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  • Published in Analysis
Shi'ite Muslim rebels

Shi'ite Muslim rebels hold up their weapons during a rally against air strikes in Sanaa March 26, 2015. Image: Khaled Abdullah | Reuters

A Saudi-led coalition of ten states has launched a military campaign against one of the world's poorest nations. Muna Othman looks at the background

The ten-country coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that seemed to have formed overnight, with the logistical support of the US have for the fourth day in a row continued the bombardment of Yemen calling it ‘Operation Resolute Storm’. The four-day bombardment has left neighbourhoods’ in ruin and according to Amnesty international at least six children dead, with over 30 dead and dozens more injured.

For anyone who has followed and is familiar with Yemen, you’ll also know that Yemen is well known to have unexpected plot twists, with dynamics and alliances forming and disintegrating quite quickly. The regional intervention led by Saudi against a Houthi-Saleh alliance is one such example. Saudi Arabia had played a pivotal role in keeping the ousted president well connected within the country and had even hosted him after the mosque attack in which Saleh claimed was an assassination attempt.

The Houthis had laid down their weapons when the revolution was at its peak in 2011 and protested peacefully with different factions in Yemen, including the Islah party. The Houthi-Saleh alliance now is seen by many as rather an unconventional one, especially as Saleh had waged six wars on Houthis spanning over a decade. It’s best to keep this in mind during the eventful week Yemen has faced.

Although many have described this as an Iran-versus-Saudi battle in which the battleground just so happens to be in Yemen, a country with a long history of civil conflict, the failed international policies that dictated the rule of power in Yemen after the popular uprising in 2011 is the main reason the country is now left with no government; rule of law or much of anything else for that matter.

After the popular uprising in Yemen which followed other countries in what would be dubbed the Arab Spring, the Gulf countries tried to control the direction of Yemen’s uprising, many suggesting it was mainly in order to make sure a power shift would still continue to be to the regions advantage. After negotiations led by the Gulf countries and the UN, Saleh decided to resign only after negotiating and agreeing to the GCC initiative.

The GCC initiative constructed by the Gulf countries and mainly Saudi-led with the support of the US and UN meant there would be one man presidential elections in order to put in power Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh was granted full immunity and would face no repercussions for any crimes during the uprising or in his three-decade rule, although considered a war criminal by most in Yemen. Saleh’s ideology and power especially with control over the Republican Guards headed by his son Ahmed Saleh meant his rule and influence over the country would not diminish so quickly.

Rise of the Houthis

The Houthis rise to power started in early 2014 and after gaining full control of Saada they began to quickly move forward from their stronghold there to expand into the capital Sana’a in and around September 2014. In February 2015 Houthis dissolved parliament and declared a revolutionary committee led by Mohamed Al-Houthi, as well as announcing constitutional declaration to legitimize themselves as the only of power in Yemen. Houthis further asserted their power by declining all negotiations with foreign countries, and what they deemed foreign agencies as well as most of the Yemeni political parties.

As Yemenis continue to be split on their opinion of the Saudi-led invasion with some supporting the Saudi-led bombardment and reaffirming Saudi’s legitimization for this military intervention was due to President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s public request for intervention. Although Hadi had requested intervention he then secretly and quickly fled the country and left the general population to deal with Saudi Arabia’s invasion in order to eradicate Houthi rebels, believed to be backed by Iran; but which in fact the only evidence available seems to only reaffirm that Houthis are backed and armed by ousted former president Saleh.

The regional battle now being played out in Yemen is on the basis of eliminating what the Saudi-led coalition and the US considers Iranian-backed rebel forces. The Houthis who are of the Shia Zaidi sect have always resided in Yemen - a predominantly Sunni Muslim country. Shia Zaidi’s make up around 40% of the country’s population. The lack of evidence to prove they are in fact being supported by Iran is something barely questioned and rather a slippery slope to legitimise what could be the destabilising of a country; especially in a country awash with more weapons, and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who will no doubt use this opportunity to further their agenda.

As the death toll increases and chaos and uncertainty grips' Yemen, the backlash to the bombardment in terms of pulling Yemen into sectarian and territorial divisions seems inevitable should no political settlement be agreed on quickly.

As a country faced with various factions in a power struggle and at least 16 million people in need of humanitarian aid before this latest conflict had started, and with Saudi and Egypt not ruling out ground forces and the US military preparing to expand its aid to Saudi Arabia; this could quite easily turn into the worst conflict faced by Yemenis to date.

Although stated otherwise by most media outlets, Yemen’s conflict is by no means a sectarian one. It’s best to remember that Yemen has become the geopolitical battlefield for U.S. backed Saudi and Iran. With reports that Saleh now want to renegotiate terms with the Gulf countries, only time will tell how long this battle will go on and how much destruction the poorest country in the Middle East will face.

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