On 26 March a broad Saudi-led Sunni-Arab coalition began bombing opposition bases in Yemen.
The Saudi operation, named Decisive Storm, also involved moving 150,000 troops, plus tanks and heavy weapons, up to their border with Yemen. Both Saudi Arabia and Egypt have threatened to invade to prop up their favoured regime, led by Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and against Hadi’s Shia opponents, the Houthi militia.
They won’t be eager to put troops on the ground. Their main target, the Houthi fighters in northern Yemen are formidable opponents; the Houthis were not beaten by Saudi bombing — supporting a government ground war – in 2009, and Egypt still remembers a disastrous campaign in north Yemen in the 1960s.
Yemen’s population is 26 million. About one in three are Houthi, members of a minority strand of Shia Islam, the Zaydi sect. The Houthi militias, in alliance with part of the old state machine allied to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, now control most of the West of Yemen, and are attempting to take the Southern port city of Aden where dozens have died in fighting in recent days.
This, the latest round of Yemen’s long-running political crisis, began to take shape in the summer of 2014. On 30 July Hadi’s government doubled petrol prices.
Using anger at the price hike, the Houthis organised in opposition. Fighting last summer killed hundreds.
The Houthis then stormed the capital, Sanaa, overrunning it on 21 September. The only resistance came from army units loyal to Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, while those loyal to former President Saleh stood back from the fight. Al-Ahmar was formerly Saleh’s military enforcer against the Houthis when Saleh fought a series of wars in the north from 2004 to 2010.
Divisions between the contending forces are not simply ideological, but are also business conflicts between competing gangs of drug, diesel and weapons smugglers. Al-Ahmar, for example, may well have Sunni Islamist sympathies, but he is also a major racketeer. The Houthi clans have traditionally operated as smugglers between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Fuel price rises badly affected those involved in petrol and diesel trading.
Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced by international pressure to hand over power to Hadi in 2012 following mobilisations to replace him during the Arab Spring and an assassination attempt which nearly killed him.
He is now attempting to manoeuvre his family back into power by backing former enemies. Late last year Saleh had Hadi expelled from his General People’s Congress party. In January and February the Houthis consolidated their position in Sanaa by toppling the government.
Saleh is now allied to the Houthis, and his son – former commander of the Republican Guard – has lined the Guard up with them. The Houthi militias took control of various military bases and their stocks of weapons. Rebel army camps have been extensively bombed by the Saudis.
Much recent press coverage has described the conflict as a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, a battle between the regional powers for control and influence. It is certainly true that the Saudis intend to stop a Shia force becoming dominant across their southern border. The extent of direct Iranian involvement is much less clear. In the past Iranian involvement has been exaggerated.
However, last December Reuters, for example, carried credible reports of increasing Iranian military and diplomatic backing for the Houthis. Probably a small number of Iranian military advisors are with the Houthis and the Iranians and their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, may well have taken Houthi fighters abroad for training. Certainly there is increasing Iranian diplomatic backing for the Houthi. There are also claims that Iranians have been sending boatloads of weapons and money to the rebels.
No matter what the exact truth, the basic conflict has local roots. The aim of the Saudi bombing is to press the Houthi leaders to negotiate and to allow Hadi to return to power – he appears to have fled Aden and is now in Saudi.
Yemen is the poorest of the Arab countries; there is no coherent, integrated society and little chance of creating a modern state. Aside from the brief emergence of a popular, democratic movement during 2011, very little positive can be said about politics there. Saudi bombing and Iranian meddling will make matters worse, not better.
In addition to those contending for power in the current round of fighting al-Qaeda have a sizable network in the East of the country and Daesh (ISIS) have begun to operate with a series of sectarian bombings against Shia targets.
In late March Daesh killed 140 people when they bombed two Shia mosques in Sanaa.