Saudi Arabia’s cross-border attacks on Yemeni rebels were meant to bring down an insurgency. But will they only make this largely ignored conflict even worse?
Click to view image: 'JOOST R. HILTERMANN'
JOOST R. HILTERMANN is Deputy Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.
Click to view image: 'Saudi - Yemen border map'
In June 2004, the Houthis, a group of rebels in the Sa'dah governorate of northwest Yemen, began taking up arms against the Yemeni national army. They claimed, and continue to claim, to be defending their own specific branch of Shia Islam -- Zaydism -- from a Yemeni regime they say is too dependent on its northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and its partner in the war on terrorism, the United States. Yemen's political and military leaders have labeled the Houthis a terrorist group supported by Iran. This smoldering civil war attracted little outside attention until last month, when, on November 5, Saudi Arabia sent its warplanes to bomb Houthi positions around the border, both on Saudi territory and inside Yemen. It was Saudi Arabia's first cross-border military intervention since the Gulf War in 1991.
This sudden escalation alarmed analysts in the United States and the European Union, as well as those in the Middle East. The conflict, they fear, could evolve into a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which perceive themselves as the contemporary standard-bearers of the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, respectively. Equally worrying is that the latest attack could further destabilize the already fragile Yemeni state, which is confronted by a series of crises and a structural inability to govern its territory and population. In recent years, Yemen has rightfully gained a reputation as a safe haven for violent groups linked to al Qaeda.
The various actors involved in the Sa'dah conflict and the drivers of violence remain misunderstood. The Houthis are usually portrayed as a violent, anti-Western, and obscurantist group backed by Iran that seeks to restore the Zaydi imamate, a system of government that prevailed in North Yemen's highlands for centuries until the 1962 republican revolution. More nuanced accounts depict them as part of a wider, although marginal, movement that emerged in the 1980s to save Zaydism from what it perceived as a Sunni-backed offensive supported by the Yemeni elites. (The majority of these elites happen to be of Zaydi origin but no longer explicitly refer to that identity; the country as a whole is Sunni in majority.)
The Houthis remain obscure partly because they have not been able to articulate a clear agenda. They claim to act only defensively, but their slogan, "God is great! Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!" blurs that stance. The Yemeni government's restriction of independent media access to the Sa'dah region and the imposition of its own narrative of the conflict do not help. However, although the Houthis are critical of the Yemeni government's siding with the United States in the "global war on terror," they should not be lumped together with terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and its affiliates, something the Yemeni government and Saudi Arabia have been trying to do since 2004. Despite their incendiary rhetoric, the Houthis have never targeted Westerners or the tiny remaining Jewish population in northern Yemen.
Click to view image: 'Yemeni Jews'
The insurgency is more a reaction to a dysfunctional government than an inspired, centralized, ideological movement. Although there is a core of ideologically motivated fighters, most members do not appear to have any kind of consistent national or international objective. Indeed, in order to mobilize more than just the marginal Zaydi revivalist groups, the Houthi leadership has portrayed its position as purely defensive against acts of state oppression and attacks by the Yemeni army. The rebellion's leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, emerged as a prominent opposition figure because he voiced popular discontent about the Yemeni political system -- its corruption and perpetuation of social inequalities, its allegiance to Saudi and U.S. foreign policy objectives, its support of Salafi encroachment, and its repression of Zaydi revivalists. In a July 2008 interview, al-Houthi explained that he and his supporters refused to articulate any kind of political agenda because doing so would cause people to start fighting to see such demands satisfied -- contradicting what he sees as the reactive dimension of the war.
The conflict also has roots in the ill-solved civil war of the 1960s and the resulting culture of violence. As the six successive rounds of the conflict since 2004 have shown, violence and repression exacerbate grievances and fuel military confrontation. Tribal alliances encourage the involvement of more and more actors, even those who have no ideological affinity with the Houthis or Zaydi revivalism.
Saudi Arabia's continued involvement in the counterinsurgency effort is another driver of the conflict. The recent military offensive was perceived by many parties (especially the Houthis) as just the latest episode in a history of covert involvement in Yemeni politics and, in particular, in the war in Sa'dah. Ever since the war began, Saudi rulers have officially claimed that it was an internal Yemeni matter and condemned foreign interference, hinting that Iran was supporting the rebels. But the Saudi government itself has most likely funded the Yemeni government and its tribal allies since 2004. In June 2008, the Saudis allegedly started funding pro-government tribal militias in Yemen that were once headed by Husayn al-Ahmar, a prominent tribal leader and member of the Yemeni parliament. Such a strategy is counterproductive. Foreign money contributes to the Sa'dah governorate's war economy, which is built on the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and diesel to Saudi Arabia and the Horn of Africa. These inflows offer an additional incentive to fight, as army officers, tribal sheikhs, arms dealers, and rebels all gain a shared interest in the war.
Saudi Arabia's attack on the Houthis might have been driven more by internal motives -- rivalries between ruling groups or a desire to curry support from the vocally anti-Shia Islamist fringes -- than a clear foreign policy motive. Regardless, the move highlights the inconsistencies (or possibly the absence) of the country's Yemen strategy. The conflict can only be permanently solved by addressing the social, political, and religious grievances that motivate the rebels -- not by defeating them on the battlefield. In fact, sending soldiers (whether they be Yemeni, Saudi, or even tribal) and opening a new front would likely further destabilize Yemen, causing chaos that would be costly for all: al Qaeda would find fertile ground, and hundreds of thousands of refugees would put pressure on the borders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, risking a humanitarian disaster. Many Yemenis resent the Saudis, whom they often portray as opportunistic and corrupt, and the more Saudi support the Yemeni government receives, the more domestic legitimacy it loses. Foreign backing only makes Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih's government appear more incapable of effectively ruling the country.
The recent merging of al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia with al Qaeda in Yemen, as well as the group's relocation to Yemen under the leadership of Nasir al-Wahishi, are worrying. However, the capacity of Yemen-based al Qaeda militants to carry out attacks beyond the border (such as the August 2009 assassination attempt on Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's top counterterrorism official) is unlikely to be reduced by Saudi Arabia's military intervention. Saudi military actions will only deepen Yemen's insecurity by creating no-go zones for the Yemeni government and by expanding the war-torn areas where violent groups find safe havens, inside the Sa'dah governorate and in the neighboring governorates of Al-Jawf and Marib. Despite military operations, the 900-mile Yemeni-Saudi border will never be fully controlled, mainly because of the rough terrain and tribal opposition.
At the regional level, Saudi Arabia's overt intervention in the Sa'dah war may end up turning the accusation of Iranian support of the Houthis into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The armed conflict is increasingly being fuelled by the power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Since 2004, the Yemeni government has been accusing the Houthi rebels of being part of a wider Shia master plan that aims to spread the Iranian revolution. Yemeni authorities, however, have not been able to provide the international community with sufficient evidence and have often backtracked on some of their accusations. Saudi intervention may well create more shared interests between the Houthis and Iran.
Influential Yemeni elites, some of whom are close to the Islamists, have not helped matters by stigmatizing the Zaydi identity and alleging an Iranian role in Sa'dah. This just creates powerful incentives for Shiite groups to embrace transnational solidarity, Iranian news agencies to engage in biased reporting, and the Houthi rebels to seek money and know-how -- all of which the Saudi military intervention is bound to encourage and all of which will, yet again, make a sustainable peace harder to build.