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09 Dec 2009

Yemen's Dangerous Escalation

Minaret in Sana'a, Yemen, courtesy of Ai@ce/flickr
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Minaret in Sana'a

Saudi Arabia's military engagement in Yemen has raised fears of the internationalization of the al-Houthi conflict, but is a proxy war really in the offing? From ISN Security Watch.

By ISN Security Watch staff for ISN

Yemeni government forces pressed ahead with a major offensive against al-Houthi militants in Sa'ada city on Tuesday in a further intensification of the conflict in the country's northwest.

Both sides are claiming military successes against the other but it is difficult to ascertain the true trajectory of the fighting, which has drawn in Saudi forces since a short-lived incursion into the kingdom by al-Houthi forces in early November.

What is certain is that this - the fifth round of fighting since 2004 in the on-again, off-again conflict - has been particularly intense and has led to a major humanitarian crisis. Around 190,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in northern Yemen and Saudi border villages. 

Al-Houthi

The militancy is led by the al-Houthi clan, considered descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, entitled to a traditional leadership role under the Shia Zaydi imamate, which ruled areas of northern Yemen before dissolution in the 1962 republican revolution.

As in conflicts elsewhere in Yemen, tribal ties have played an important role. Iran's Press TV reports that some of the more prominent tribes in Sa'ada (Hashid, Bakil, Va'el and Khoulan) have been split in their support for either the government or militancy.

A Gulf analyst with an intimate knowledge of the conflict, who asked that her identity be protected, told ISN Security Watch that within the militancy, "There are different groups, and they have different interests.

"You have the core Houthis, which are centered on the family […] and they do have an interest in establishing an area or a territory which is out of the control of the state. They would like to have their own authority in this territory over what you pray in the mosque, what you teach in schools," she said, citing the now pragmatically defunct February 2008 Doha peace agreement between the al-Houthis and the government, mediated by the Qataris.

Others are "people who actually joined the Houthis after the first wars, when the government came down very strictly on Houthi sympathizers," she said.

An abiding sense amongst some Zaydis of marginalization and discrimination at the hands of the government, and tensions exacerbated by pervasive, deeply entrenched socio-economic deprivation also play an important role in stoking the conflict.

Poisoned relations

It is still too early to tell what the full impact of Saudi involvement in the conflict will be on wider regional tensions, but there are already signs that it is having a deleterious impact on already fraught relations with Iran.

Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani slammed the Saudi military intervention on Friday. He claimed that Riyadh had repeatedly been on the wrong side of regional conflicts, implying Saudi support for Israel’s 2006 attack on Hizbollah and 2008-2009 operation in Gaza.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government has joined the Saudis in accusing Iran of supporting the rebels. Sana’a’s Iranian Hospital was closed amid claims that it was helping al-Houthi rebels, and a boulevard in the capital was renamed after a demonstrator killed in the post-election protests in Iran earlier this year.

"Some Houthi loyalists claim that they have been trained by Iranian and Hizbollah militants [in] camps in Yemen and […] the Horn of Africa," Yemen Post Chief Editor Hakim Almasmari told ISN Security Watch.

Yemen reports that its forces seized an Iranian ship carrying arms to the al-Houthis in October, but there is little clear evidence of direct Iranian military support for the rebellion.

The Gulf analyst agrees with this assessment, while cautioning: “The longer the conflict takes […] the more likely will be the chance that Iran is trying to put a foot in, either in offering to mediate, as they have already done, or in trying to be the protector of Shia groups."

It remains unclear what purpose the conflict could serve for Iran given sporadic efforts by the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration in recent years to ease strained relations with a number of Gulf states and to assure Bahrain, which has a Shia majority, of Iranian non-interference in its domestic affairs.

It is important not to overstate the impact of the al-Houthi conflict Saudi-Iranian tensions
 
"I don't see a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran," the Gulf analyst said.

Saudi concerns

For the Saudis, their involvement in the conflict threatens the prospect of being bogged down in what has proved a grinding and perhaps intractable conflict and of potential military reverses being taken as signs of weakness by regional rivals.

Almasmari argued that many tribesmen have been joining the militancy, "not for love of the Houthis but for the sake of being against the Saudis."

Riyadh is already being brought to task by Amnesty International over civilian deaths in Saudi bombing raids in Yemen. The al-Houthi and Iran claim that the Saudis are using white phosphorous in some of these strikes.

While militarily damaging to the al-Houthi cause, Saudi involvement is actually a fillip for both the Sana'a government and the rebel movement, partially shifting the fighting and financial burden of the conflict from the Saleh government. For the rebels, it provides for the potential further internationalization of the conflict. This may act, over time, to transform their militancy from a damaging but largely contained rebellion to one with broader implications for regional power plays, if not stability.

Referring to the al-Houthi rebellion, the Gulf analyst said: “The Saudis have generally tried to stay out of it," adding, “It is not their policy, they would rather stay away from military conflict." She argues that the Saudis chose to become involved in the fighting as a defensive move.

A Saudi inability to disengage, coupled with the diplomatic play being made of the kingdom’s involvement by Iran, may also have an impact on domestic sectarian relations.

Of particular concern for the Saudis will be the spread of the fighting to the area bordering the kingdom's predominantly Shia Najran province.

Human Rights Watch published a report in September in which it alleged that the Saudi government engages in systematic discrimination against Shia in education, the justice system, state employment and with regard to "religious freedom."
 
"The war could now spread to the south of Saudi Arabia," Almasmari said. "The fear is that these Shia Najranis could cooperate with the Houthis."

The Gulf-based analyst differs. "There are no linkages between the Ismailis, the Twelver Shia [both in Saudi Arabia] and the Zaydis. Going back in history there are no points at which they in any way cooperated against, for example, the Saudi government," she said.

She noted that King Abdullah has reached accommodations with Saudi "Shia minorities. And they [Shia] profit from these right now, so they will not jeopardize their relations with the government by making statements [of support] for the [Yemeni] Zaydis.”

Bleak prospects
 
Perhaps the most disturbing element of the recent upsurge in fighting is the clear absence of conflict management or resolution mechanisms in the wake of the collapse of Qatari efforts.

Yemen’s key ally the US - clearly concerned at the trajectory of the conflict and wider security challenges facing the Saleh government - signed a military cooperation pact with Yemen in November.

Almasmari argues that the US decided on the pact once it became clear that the Saudis had become embroiled in the conflict and that the "Houthis [had] caused the Saudis direct harm."

The agreement is likely to promote the impression in Sana'a that the US stands firmly behind the government's prosecution of its current offensive. It comes despite the clear failure of Yemen’s security forces, over the last half decade, to overcome the militants militarily.

"There will be no negotiations, no peace agreements at all […] in the next year or so," Almasmari said.

"Yemenis would not accept the US as mediator; public opinion is very critical of the US," the Gulf analyst noted, adding, "I don't see that there is one EU state that could mediate at this time."

"The Yemenis have made clear that they don't want outside interference on this issue," she said.

Editor's note:

The name of the author has been withheld for security reasons.

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