Ten months ago, three gangs took over Yemen – the Houthi militia, which is linked to Iran, forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted during the Arab Spring, and Al-Qaeda, which quickly expanded in the vacuum. As a result, Yemen became like Syria where there is fighting between the majority of the Syrian people, who have revolted against the Assad regime which is allied with Iran, and the terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) organization.
The bigger picture has it that Yemen is a significant military and political experience not only in terms of regional balance but also within the context of managing crises. Although it’s early to make absolute judgments on the plan to intervene in Yemen, a review of developments in the country gives an understanding of what’s happening on the ground.
The crisis in Yemen, and the regional strife on multiple fronts with Iran, in general, are being managed for the first time without the American ally and without huge oil revenues. This is both an analysis of the situation from afar and also within the context of the very dangerous geopolitical transformations.
However, what happened in Yemen was a betrayal of Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries, and of course, a betrayal of the Yemeni people who presented the best model during their uprising against Saleh’s regime. Their movement was the most peaceful Arab revolution despite delays on the part of Saleh. The United Nations intervened in the crisis at an early stage and worked out a democratic governance plan in which the Yemeni people could choose their representatives via elections.
This process was successfully and peacefully implemented, a transitional government was formed and relevant parties began working on a new constitution. Then there was a relapse and the political process, which the representative of the U.N. Secretary General had sponsored, deviated from its path after the Houthis and Saleh attempted to make Yemen like Lebanon. It looked as if the one with more weapons could get more seats and more power.
With Iran’s support, the Houthis and Saleh resorted to military power to impose their conditions and later went as far as seizing entire Yemen. It became clear for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that Iran has decided to expand its areas of influence and that after Yemen it will its head to Bahrain, maybe to South Iraq and expand towards the west.
The challenge for Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries was the prospect of Iran succeeding at getting its proxy to govern the capital Sana’a through the power of arms. The superpower, i.e. the United States, which had controlled Gulf affairs for more than half a century, disappeared from the scene. The U.S. chose to leave the arena to conflicting parties as it opened the doors to Iran for negotiations on its nuclear program. This increased the Iranian command’s appetite to expand and threaten regional stability.
The crisis in Yemen, and the regional strife on multiple fronts with Iran, are being managed for the first time without the American ally and without huge oil revenuesAbdulrahman al-Rashed
Amid these unusual circumstances, Saudi Arabia decided to build a military alliance and intervene in Yemen in order to support the legitimate Yemeni president and government which the U.N. recognizes. Any expert on Middle East affairs would describe the Saudi intervention as a desperate and late measure and insist that there can only be a political solution in Yemen.
But a political solution would have gifted Yemen to Saleh and the Houthis. The Iranians would then have seized Yemen for a cheap price and the Gulf region would have been besieged by Iran from the north, east and south.
In less than a year, we can see that the rising power in Yemen today is the legitimate government as it is supported by the majority of Yemen’s political and tribal components, by the GCC and by an Arab alliance which is the first of its kind. This power is now triumphing on the ground after being completely removed from the country. It first emerged as a resistance with basic arms and consisting of a small number of people who came from areas which rebels intentionally destroyed.
This legitimate power is advancing towards the capital Sanaa today via the support of the Saudi-led alliance, and it has now stamped its authority on most of Taiz, Maarib, Lahij, Zinjibar, Aden and others. Details of the war’s daily events are many and complicated due to the presence of many powers and fronts – the Houthi militias, Saleh’s forces, Al-Qaeda and ISIS.
The Houthis tried in vain to take the war to the Saudi border to divert pressure on them in other battlefields. The legitimate power, which is called the national army, and the Gulf and Arab forces are fighting the Houthis in their northern areas, such as Hajjah and al-Jawf governorates. They triumphed over Saleh’s forces in his areas of influence, which surround the capital.
A few days ago, they took over the Nihm camp, which is the headquarters of the pro-rebel 312th Brigade of the army. The national army, which the legitimate government has established with the help of Gulf countries in the few past months, is also fighting Al-Qaeda in south and east of the country, and most recently in the surroundings of al-Mukalla.
Al-Qaeda has also tried to take advantage of the national army’s preoccupation with the fighting against rebels in multiple and faraway areas. They have tried to attack the areas, including the temporary capital of Aden, which the legitimate forces have seized. However, developments that have taken place on the warfront definitely favor the legitimate powers and the Saudi-led alliance.
The Yemeni model, i.e. changing the status quo by force and organized political work and insisting on reaching the target despite the challenges, is not a good option and cannot be repeated at every occasion. However, it was necessary to protect the map as we know it today.
This model will influence the concept of the geopolitical struggle of the entire region as regional players and others must take into account the regional countries’ willingness and capability to engage in a confrontation.
The war in Yemen is important because it is linked to the wars in Syria, Iraq and even Libya. Amid the chaos Iran, Al-Qaeda and the ISIS are trying to take over these countries in a race which the region has never known.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Feb. 16, 2016.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.