Who Has A Stake In Yemen Fight?

By Michael Scollon | (RFE/RL) –

Yemen is at the center of a proxy war between regional heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia. It's the source of fears of a broader Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. And it has implications far beyond its borders.

Here is a look at the stakeholders in the fight.

The Playing Field
The Yemen conflict is a tale of twos:

Two leaders: Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh (a Shi'a), who was replaced amid the Arab Spring uprising by his deputy, current President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi (a Sunni)

Two regions: North Yemen and South Yemen, which merged in 1990, with Saleh as president

Two capitals: Sanaa in the north, and Aden in the south

Two branches of Islam: Yemen is more than 99 percent Muslim, of which 65 percent are Sunnis of the Shafi'i school of thought, and 35 percent are Shi'as of the Zaydi school.

Two powerful extremist groups: The Huthis are Shi'ite rebels who first took control over north Yemen, forcing President Hadi to flee, expanded their control through most of the country, and are now moving on his refuge in Aden.

On March 27, the group put a bounty on Hadi's head, and used the Yemeni Air Force it largely controls (with Saleh's help) to strike Aden, forcing Hadi to go into hiding. The Sunni militant group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the most active Al-Qaeda franchise, controls large areas of north-central Yemen, and is pitted against the Yemeni government, Saudi Arabia, the Huthis, southern separatists and, ultimately, the United States.

Two regional backers: Iran supports the Huthis, materially and militarily; Saudi Arabia backs the Yemeni government headed by Hadi, and on March 25 led air strikes involving 10 Arab countries against Huthi rebels, leading Tehran to denounce the intervention.

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Sunni Solidarity

The countries involved in the Saudi-led air strikes are Sunni, underscoring broader Sunni solidarity centered on Gulf Arab countries but which extends to Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, and Turkey, among others.
Yemen will be the main topic of discussion at an Arab League summit in Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, this weekend, and Hadi will attend. Aside from participants' role in the current Yemen intervention, the gathering of foreign ministers may move closer to establishing a joint Arab military force. The idea has been spearheaded by Egypt and the Gulf states as a way of combating terrorism and staving off Iranian influence.
Saudi Arabia has deployed about 100 aircraft in the Yemen intervention, dubbed Storm of Resolve, and planes from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain are also contributing.
Saudi Arabia is also is contributing as many as 150,000 troops to the campaign, and Egypt, Jordan, and Pakistan have expressed their readiness to take part in a ground offensive as well.
Sudan, which has had traditionally good relations with Tehran, also said it was ready to send ground troops.

Oil Prices
Global oil prices immediately surged on news of Saudi Arabian-led strikes in Yemen.
Benchmark Brent crude prices rose nearly 6 percent on March 26 (to near $60 a barrel), before easing a little due to fears that the military intervention could spark a broader regional conflict and disrupt oil supplies. On March 27, prices fell more than $1 a barrel (midday low $57.76) after Goldman Sachs said the Yemen campaign would have little effect on global oil supplies.

In kind, global stock indexes dipped, including the U.S. Dow Jones (down 0.6 percent) and London's FTSE (down 1.2 percent).

Saudi Arabia, the largest oil producer in the Middle East, has been a central figure in the global fall in oil prices that began in 2014. Oil accounted for some 90 percent of Saudi Arabia's budget in 2013, according to Reuters, yet Riyadh has steadfastly refused to cut production to buoy prices.
Iran has characterized the fall in oil prices as the result of a Saudi and U.S. conspiracy against Tehran, whose oil income has been hurt by sanctions over its contentious nuclear program, and Russia, which relies heavily on oil income and is at odds with the West over its intervention in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow, which stands to gain from any rise in oil prices, has been working the phones and playing the peacemaker role since the Saudi-led air strikes began.
On March 27, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and "expressed concern over the escalation of tensions in Yemen," according to the Kremlin press service. He also stressed the importance of "intensifying international efforts to achieve a peaceful and lasting settlement of the situation in the country."
In a telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rohani on March 26, Putin called for the "immediate cessation of hostilities" in Yemen — read by the Iranian press as a call for Saudi Arabia to halt its intervention — and also expressed satisfaction with progress made in the ongoing nuclear negotiations between Iran and the six world powers.
The negotiators are entering the end game of talks aimed at meeting a March 31 deadline to come up with a framework agreement over Iran's nuclear program.
As Tehran tries to cut a nuclear deal in Switzerland that will result in sanctions relief and allow it to pursue a peaceful nuclear program, it must fend off criticism of a possible deal from regional players Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Netanyahu has been openly critical of the talks, which he argues are not going far enough to ensure that Iran cannot acquire nuclear weapons, and has raised the alarm about Iran's growing influence in the region.
Riyadh has expressed its own concerns about Iran's encroachment in the region and has sparked fears of a nuclear arms race by saying that any deal that allows Iran to enrich uranium will lead Saudi Arabia to seek the same.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who is also Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, on March 26 demanded an "immediate stop to the Saudi military operations in Yemen." He was also quoted by the Arabic-language al-Alam news network as saying Iran would "spare no effort to contain the crisis in Yemen."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to visit Iran in April, has been outspoken in his criticism of Tehran's role in Yemen.
"Iran and the terrorist groups must withdraw," he told France 24 on March 27, alluding to Huthi militants.
"We support Saudi Arabia's intervention," Erdogan said, adding that Turkey "may consider providing logistical support based on the evolution of the situation."
On March 27, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif responded to earlier remarks by Erdogan in which he accused Iran of trying to dominate the Middle East.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready for cooperation with its brothers in the region to facilitate dialogue between various groups in Yemen to maintain unity and return stability and security in that country," Fars quoted Zarif as saying.
Iraq finds itself in a tricky balancing act. It is relying on Iranian-backed militias to help beat back an incursion by the hard-core Sunni Islamic State group on the ground, and U.S. air support to strike IS from above.

This week, the United States agreed to conduct air strikes in support of Baghdad's effort to retake the Sunni-stronghold Tikrit. Once Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani and his Iran-loyal militias had left the scene, U.S.-led air strikes followed.

During the Arab League summit in Egypt this weekend, Iraq can also expect to hear calls for its participation in the establishment of a joint Arab military force, an idea it has been reluctant to endorse because of its ties to Iran.
United States
Yemen, once a poster child of success for Washington, now adds to the complex challenges facing the United States in the Middle East.

On the one hand, the United States is in the unlikely position of being on the same side as Iran in fighting IS in Iraq.

But in Syria — where it is also targeting IS — Washington is arming some of the groups fighting the Iran- and Russia-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad.

And now, the United States finds itself backing (not yet militarily, but with logistical and intelligence support) longtime ally Saudi Arabia against Iran-backed militants in Yemen. 

All this at a time when Washington is trying to seal a nuclear deal with Iran.


Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.

5 Responses

  1. Hunter Watson, US is involved anyway. Saudi’s airforce, its planes are American. In fact, I don’t think knowing them i doubt if they could have accomplished these raids without active support of Pentagon. US has been droning this country and actively destabilizing it. Remember that it was last year when someone from Yemen spoke to Congress and said don’t bomb my village to Congressmen’s applause?
    Iran is there by default, that is because Yemen had been a failed state for a while. I don’t think that Iran had to do anything. In fact, there is no proof of major military support from Iran to Houti’s. It is difficult to ship arms under watchful eyes of US Navy. Besides, Houthis got over $400 million of modern US equipmetn according to Pentagon. Who needs those old Klashnikovs from Iran? As it has been written here, Yemen’s problem is poverty, it is a country that is thirsty. To oversimplify the problem and say it is a sectarion fight is not accurate.
    Nation state is an arcahic concept. Why should some countries in the region be so poor and others so rich? And these others were all created artifically by coloinial powers (I think it is ridiculous to call these tiny countries in Persian Gulf states. And remember Lawrence of Arabia?) This idea has been challenged in ME but unfortunatley by murdreres like Saddam (invasion of Kuwait) and Daesh/IS.
    Finally, what worries me is this idea of bunch of countries forming a coalition and attacking another country and no body in the world rasing their voice! What happened to international law, to security council, structure of the world order after 2nd world wa? I fear the future.

    • rightofreturn 2015.03.29 09:23 Reply

      “Hunter Watson, US is involved anyway.”

      Of course we’re involved, and Yemen is just an example, but what national interest do we have there which requires intervention in her Civil War? Can you articulate it? Has anyone outside of government done so? What more are we getting ourselves into and why?

      For the sake of the argument I say there is no American interest in the country. So why are we active in subduing it? If not for ourselves, for whom are we doing it and why? What overall strategic goals are we following in the region as a whole if they aren’t ours either. Have we committed ourselves to the maintenance of order in the entire region with no sunset provision?

      And then there is the vexing question: who is primarily responsible over all for the turmoil in the region since WW II? By counting the dead I conclude that it is the US and Israel. Where does that lead in terms of American policy?

      • I’m a night owl. I wrote the post above hours ago. After returning from dinner with friends, I accidentally clicked on Dr. Cole’s auto-biography and then decided to actually read through it. It answered a central question I was trying to think through earlier in the comment immediately above:

        Juan was opposed to the Gulf War in 1990-1991, favoring the use instead of economic sanctions. He was quoted in Newsweek to that effect as the war gathered:

        “The worldwide boycott of Iraqi oil is even more damaging to Saddam– ‘It is the only important embargo,’ says former French Defense minister Andre Giraud. Gaining the Kuwaiti oil fields means little if Iraq can’t sell the product. Saddam has also used oil revenues to pay off restive internal factions. ‘If you take away this regime’s ability to throw patronage around, then the next time there are riots, how is it going to deal with it?’ asks University of Michigan Middle East historian Juan Cole.” (“The Case against War,” Newsweek, October 29, 1990).

        He was also quoted in “The Gulf War: The International Front Saddam: What’s in a Name?” Los Angeles Times, 13 Feb 1991: 8.

        Cole later admitted that he had been wrong in this approach, both because economic sanctions probably could not have gotten Saddam Hussein’s Iraq back out of Kuwait and because the Baath regime manipulated the sanctions so that they mainly harmed ordinary people. But at the time, he still had pacifist leanings. He wrote some opinion pieces for newspapers but could not get them published, for the first time discovering that being the modern Middle East historian at the University of Michigan might be prestigious in the academic world, but that it meant nothing as a credential to newspaper editors. At a town hall televised on Ann Arbor’s community television station, Juan warned that if the US went in to the Gulf militarily, it would ipso facto become the successor to the British Empire in being an imperial power there, and probably would not be able to extricate itself from Gulf affairs in succeeding decades. This intervention, he warned, would bring with it further, deeper entanglements for the United States in a volatile region, making the Middle East central to US foreign policy over time. He explored attempting to get up an anti-war movement, but faculty who remembered the early Vietnam War period warned him that it would be very difficult at that stage. As it happened, the war was short. At a teach-in in spring of 1991, Juan argued that the social inequities between very wealthy Gulf oil monarchies and the poorer but much more populous Arab republics was part of the conflict, angering the students in the audience from the Gulf.

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