Friday, March 27, 2015

Note on Yemen

Updated 3/28/2015
The Main Bazaar in Old Aden, 1930s. Wikimedia Commons.
Iran Daily did a remarkably good Shorter for their dek text, though it's hard to see how they could have been doing it on purpose:
US Republican Senator John McCain has applauded the offensive launched by Saudi Arabia and its allies against Yemen, speculating that the “conflict will probably escalate” into a regional war in the Middle East.
C'mon folks, let's put your hands together and give it up for regional war! One can only hope, huh, Uncle John?

Not that he can't find something to have a sad over:
“The reality is that countries in the region no longer have confidence in or are willing to work with the United States of America,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) somberly noted at a press conference on the Hill moments ago.
“Look at where we have come from — our closest allies in the region no longer trust us that they wait to tell us a few hours before they begin a major military operation,” McCain said. “I understand why these countries did not notify us or seek our coordination. That’s because they believe we are siding with Iran.”
I couldn't help wondering about how Saudi Arabia used to give us ample notification whenever they began a major military operation, assuming that's what the Senator's oddly constructed sentence meant. When was that? Did they ever launch a major military operation?

Turns out, for those of us with short memories, and that definitely includes me, they did have one once, in 2009, and it was pretty much the same one, too, attacking the insurgent Houthis in Yemen, except then it was in defense of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Then the Arab Spring overthrew Saleh and now he's ex-president Saleh and backing the Houthis, or so it is said. Oh, and last time it started when the Houthis crossed over into Saudi territory to occupy a couple of villages. And the Saudis lost at least 133 soldiers killed, whereas this time they plan not to lose any; it's one of those operations McCain doesn't normally approve of, where the Saudis have no boots on the ground.

Contemporary reports for some reason don't tell us what time the Saudis informed the US about their plans to invade Yemen in 2009, and I'm not a hundred percent sure McCain knows when the US was informed this time, but it couldn't have been too late, because a few hours after the first air strikes
White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters on Air Force One en route to Alabama that President Barack Obama had authorized logistical and intelligence support for the strikes, but that the U.S. is not joining with direct military action.
Or could he have authorized support for the strikes before he learned they were going to take place?

One thing it would be nice for people to try to focus their minds on: this is not or at least no more than halfway a religious or sectarian struggle. It's about power and money, as usual. The Houthi organization may be Shi'ites, but they are of a heterodox group called Zaidis ("Fivers" rather than "Twelvers", recognizing only the first five Imams), representing 35% of the population. The clan that supplied the Imams or later Kings of Yemen in a dynasty that lasted from 897 to 1962 was a Zaidi clan.

But the Houthi movement was founded in 1992 as the Believing Youth to promote peace and tolerance; it was only in 2003, in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, that they took to anti-American and anti-Semitic slogans and threatening the pro-American Saleh regime (Saleh is a Zaidi too), and eventually turning to outright militancy, leading to the killing of their leader Hussein al-Houthi in 2004 and the 2009 Saudi invasion.

They participated in Yemen's branch of the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, but rejected the settlement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council and continued acquiring territory, leading to the conquest of the capital Sana'a and the expulsion of the new president Abd Mansu Rabbur Hadi to Aden this January. If it is widely believed that Iran is providing some backing to the group, it is equally widely believed (and about with the same amount of evidence) that Saudi Arabia is backing their most powerful opponents, the Al Qa'eda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) organization.

What is certain is that a lot of the population of Yemen, and Northern Yemen in particular, backs the Houthis, and not because of their religious affiliation or their connections with Iran:
Analysts say that the popular appeal of the Houthi insurgency can't entirely be put down to sectarian factors. In a 2010 Rand Corp. report, the authors noted that "it is a conflict in which local material discontent and Zaydi identity claims have intersected with the state center’s methods of rule and self-legitimation." That analysis was echoed last year by Silvana Toska, a Middle East researcher, who noted that the Houthis were supported by "vast numbers of Yemenis who view them as a real opposition to the elites that is untainted by corruption."
This is a bad place for the US to be siding with Saudi Arabia and General Sisi's post-2011 Egypt. If there is any good place, which there isn't. Not that the Houthi group consists of people one would want to get close to either. As ever, the certifiably good people are just the everybody else, the ones who don't have any representation in the power game. I hope Obama and the Dark Forces are being really cautious here.

Lindsey-Woolsey Graham doesn't seem to favor the regional war concept quite as much as his buddy, as quoted in Huffington Post, or forgets how great it is that our Saudi compañeros are stepping up to the plate:
“One of my biggest concerns about leading from behind is that the vacuum created by America's failure to lead in the Middle East is setting in motion a calamity that could result in a bloodletting between Sunnis and Shias that we haven’t seen in a thousand years,” Graham said.
You set that in motion 12 years ago, with your heedless bedwetter warmongering, Senator. It's been going on ever since, and it's really time for you to shut up, now that the adults are trying to clean it up.

Update 3/28: Somebody who kind of agrees with me is somebody who knows a lot more about Yemen than I do, Barbara Bodine, who was US ambassador to Yemen from late 1997 to summer 2001, and who did an interview on NPR this morning that is really worth listening to. She has been a pretty controversial figure in her time (for her conflict with an FBI counterterrorism expert, John O'Neill, over the investigation of the bombing by Al Qa'eda operatives of the USS Cole in the port of Aden), but she's right: there is definitely no US military solution to Yemen's problems, and it's hard to imagine how there could be a Saudi one. 

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