its military expedition in Yemen, refused to send troops. Pakistan, in what was a rather cynical – but effective move on their part – put the question of sending their troops, still heavily involved in intrigues in Afghanistan mostly in support of their own creation: the Taliban and with the never-ending tensions with India over Kashmir, also demurred. The Gulf States (U.A.R.) did send some troops but they proved to be as ineffective as the Saudis themselves and are pulling out. So, as mentioned above, the Saudis are looking further afield, to mercenaries from Latin America (Mexico and Colombia are repeatedly mentioned). These mercenary forces find themselves also “militarily challenged,” the mountains of Colombia being not quite those of Yemen. One recent Iranian news report (see the video clippage from this report) picked up by an Australian news service noted that six Colombian mercenary troops and their Australian officer were recently killed in the fighting.

If Yemen is any indication, the plan is not working very well. Indeed, Yemen is turning out to be “Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam.” It is the Saudis — not the Yemen opposition this time — that has pressed the United Nations to go back to the negotiating table. Besides being hit on the military front, Saudi’s Yemen war is costing Riyadh  economically, at a time when the kingdom is suffering from mounting foreign debt and causing deepening rifts just below the surface among the Royal family between those who want to persist with the war and those who want to end it and cut their losses.Mansour Hadi, to power. Riyadh has failed miserably in this effort, and this is probably the main reason why it is limping back to the negotiating table in Geneva.

There is precious little news about developments in Yemen in the U.S. press, where, since March of this year, a U.S.-supported, Saudi-led military assault continues unabated and generally under-rep

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  1. Let us recall the 2006 National Geographic survey asking Americans ages 16-24 about the geographic location of different Middle Eastern countries.
  • 63% could not locate Iraq correctly on a map although the United States had been at war in the country since 2003.
  • 9 of 10 could not locate Afghanistan where the United States had been involved one way or another since the 1979 Soviet Invasion and since 2001 militarily
  • 54% didn’t know that Sudan is an African country
  • Although only two years after the devastating 2004 South Asian tsunami, 75% could not identify Indonesia on a map; nor did they have any idea that it, and not some Middle Eastern country, is the largest Muslim country in the world.

Given the poor education in geography in most U.S. high schools which hasn’t gotten any better in the past decade, it is unlikely that the picture has changed much if at all. In the same way that general information about Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria is largely unknown to the American public – their very location to say nothing of their history, or why the United States is engaged militarily there – American knowledge of, or interest in what is going in Yemen is sketchy at best, non-existent for the most part.

Ignorance of global geography has political consequences. It permits governments and their informational services, the media, to spin faraway events to their liking in such ways as to justify war and garner public support for such. So it was with the major escalation of the U.S. military commitment – otherwise known as an invasion – of Vietnam in the early 1960s based on a fabricated incident (Bay of Tonkin Incident), the U.S. led invasion of Iraq (based upon the false claim that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and was allied with Osama Bin Laden, architect of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States) by way of the more egregious, but by no means only, examples.

2.  This includes 5,200 Paveway II “laser guided” and 12,000 “general purpose” bombs. “Bunker Busters,” also included in the deal, are designed to destroy concrete structures. The State Department’s statement indicates that the deal will, in part, be used to replenish arms for Saudi Arabia’s seven-month-long military assault on Yemen.

Rob Prince is a retired Senior Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. He frequently writes about economic and political developments in North Africa, especially Algeria and Tunisia. He blogs at View from the Left Bank.

  • Richard M

    A war that has been going on for less than a year can hardly be considered one that is stalled. Overall, progress has been quite good, as wars go. However, they need to do a better job of stopping supplies and reinforcements from entering.

    • Rob Prince

      Well Richard…Basically disagree… although I doubt the war will be resolved at the currrent meetings in Switzerland – the Saudis (and allies) are getting schlonked…that is why they asked the U.S. to organize the meeting in Switzerland…Anyhow…regardless of your take, I hope that there is an end to the fighting very soon and that a political solution can be reached.

  • DefiantAtheistess

    Good article. The Houthis seem relatively sane compared to the rest of the state actors involved. Their biggest mistake was letting Hadi freely turn tail to his Saudi masters so they could start their horrendous bombing campaign, which has caused untold death and destruction (not to mention giving a huge boost to Al-Qaeda and ISIS).

    It’s also telling of the huge propaganda system in place where every time the houthis are mentioned in the media, it is accompanied by “Iran-backed”. Even Obama himself acknowledges that the houthis work independent from Iran (Iran actually advised the houthis against taking Saana).

    in the spirit of fairness, every time ISIS are mentioned can we have “Saudi-Wahhabi Backed” added before……or every time Israel shells a Palestinian child on a beach, can we add “US backed” ?

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  • Apanther