Saudi Arabia frames its current military intervention into Yemen, which has involved wave upon wave of airstrikes for the past two weeks, as a bid to bring stability to a failing, unraveling state.
The country's impotent Saudi-backed president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was forced to flee the southern city of Aden after being cornered by Houthi rebels. The Houthis had seized the capital Sanaa last autumn as a part of a slow-moving takeover of parts of the country. A mess of competing factions, including al-Qaeda, were now warring over whole stretches of Yemen. The Saudi-led campaign, Saudi officials insisted, would turn back the Houthi advance and restore Hadi's "legitimate" government to power.
But another narrative also came immediately into play — that of a Sunni-Shiite proxy war between Saudi interests in Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthis, who belong to a Shiite sect patronized by Tehran's theocratic leadership.
Hadi denounced the Houthis as "Iran's puppet" at a March 29 meeting of the Arab League in Egypt where the Saudis enlisted a largely Sunni coalition of the willing to back its Yemen mission. Across the Middle East, factions deemed Iranian proxies vie with groups linked to varying extents with Saudi Arabia, a kingdom whose state Wahabist ideology has found echoes in the fundamentalism of Sunni extremist groups elsewhere.
Some argued that this toxic geopolitical mess had infected Yemen. Last week, disquieted by diplomatic negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to the chaos in Yemen as another sign of Iranian "aggression." He also tweeted this cartoonish guide to Iran's supposed "tentacles of terror."
— בנימין נתניהו (@netanyahu) April 2, 2015
But the political unrest in Yemen is far too complicated to fit into a sectarian binary. First of all, it's wrong to see the Houthis as some sort of direct Iranian proxy -- using the same frame perhaps applied to the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah or Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq that are now battling the Islamic State.
The Houthis, a political-tribal grouping whose heartland is in Yemen's rugged northern highlands, have fought in wars for years without Iranian prompting. In the 1960s, as WorldViews discussed earlier, Houthi militias even cooperated with the Saudis in battles against an Egyptian occupying army.
Yes, many Houthis belong to the Zaydi sect, a branch of Shiism. But Zaydism is rather distinct from the "Twelver" Shiism found in Iran and parts of Iraq — a theological difference that leaves the Zaydis closer to Sunnism, as Col. Pat Lang, a former U.S. defense attache once posted in Yemen, wrote in a piece cited by the Christian Science Monitor.
"For a Zaydi to 'convert' to 12er Shiism is as big and alienating a step as 'conversion' to Sunnism," writes Lang. "Such a change would normally lead to family, clan and tribal ostracism."
Moreover, it's also a matter of debate the extent to which the Houthis, whose current rebellion has roots dating back more than a decade, are operating hand-in-glove with handlers in Tehran.
They still count on considerable Sunni backing within the country and their rise in Yemen is believed to have been enabled by military units loyal to Yemen's ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, a strongman who spent decades repressing Houthi political aspirations while ruling in Sanaa.
In this context, Iran is an opportunistic fringe player in what some experts say is really just a continuing tussle for power that began following Saleh's departure in 2011 — and after a flawed political transition forced through by the Saudis and other Sunni Arab monarchies installed Hadi in office.
"There's been a great degree of exaggeration of these ties [with Iran]," said Adam Baron, a Yemen expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview with NPR last week. Baron elaborated:
The Houthis are glad to have Iran's political support. They're glad have some financial and military support. But when it comes down to it, it's not as if the Houthis were created by Iran, and further, it's not as if the Houthis are being controlled by Iran. This is a group that is rooted in local Yemeni issues, and its actions are fundamentally rooted in the decisions of its local Yemeni leaders.
The conflict on the ground in Yemen is very much a political one, fueled, as most conflicts are, by competing battles over turf, influence and power. But Saudi Arabia's apparent escalation, which experts say was spurred in part by Riyadh's paranoia about Iranian regional influence, may plunge Yemen even further into crisis.
"Seeing the specter of Iran behind all the challenges that it faces in the Middle East reduces Saudi Arabia’s capacity to make sound strategic assessments of the state of play in the region," writes Nussaibah Younis, of the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy.
It's unclear what the Saudi endgame in Yemen is. Their actions so far appear to have only exacerbated tensions in the c0untry. Air strikes have pummeled Yemen's cities, airfields and seaports, but ground forces will be needed to consolidate any real gains in what's already one of the Arab world's most impoverished, yet battle-hardened states.
As my colleague Hugh Naylor reports, the Saudi air campaign has sparked a humanitarian crisis, with food stores and water supplies running low, and the few functioning remnants of the Yemeni government now also seemingly on the verge of collapse.
Apart from a collection of Arab allies, the Saudis are requesting significant military assistance from Pakistan, a Sunni-majority country with deep ties to the kingdom, but also a considerable Shiite minority that's suffered heavily from sectarian violence in recent years. That there's even a possibility of Pakistani troops being deployed on Yemeni soil is a sign of how dangerous a regional conflagration the crisis in Yemen threatens to become.
The implications are stark, warns Fawaz A. Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics.
"If Yemen descends into all-out war, which is a likely scenario, we could witness a greater humanitarian crisis than that of Syria, in terms of refugees and mass starvation," he told The Washington Post. "You could end up with al-Qaeda being the main winner after this conflict."
That's hardly a scenario welcome to the Saudis, who have spent years trying to neutralize al-Qaeda's Yemeni branch. But it is one partially of their own creation.
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