Revolution To Proxy War
The way the West views the Arab Spring remains contentious. On the one hand, we triumph it as a series of anti-government protests in response to authoritarian, oppressive regimes. For many, the collective action that emerged out of the Arab Spring was a symbol of people power in societies where fundamental human rights were routinely abrogated. However, marches soon turned to riots and voices turned into violence. Where passive resistance was ignored, active resistance was born, and anti-government insurgencies took hold across North Africa and the Middle East from Morocco to Iraq. In the rubble of weak states, opportunistic Islamist actors emerged, charged with the will of the angry and an unflinching desire for power. Of all the countries that fell into what is now called the Arab Winter, Yemen represents perhaps the most devastating example. Opportunists labelling themselves the Houthis seized the existing government in 2015, triggering what would soon become the world’s most pressing humanitarian crisis. How did this happen? This essay will explore the internal and international historico-political origins of the Yemen war through scholarly discourse.
The collapse of the GCC-sponsored reconciliation process created an ideal environment for the deposition of the Hadi government by rebel forces. Opportunistically taking advantage of the general power vacuum created by the Arab Spring, the Houthis quickly formed an association with former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2015. Backed by Iran, Houthi rebels have demonstrated little desire to protect civilian life, participating in indiscriminate warfare and exploiting child soldiers. Some have criticised what they see to be the demonization of the Houthis. In an article published in Foreign Affairs in 2015, historian Asher Orkaby argued that the Houthi assault on Sana’a and the deposition of the Hadi government was “less a struggle between external forces than the continuation of a longer struggle between the northern tribes and the Yemeni republic.” Western analysts have obscured this accurate evaluation of the Yemeni Civil War through the oversimplification and misrepresentation of the parties involved. We often see a conflation between the complexity of regional ideological distinctions and religious sectarianism, such assumptions hindering the establishment of effective diplomacy. As political analyst Peter Salisbury argued in his opinion piece, Building Peace in Yemen From the Ground Up, we can see a cognitive gap in Western understanding of the Yemeni conflict, significantly in our limited conceptualisation of internal actors positioned against Houthi rebels.
Contrary to popular belief, the extent to which the Yemen National Army is controlled by the deposed Hadi government is highly contestable. Through a more nuanced evaluation, with further analysis of regional history and tribal geography, it can be observed that the Yemen National Army is instead comprised of northern tribesmen, southern secessionists, Salafists and military units affiliated with Yemen’s main Sunni Islamist party. It is this common reductive misconception, that both Orkaby and Salisbury have described as a counter-productive force in ongoing peace negotiations. However, four years have passed and whilst we can still recognize the origins of the conflict in tribal divisions, we have since witnessed an increased interest by several international actors and an expansion of the beneficiaries of a lucrative war economy.
How did this seemingly internal war become internationalized? In accordance with their long history of taking advantage of international alliances, the Houthis accepted military support from Iranian armed forces. To Iran, the Houthis were an effective tool in their pursuit of regional hegemony. To the Houthis, Iran offered arms, intelligence and men. While the extent to which the Houthis are dependent on Iranian arms is highly contentious, states such as Saudi-Arabia and the UAE have treated this as a matter of great concern. Their intervention in the conflict is a matter of great controversy.
Whilst Yemen’s Gulf neighbours have been vocal in their calls for the re-establishment of Yemen’s previous leadership, anxieties over Tehran’s influence in the region act as a much more powerful motivation for their military presence in the country; a presence costing Saudi-Arabia alone an estimated $100 billion USD. Whilst Saudi Arabia has spearheaded the GCC’s military campaign, particularly further north and far south, the UAE has also acted as a significant player in south Yemen, due to their strong tribal connections in Aden. Operation Decisive Storm saw the Saudi-led coalition seize Sana’a airport (preventing the much-needed distribution of humanitarian aid to the Yemeni people) while indiscriminately firing explosives into civilian areas and torturing innocents. Whilst scholars and commentators in the Arab media have depicted this warfare as a manifestation of existing Saudi-Iranian tensions, a much more obvious factor is at play. As argued by international relations scholar May Darwich, the uncharacteristically aggressive Saudi-led intervention is representative of a broader switch in Saudi foreign policy; the Kingdom’s will for regional and international status.
Western involvement adds fuel to the wildfire with the US, UK, Australia, Canada and France providing arms, logistical support and intelligence to the Saudi military. How did we get to this stage? Having supported Saudi-Arabia since the Kingdom’s establishment, the US further endowed the Kingdom with legitimacy by siding with Saudi proxies in the Iran-Iraq war and later against Saddam Hussein in 1990. Things began to change under the Obama administration. The 2015 US-Iran nuclear deal defined a new American relationship with Iran, something that would prompt a significant shift in Washington-Riyadh relations. Perhaps in order to shore up Saudi relations, the Obama administration and the United Kingdom agreed to assist Saudi-Arabia in Yemen, through the distribution of weaponry, logistical support and intelligence. It is also to be noted that in addition to Saudi-Australian arms deals, the Australian Royal Navy has helped train the Saudi naval blockade.
A War Against the People
It’s easy to conclude from Yemeni political history and Saudi Arabia’s brutal intervention that the conflict is another Middle Eastern proxy war. Perhaps a more controversial yet appropriate way of viewing the struggle is as a war against the Yemeni people – unarmed civilians, their only crime being born in the wrong place and time. Despite their differences, we see both the Saudi-coalition and Houthi rebels actively obstructing humanitarian aid, committing war crimes, exploiting children for military purposes, torturing detainees and participating in the indiscriminate firing of explosives into civilian areas. It’s easy for Western media outlets to criticise Saudi Arabia for its shocking treatment of women and terrible human rights record. Bur perhaps it is time Western media outlets ask why we have been so eager to abet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s brutal terror campaign against the Yemeni people.