Yemen crisis: More than Shia-Sunni battle

Yemen, which was once acknowledged as the Fortunate Arabia or Happy Arabia by ancient geographer Ptolemy, has now become a cauldron of insurgencies.

Yemen crisis: More than Shia-Sunni battle

Supporters of Yemen''s Southern Separatist Movement man a tank flying the movement''s flag near the International airport in Aden, as battles against Shiite Houthi rebels continue. AFP

FOR the last few weeks, Yemen has been hitting headlines in the global media for the wrong reasons. It has become a cauldron of insurgencies —by the Shias, people of south Yemen and finally the Islamic State. The Shia insurgency in North Yemen, popularly known as “the Houthis” is carried out by Zaydi Muslims (a sub sect of Shia) constituting 35-40 per cent of Yemen's Muslim population.

Oversimplifying the issue
Attributing the present day Yemeni crisis as a mere Shia-Sunni power struggle amounts to oversimplification of the issue as Yemen is largely a tribal society and around 400 Zaidi tribes are operating mostly in the North Yemen area. Inter- tribal and intra-tribal tensions crop up in the control and distribution of economic resources and power-sharing arrangements as well. The internal struggle for power between long-competing factions remains at the core of the Yemeni crisis. Subsequent support by countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran etc. to the fighting factions either directly or indirectly  and emergence of terrorist outfits like Al Qaida and the Islamic State provide a unique and complicated dimension to the Yemeni crisis.

Root causes 
A dispassionate scan of the historical and political developments of Yemen throws ample light on the root causes of the present-day crisis. Till 1990, two states existed in Yemen — one in the North and another in the South. The southern state of Yemen was formed in 1967 and the socialist state was officially known as the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen. After six years of civil war (1968) between Hamiaddin royalists supported by Saudi Arabia, Britain and Jordan on one side and the republicans backed by Egypt on the other side, the republicans came out victorious and formed the Yemini Arab Republic. However, the power struggle between the two states continued with the eruption of fresh fighting. Finally, with the Arab League brokered peace in 1990, both states reached an agreement on the joint governance of Yemen. Both Yemeni Arab Republic and Peoples' Democratic Republic of Yemen were merged and paved the way for the formation of the present-day Republic of Yemen and Ali Abdullah Saleh became the President.  In order to honour the power-sharing agreement, the Vice-President was taken from South Yemen. The fragile peace did not last long and lead to the 1994 civil war. In spite of Saudi Arabia actively backing South Yemen leaders, their armed forces were defeated and many Yemeni socialist leaders and other southern secessionist leaders fled into exile. Ali Abdullah Saleh became the first directly elected president of Yemen in 1999, winning 96.2 per cent of the vote.

North-South divide
A deep divide persisted between the Shia Muslim-dominated North Yemen and Sunni Muslim-influenced South Yemen. High poverty levels, an oppressive and corrupt government, a large number of weapons in private hands are some of the factors contributing to the present crisis. Sensing the chaotic situation, Al Qaida stepped in and conducted a number of attacks on Yemeni military convoys and mosques despite Ayaman al Zawahiri's guidelines advising against attacks on mosques. Not wanting to lag behind, the Islamic State in March this year, deployed four suicide bombers at two Houthi mosques in the capital Sanna, killing more than 100 worshippers .The Islamic State threatened to carry out more such attacks more in future.

Yemeni revolution
Earlier, in 2011, encouraged by the popular ouster of the Tunisian government, street protests started in Sanna. The protests were initially against unemployment, adverse economic conditions and governmental corruption. Additionally, the proposed amendment to the Yemini constitution sought to allow then President, Saleh, to remain in office for life. It was strongly believed that his son Ahmed Saleh was being groomed to eventually take over reins from his father. The Houthis participated in the Yemini revolution in 2011 along with other insurgent groups, socialists, Islamists, student bodies, anti-government tribes and opposition parties.
 
As a result of the peace brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in the last part of 2011, Saleh handed over power to his deputy Abdu Rabbo Mansoor Hadi. In 2012 presidential elections, which were also boycotted by the Houthis as well as southern insurgents; Hadi got 99 per cent of the vote.
 
Another factor which contributed to the Houthis capturing power was the withdrawal of fuel subsidies in July 2014. It was estimated in 2013, the fuel subsidies in Yemen were $ 3 billion — roughly 20 per cent of the state expenditure .The Houthis capitalised on the frustration among diverse segments of the population over the Sunni-dominated government's decision to discontinue the fuel subsidies.
 
The Houthi insurgency started way back in 2004 when the government accused them of seeking to overthrow it. Houthi leaders denied the allegations by saying that they were only defending themselves from the government attacks. Since then, regular attacks and counter- attacks between government forces and militias backed by them on one side and the Houthis on the other continued, resulting in thousands of casualties .The Houthi insurgency reached its peak in February this year when they installed a Revolutionary committee to administer  the country and chased out the internationally recognised President Hadi. The President made an unsuccessful attempt to establish his authority in Aden (South Yemen), before being forced to flee to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi-led airstrikes
With a view to destroy military bases and armed depots of the Houthis, Saudi Arabia led a coalition of GCC ( Gulf Cooperation Council) countries in air raids. The US, the UK, France, Turkey and Belgium supported Saudi Arabia's military action on Yemen while Iran, Russia and China opposed it. It is too early to say whether Saudi-led airstrikes will resolve the crisis or prolong and deepen it, particularly due to the historical reality that air power is not enough to win battles. Ground troops remain an indispensible factor to win a war in spite of air superior power. From all accounts, it appears the air strikes may even drag on. The aerial strikes by coalition forces may halt further advance by the Houthis but they are not adequate to dislodge them from their mountain homelands in North Yemen. The air campaigns elsewhere, like the one in Libya, resulted in a chaotic nation with very little hope of improvement in the near future. Similar is the case with coalition air strikes in the areas occupied by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria which did not resolve the crisis.
 
Another striking feature of Yemeni crisis is the conspicuous absence of United State's active role. For the last two decades, the US was playing an active and leading role in the Middle East but now the lead role remained is with Saudi Arabia. Is it due to a shift in the US policy in the Middle East? It is more likely the US has no economic interest in Yemen's energy resources, particularly after the discovery of shale gas deposits. Moreover it's interest in Yemen seems to be more on containing the expansion of Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula.  
 
Initially, Pakistan's participation was contemplated in some quarters but the unanimous resolution passed by Pakistani Parliament killed such a possibility. Pakistan's stand might have been driven by two considerations — its security forces are overstretched in tackling its own insurgencies and with 20 per cent Shia population, it can ill afford to field ground forces for Yemeni conflict. 
 
Pakistan's decision to stay away from Saudi led air strikes on Yemen and its likely impact on its relationship with other Gulf Coordination countries may alter the exiting geopolitical equations in the Middle East.
 
The current unstable security situation gave a serious blow to Yemen's ailing economy. In spite of having sufficient oil and natural gas resources, the crisis in Yemen has adversely impacted their exploration and transport. Being an oil-based economy, the chaotic security situation has contributed to significant levels of unemployment.

Historical ties
Unlike many Asian countries, India maintained a deep-rooted historical and trade relationship with Yemen leading to the migration of thousands of people of Yemen-origin to Hyderabad. Some reports indicated presence of 300,000 strong Yemeni-origin diaspora in India. Similarly, an estimated 100,000 people of Indian origin are concentrated in South Yemen and they enjoy a fair degree of cultural and religious freedom.
 
Besides regular people-to-people contacts between India and Yemen, prominent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose also visited Aden (South Yemen) and Aden remains on the Hajj route for Indian pilgrims. 
 
The intensified coalition air strikes may prolong the struggle and lead to a political vacuum in some parts of Yemen. This will lead to Al Qaida in Arabian Peninsula and Islamic State attempting to realise their dream of establishing caliphates in those areas. Thereafter, the crisis may not remain a mere problem between two groups or two countries and it may assume a regional /global dimension. The international community needs to be aware of the potential threat and activate diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis before it is too late.
 
The Indian Connection
Unlike many Asian countries, India maintained a deep-rooted historical and trade relationship with Yemen, leading to the migration of thousands of people of Yemen-origin to Hyderabad. Some reports indicated the presence of 300,000-strong Yemeni--origin diaspora in India. Similarly, an estimated 100,000 Yemeni-origin people of Indian origin are concentrated in South Yemen.
 
The writer, a former IPS officer, is former UN Chief Security Adviser.

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