Sowing Strife in Yemen



Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long tried to unravel the Houthi-Saleh alliance. Now they’ve succeeded.

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Until last week, the Saudi-led Arab military coalition was in serious trouble in Yemen. It had spent almost three years relentlessly bombarding and blockading the country and its impoverished and defenceless people, targeting their schools, hospitals, markets and gathering places, subjecting them to a suffocating blockade that denies them the most basic humanitarian supplies, and leaving three quarters of them to face starvation and disease. Yet the coalition’s plans were a dismal failure. The quick military victory it expected eluded it, the war dragged on and backfired against it, it had lost face and credibility, and it was desperate for a way out of the bloody quagmire it created.

Suddenly, things look very different with the outbreak of fighting in Sanaa between the Houthi Ansarallah movement and the supporters of former president Ali Abdallah Saleh and his General People’s Congress (GPC) party. The political cards have been reshuffled with the sowing of strife within the ranks of the Yemeni alliance that managed to stand fast in the face of the Saudi-led assault, turn the tables on it militarily and come close to achieving victory. That alliance also succeeded, eventually, in winning much of world opinion to its side and against the Saudi-led coalition, which now faces charges of war crimes that could make it criminally and morally liable for huge compensation payments.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been working for years to unravel the Houthi-Saleh. They poured billions of dollars into the endeavour, dividing the internal Yemeni front by buying allegiances, and enlisting their powerful media empires for the purpose. Their efforts have finally come to fruition, and who can blame them for exploiting the golden opportunity that is now available to them? For this is war, in which deception is key, all is fair, and all options are open.

We will not go into the background and details of the dispute between Saleh and the Houthis or apportion blame between them. Suffice it to say that both sides committed disastrous mistakes and share responsibility for the current state of affairs – and also for the future suffering that will be caused if their conflict persists.

But this does not mean that the Yemenis can be made to submit and surrender to the tutelage of those who have been killing their children and destroying their country by means of back-room deals struck by self-serving Yemeni politicians in foreign capitals.

The Houthis may be too weak to rule Yemen on their own, but they are too strong to be defeated by the Arab coalition, even if it is joined by the GPC

and the many tribes that operate under its auspices. Even if they lose Sanaa, the Houthis will never give up their arms but hold out in their mountain stronghold of Saada in the north.

Saleh was Yemen’s longest serving president – he ruled for 33 years — and is rightly considered to be one of the country’s and the Arab world’s smartest political operators. He will never leave Yemen or surrender or allow himself or his supporters to be marginalized. The mass rallies he organized in August to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his party’s founding illustrated his enduring power.

For Yemen to achieve security and stability it needs national accord rather than back-room deals. It needs above all for the Saudi-led military assault to end. The proud Yemeni people are fully capable of reviving their long traditions of coexistence if left to their own devices.

Neither Saleh, the Houthis, the Riyadh-based ‘legitimate’ authorities nor the southern separatists can rule Yemen alone or in partisan alliances. Yemen can only be ruled by accord and understanding, and by putting national interests above all other considerations and shunning foreign trusteeship — be it Arab, Western or Iranian – and all attempts to fuel sectarianism.

We concede that the policy of sowing strife has partially triumphed in Yemen for now, and has begun yielding its bitter fruits. But this will prove to be a fleeting episode which the Yemenis will eventually overcome. Those who expect them to bow down in obeisance to their tormentors are mistaken.

In the meantime, there is still space for both sides in Yemen to step back, revert to reason, avoid further bloodshed, eschew sectarian strife and re-join ranks to bring an and to the aggression and blockade. The chances of that happening are admittedly slim, as there has been a complete breakdown of trust between them. But we live in hope.