Kourosh Ziabari – Fair Observer: When Saudi Arabia and a coalition of its regional partners embarked on a military campaign against Yemen in March 2015, it was hardly predictable that the war would drag on for more than a year and morph into a humanitarian crisis. The emergency is characterized by massive civilian casualties, displacement of citizens, nationwide water and fuel shortages and deepening poverty in the already-impoverished country.
In late March, UNICEF warned that some 320,000 Yemeni children faced the risk of life-threatening malnutrition, while 82% of the country’s 27 million citizens required humanitarian assistance. As noted by the UN’s children fund in a report marking the anniversary of the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, six children have been killed or injured every day since the intervention started on March 26, 2015. It is reported that some 6,000 people, about half of them civilians, have been killed during the airstrikes so far.
The UN Security Council hasn’t passed any binding resolutions that could potentially contain the flames of conflict in Yemen. It has had several briefing and consultation sessions and issued statements supporting the peace talks, but hasn’t come up with a practical solution yet.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Professor Charles Schmitz—a noted Middle East expert specializing in Yemeni affairs—to explore the motives behind the Houthi insurgency, the public perception of this movement and humanitarian damages induced by year-long fighting in Yemen.
Kourosh Ziabari: There are often mixed public characterizations of the Houthi insurgency. What do you consider to be the main motives behind the uprising of Zaidi Shiite Houthis in Yemen?
Charles Schmitz: First, the Houthi movement is evolving. The Houthi movement that began building a Zaydi revival movement among the youths of northern Yemen is not the same military insurgency that fought the Yemeni government between 2004 and 2010, and the Houthi movement that managed to take over government institutions in Sanaa is a different organization again. The movement has evolved.
When it was a Zaydi revival movement providing summer camps to young people, it was popular in Yemen, and when the Houthi insurgency fought the Yemeni government it had wide support among all of those that felt that Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime was corrupt and repressive—that is, most of the country. And when Saleh resigned and Yemenis convened the National Dialogue Conference, the Houthi movement was welcomed and included, and the Houthi representatives at the National Dialogue Conference very much agreed with the liberal, human rights agenda at the conference.
However, when the Houthi leadership made an alliance with its former enemy, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and took over the capital Sanaa, Yemenis began to have doubts about the Houthi leadership. It is true that when the Houthis took Sanaa, people supported their agenda for reform. The interim government of Hadi was very incompetent and the economic situation was deteriorating rapidly. But the Houthi leadership is politically immature. It could support a reform government but not govern. When Hadi and the [ex-Prime Minister Khaled] Bahah government resigned, the Houthi leadership tried to govern the country, and it failed. The Houthi regime is similar to Saleh’s repressive regime. The Houthi militias have rounded up political opponents and held them captive for months. The Houthis destroyed the property of political opponents. The Houthi leadership is not sophisticated and is making many political errors.
The Saudi characterization of the Houthis is simply wartime propaganda. What the Saudis don’t understand is that the Houthis are Yemeni—an important part of Yemen—and not something foreign to Yemen. The Saudis want to control Yemen and they cannot tolerate an independent Yemeni regime that they have no influence over. Now that the Houthi leadership is negotiating with the Saudis, the Saudis are happy. The Saudis don’t care about Zaydism, they care about Saudi influence on the Yemeni government.
Ziabari: Yemen has an indispensable strategic importance, as it sits on Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is a major passageway for much of the world’s oil shipments. Do the Houthis have plans for suffocating Bab al-Mandab, which will jeopardize the interests of the Red Sea countries?
Schmitz: Usually people say it is the Iranians that threaten the Bab al-Mandab, but the Iranian military already overlooks the Strait of Hormuz through which a greater amount of oil travels and nothing has happened. Why should Iranian missiles near a smaller sea lane be different? If the Houthis or Iranians really threatened the Bab al-Mandab, the US military in the region could easily destroy those weapons that threatened the sea lanes.
Ziabari: So why then did Saudi Arabia launch a military expedition in Yemen? Do you see any peaceful settlement on the horizon?
Schmitz: The Saudi military campaign has many motives. First, the Saudi regime has long been vulnerable to the accusation that it spends a lot of money on defense but is so incompetent that the Saudi military is ineffective. This was the criticism of the Saudi regime during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Saudi regime also fears the accusation that it is dependent upon the United States for its defense. So this campaign is an attempt to chart an independent Saudi military strategy for its defense that does not depend upon the US.
The Saudi campaign is also a result of an internal struggle within Saudi Arabia for succession. King Salman is clearly positioning his son to lead the kingdom. The Saudis also feared Iranian successes in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and in Yemen, though in Yemen the Iranians did very little. The Houthis are really a domestic group, not a creation of Iran. Salman and his young son wanted to draw a line in the sand and say that Saudi Arabia can defend itself against the Iranians.
The war is a humanitarian disaster. Yemen was on the verge of economic collapse before the war, and now it is subjected to a halt of oil production and a trade blockade. The basic infrastructure of the country has been destroyed.
There are no clear winners in the war. The two sides have reached a military stalemate that is bleeding the country to death. There is no clear settlement on the horizon. The issue is how to create a political authority to oversee the re-establishment of a new Yemeni state. The Hadi government claims it is the legitimate government of Yemen, but Hadi and his government have little legitimacy in Yemen and they are very incompetent. On the other side, the Houthi leadership does not trust the Hadi people and is not willing to relinquish its military advantage to a new state authority yet. The problem is how to create a new political authority that encompasses both sides.
Ziabari: Some experts believe the Saudi aerial attacks on Yemen have weakened the Yemeni military and security forces, and they are unable to effectively fight the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) mercenaries. Why has the AQAP been able to grow so strongly in Yemen? Is there really a fertile ground for it to consolidate its base unchallenged?
Schmitz: Al-Qaeda took advantage of the chaos of the war to take over Al Mukalla, the major port of eastern Yemen. It stole a lot of money from the banks and a lot of weapons from the Yemeni military. At first, the Saudi military said that it was not concerned with al-Qaeda—the primary enemy was the Houthis. Al-Qaeda, the Saudis said, would be dealt with when a stable government was established in Sanaa. But the chaos in the areas controlled by the Saudis and the Hadi government showed that al-Qaeda was a bigger problem than the Saudis thought. When the Houthis agreed to a ceasefire with the Saudis along the border in the north, the Saudis started attacking al-Qaeda in the south. The Emirati forces retook Mukalla and now are hunting al-Qaeda in the interior. The United States has been very successful in targeting al-Qaeda’s top leadership. Over the last year, US drones have killed much of the top leadership. So al-Qaeda benefited from the war, but it has also suffered greatly. The war has been a mixed experience for al-Qaeda.
Ziabari: Is it possible to tackle the crisis in Yemen effectively and sustainably? What steps should be planned and taken to settle the disputes, bring peace back to the war-wrecked country and ensure that humanitarian assistance is widely distributed across the region?
Schmitz: Unfortunately, the crisis in Yemen is largely a domestic crisis and foreign powers can do little at this point. The domestic sides must come to an agreement before anything else. Foreign powers can help rebuild Yemen, but only when the war stops.
This interview was originally published on Fair Observer.