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Posted at: Sep 6, 2017, 1:01 AM; last updated: Sep 6, 2017, 1:01 AM (IST)

A deadly proxy war

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vietnam’ in making
A deadly proxy war
End it: Operation Decisive Storm is doing no one any good, not even Saudi Arabia.

Hasan Suroor

WHILE the world is preoccupied with Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, a deadly and open-ended war is grinding on in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and its allies are engaged in a cynical proxy war with Iran. The Shia-Sunni divide in the region couldn’t get uglier than this. More than two years after a Saudi-led coalition invaded Yemen to restore its president   Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was toppled by Iran-backed Shia Houthi rebels,  there’s no settlement in sight. Hadi, who sought refuge in Saudi Arabia, has since returned to Yemen but his government’s writ barely runs.  Nor, despite the daily bombings and a crippling naval blockade have pro-Hadi forces succeeded in dislodging the Houthis from their northern strongholds. Even  the capital Sana’a remains under Houthi control forcing the government to pitch its tent in Aden. 

Meanwhile, the humanitarian crisis caused by two years of fighting is steadily deteriorating. Persistent and heavy bombardment, frequently killing innocent civilians, has reduced the country’s infrastructure — whatever little there was — to a rubble and there’s no such thing as a functioning economy left. Up to an estimated 10,000 people have been killed, three million displaced and thousands are dying of malnutrition caused by food shortages. An outbreak of cholera epidemic has claimed hundreds of lives and it’s spreading because of poor medical facilities (mostly makeshift and poorly-equipped clinics) and severe shortage of medicines. Children have been the hardest hit.

The UN has described it as the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis,  with more than 10 million people requiring immediate assistance. The situation, it has warned, is set to become even worse if immediate relief is not provided. Yemen is said to need $2.3 billion in humanitarian aid this year, but has received only a little over 40 per cent so far. Aid groups are struggling to cope with the crisis,  particularly catastrophic for children. The number of children killed in Saudi-led attacks is “unacceptably high”, according to a UN report. They are also the worst victims of disease and hunger.  

“We are almost in the third year of the war and nothing is getting better. There are limits to what we can do in such a collapsed state,” a Unicef spokeswoman told The New York Times.

For all the resources the Saudis and their allies have poured into Operation Decisive Storm, launched in March 2015, they’ve made virtually no progress in weakening the Houthi campaign. The Houthis not only remain in control of Sana’a, they’ve managed to seize territory in the south and step up their attacks on Aden. Experts say that the Saudi Arabian alliance, comprising members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and armed to the teeth with sophisticated weapons bought from America and Britain, lacks the requisite operational capabilities and skills.  

The war in Yemen is part of a wider and vicious battle between the Sunni Arabs and Shia Iran for supremacy in the region. Saudi-Yemen relations have had a chequered history shaped by Saudi’s perception of Yemen as a hostile Shia power which threatens their Salafi-Wahhabi brand of Islam. There’s a large population of Shia Houthis who hold sway in the north and the west and have been agitating for an equitable share in political structures and resources controlled by the Sunni south. Ultimately they want to become a dominant force nationally. 

The fear of a Shia Yemen sitting on their borders has spooked the Sunni Gulf states and united them. The last time they got together to punish  Yemen was when it refused to support the international intervention in Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Yemen’s stance was seen as an implicit support for Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion. Some 8,00,000 Yemeni workers employed in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were expelled, and Riyadh cut off all financial assistance to Yemen. It was resumed in 2000, but relations between the two countries have remained strained. Analysts say what’s playing out in Yemen is the long history of political tensions and hostility between them. 

The current civil war has its roots in the 2011 Arab spring uprising  that led its  dictatorial president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to hand over power to Hadi, his deputy. Hadi, however, proved too weak to deal with the mess he inherited from Saleh. A militant separatist movement in the south was compounded by an Al-Qaeda bombing campaign — not to mention widespread corruption, rampant unemployment and, most crucially, the fact that the rebels had the support of a faction in the army still loyal to Saleh.  Many ordinary Yemenis,  including Sunnis, felt so frustrated that they switched support to the Houthis, facilitating their campaign to oust Hadi in September 2014.  

The UN’s repeated efforts to bring the warring sides to the negotiating table have failed. A breakthrough was expected at the last round held in Kuwait last year as both the Saudis and Houthis appeared willing to end the crisis. But the negotiations collapsed over the Hadi government’s insistence that  rebels withdraw from the areas they had seized and surrender their arms. With the peace talks deadlocked, there has been a significant escalation of hostilities, and an alarming rise in civilian casualties.

Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen was the first major foreign policy decision of its ambitious and flamboyant Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman as part of his new vision for his country: a country willing to play a more muscular role in the region to counter Iran’s creeping influence. But, as  happens with hubristic ventures, it has not gone exactly according to plans, causing a huge political, diplomatic and military embarrassment. Plus, its economic cost has been staggering. The Saudi economy has been badly hit at a time when it was already slowing down because of a fall in the world oil prices. Last year, Saudi Arabia reportedly spent $175 million a month on bombing raids and  an additional $500 million on  ground operations. 

In 2015 alone, the cost of the war stood at $5.3 billion, forcing the government to resort to unpopular austerity measures such as reducing subsidy on oil and introducing curbs on salaries. It has also been selling off billions of dollars worth of its holdings abroad. Local population, used to cheap oil and lavish wages, is reported to be getting increasingly restive posing a threat to Saudi Arabia’s famed political stability. Not surprising, then, that Salman is reported to be looking for a face-saving compromise to pull out of Yemen. And it had better been quick before both Saudi Arabia and Yemen sink deeper into the quagmire. It has all the makings of Saudi Arabia’s “Vietnam”. 

The writer is a London-based commentator


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