The country is divided by a multitude of conflicts and alliances, in which regional powers intervene
It is a war with multiple fronts and many warring parties. It is a religious war, an ethnic war and an ideological war. A war that is fought on the ground, at sea and in the air. Foreign agents intevene in this war in order to test and confront each other. Furthermore, it is a war that serves as a laboratory for all the Islamist schools of thought, leading to a permanent escalation in radicalisation. The result of all this is an extraordinary chaos which, to the great misfortune of the Yemini population caught in the cross-fire, renders any cartography of the conflict extremely difficult . Since the summer, the pro-government forces have regained the advantage thanks to air and ground support, provided by Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf Allies.
The pro-government forces have won the battle for the Port of Aden, the country’s second largest city. Although the situation in Aden remains unclear, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Haid, the only figure recognised by the international community, was recently able to return to the city after six months in exile. The pro-government forces then went on to recapture five southern regions.
But this coalition is, to say the very least, disparate : what unites it, is a shared hostility to the rebellion and the fact that it operates under Saudi command, benefitting from supplies of weapons, subsidies and being managed by the Arab monarchies. Under the name of “popular resistance”, it thus unites those who want to see self-government, members of the southern independence movement (South Yemen was independent until 1990), Islamist fighters, volunteer soldiers and Sunni tribes. Currently, the coalition is attempting to move up to Sanna and advance to the Red Sea – it has captured the famous strategic strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, in the south of the Red Sea – but its advance is proving very slow.
New territories for Al-Qaeda
A new front has also opened near to the ancient city of Maarib, in the east of the country. Here again with the government soldiers we find units from Saudi Arabia, reinforced by other members of the Arab coalition, particularly the United Arab Emirates.
The other side is just as diverse. It brings together the northern Houthi rebels, a radical Zaidi sect (the Zaidis are similar to Shia muslims) who have been in dissent with the government for many years and who last year captured Saana and a large part of the country. They are allied with forces loyal to the ex-president Ali Abdallah Saleh, swept out of office as a result of the popular uprising in 2011.
It was the capture of the capital by the rebels, followed by their rapid advance towards Aden which had provoked Riyad’s reaction and the intervention by the coalition air force, which since March has been bombing the country in general and the capital in particular.
But the two coalitions are not the only ones involved in the conflict. Taking advantage of the weakening of the country’s government and the chaos created by the escalation of the conflict, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has been active for some time now in the south-east of the country, has seized new territories. They now control the vast semi-desert Hadhramaut region (where Osama Bin Laden’s family came from), the Al Mukalla port, some districts of Aden, along with various enclaves. For several months, it has imposed the strictest Sharia law, executing anybody accused of witchcraft or homosexuality and amputating the limbs of those accused of theft.
Some months ago, a new force appeared on the scene: the Islamic State. It portrays itself as the enemy of all warring parties, claiming to take them all on alone. In September, it took everybody by surprise when it made its first deadly attacks in Aden, targeting the government and the coalition troops fighting against the Houthi rebels. According to the Soufan Group, a company specialised in security and intelligence, “The war in Yemen is a perfect laboratory for a terrorist group looking to expand regionally. The group is following the strategy deployed in Iraq and Syria, taking advantage of chaos and insecurity”.
The fact is that a “great game” is being played out in Yemen, the players of which are either independant – AQAP and the Islamic State – or linked to one of the regional powers – the Houthis, supported by Iran, the “Popular Resistance”, supported by Ryad and the Arab coalition. As a result, the Arabia Felix of ancient times, along with Syria, has become the battlefield of choice for Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The Saudi kingdom has always considered Yemen as its exclusive domaine. Ryad believes that the military action of the Houthis is part of an Iranian strategy to encircle Saudi Arabia, with Shia militants playing a similar role to that of Hezbollah in Lebanon. This explains the violent reaction of the Saudis. A Gulf state foreign minister highlights that it is “the first time that the Saudis have embarked on a large-scale military operation without the support of the US”. It is the Kingdom’s first major foreign military operation.
Though the military intervention is popular in Saudi Arabia, it is a daunting task for the monarchy. If it fails, it will undermine the Sudairi dynasty, which regained control of the country following the death of King Abdallah in January 2015. In his role as defence minister, Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, the deputy crown prince, personifies the war in Yemen. If he fails, his place on the throne will pass to Muhammad bin Nayef, the crown prince and deputy prime minister.
For Iran, on the other hand, Yemen is not a domestic political issue. Nor is it an Iranian military priority in the same way as Syria or Iraq. Nevertheless, the Iranian regime has the opportunity to confront the Saudis by supporting the Houthis and using them as a strategic pawn. This explains the supply of arms to the rebels by Theran, as demonstrated by the recent seizure of an Iranian ship by the Saudis.
With the Islamic State’s sudden entry into the conflict, the war has become even more complicated because, like AQAP, this organisation has succeeded in rallying local tribes and dignitaries. As a result, the work of the Arab coalition has become even more complicated. Despite hundreds of air strikes and the dispatch of reinforcements by the thousands, the Arab coalition has not managed to defeat the Houthis and their allies, who still control Saana and the north of the country. The coalition will need to fight on two fronts, especially since the former president and ally of the Houthis, Ali Abdallah Saleh, has renewed his ties with former jihadi networks in order to reduce military pressure on his camp.
Furthermore, rifts are beginning to open up within the coalition; there are differences between southern separatists – often those who were part of or close to the old communist regime of south Yemen – and Sunni Islamists, whether they be members of Al Qaida or not. In these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine the coalition attempting to seize Sanaa or even Taëz, a large city in the centre of the country that is currently under the control of both the Houthis and groups linked to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Yemeni conflict reflects the dramatic strategic shifts taking place in the region. Saudi Arabia, estranged from the US, is now emerging as a military power, adopting the role of the leader of the Arab world (Egypt no longer has the means to do so). The war also reveals the kingdom’s strategic and defence priorities. “Its alliance in Yemen with radical Islamist groups shows that difficulties with the Shias and not the jihadis are the key concern for Riyad”, according to one expert. François Hollande, ally and friend to Riyad, must be well aware of this.
15 October 2015
Translated from French
The original author was Jean-Pierre Perrin, a journalist at Libération