Battle for Sana’a

As Yemen is attacked by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition determined to unseat the Shia Houthis in Sana’a, it is the civilians, caught in the crossfire, who are paying the price of war.

Published : Apr 15, 2015 12:30 IST

People search for survivors in the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in a village near Sanaa, on April 4.

People search for survivors in the rubble of houses destroyed by Saudi-led air strikes in a village near Sanaa, on April 4.

Yemen has been experiencing political turmoil for many years now. The problems in the country have worsened after the ouster of the long-ruling President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, from power in 2012. An interim government was formed under the leadership of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi following Saleh’s departue. Hadi was Saleh’s deputy but he did not have the kind of support his predecessor had. Under his watch, the country had to function without a representative government.

President Hadi, under pressure from his backers in the Persian Gulf, refused to acknowledge the ground realities. Extremist elements such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) became very active in the last three years, despite the relentless drone attacks launched by the United States. It was, however, the rise of the influence of a political force known as the Houthis that triggered the current conflict. The Houthis belong to a Shia sub-sect known as the Zaidis. They have been fighting the Central government and Saudi Arabia for the last two decades. After taking over the capital, Sana’a, in September last, the Houthis and their allies have extended their control to some of the major cities, including Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city. They captured Aden in the first week of April despite the continuing air assault by the Saudis and their allies. Hadi fled from Aden just before the presidential palace there was captured by the Houthis and their allies.

Deep-seated animosity

The dramatic rise of the Houthis has not been taken kindly to by the rulers of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis and the Saudis have fought brief wars in the past too. The Saudi government has been claiming that the Houthis are proxies for their main regional rival Iran, a Shia-majority country. Both the Houthis and the Iranians have denied the charge. The last thing Iran wants is to get involved in another regional conflict. Iran is helping the Iraqi government fight the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, in tandem with the Americans. In Syria, the Iranians are helping the Syrian government fight the Islamist hordes that have converged on the country with the backing of the regimes that are currently bombing Yemen.

The Houthis were unsuccessful in forming a cohesive government that was acceptable to all the disparate political groups in the country. Many Sunni tribes preferred to align with Al Qaeda rather than accept the leadership of the Houthis. In the southern part of the country, a separatist movement was gathering momentum. Al Qaeda dramatically increased its suicide bombings. The last major suicide attack in Sana’a in the third week of March, targeting a Shia mosque, killed more than 140 people and seriously injured more than 350. Those killed included security personnel and relatives of top officials. It was this attack that prompted the Houthi leadership to order its forces, which are in a tacit alliance with sections of the Army supporting former President Saleh, to move to the south of the country.

It was at this juncture that Saudi Arabia and its allies decided to launch their massive air war on Yemen. The other countries participating in or supporting the unrelenting Saudi-led air attacks on Yemen, which started in the last week of April, are the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt. The Saudis initially named Pakistan as also being part of the coalition. Many of the countries which joined the Saudi-led coalition are recipients of huge amounts of Saudi largesse. The Egyptian economy was bailed out by the infusion of Saudi and UAE loans and aid. Pakistan has been dependent on Saudi financial assistance and oil subsidies since the time of President Zia-ul-Haq. Pakistan has helped out the Saudis militarily on several occasions previously. The Pakistani government has, however, issued a statement saying that it would thwart any threat “to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity”. The Pakistani Defence Minister and Army chief were in Riyadh to consult with the Saudi leadership. Neighbouring Iran and the Shia minority in Pakistan will not take kindly to open Pakistani participation in the Saudi-led war against a fellow Muslim country.

The war does not seem to be going according to the script visualised by the Saudis. Now, there is talk of a ground invasion to reinstall their man in the presidential palace in Sana’a. According to reports, the Saudis have deployed heavy artillery and positioned 1,50,000 soldiers along its border with Yemen. The Egyptian Navy has blockaded Yemeni ports and stationed troop ships along the Yemeni coast. For a successful invasion and occupation of Yemen, the Saudis will need the help of the Egyptian Army, the Arab world’s biggest and most powerful fighting force. If Egypt does send its Army into Yemen, it will be the second time it will be doing so. However, when the Egyptian Army first intervened in Yemen in the 1960s, they were fighting on the side of anti-monarchist republicans. The Yemeni ruling family at the time were Zaidis, like the present-day Houthis.

But the Yemeni monarchy was supported by Saudi Arabia and the West then, which were dead set against the pan-Arab anti-imperialist ideology propagated by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the charismatic Egyptian leader who overthrew the monarchy in his country. Nasser was aiming to overthrow the Saudi monarchy. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who claims the mantle of Nasser, seems to have no qualms about supporting the same Saudi monarchy. Until the 1960s, Egypt under Nasser was the main ideological enemy of the House of Saud. Today, it is the Islamic Republic of Iran. It was the defeat of the Egyptian Army in the 1967 war with Israel that led to the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Northern Yemen. South Yemen was an independent country then. It was the only Arab country ruled by Communists at the time. The U.S. is providing intelligence back-up to the Saudi-led attempt at a regime change in Yemen, like it did in the early 1960s. The Obama administration has signed weapons deals worth more than $90 billion with the Saudi monarchy in the last five years. Saudi Arabia has been provided with 84 new jet fighters, 160 new helicopter gunships, heavy artillery, armoured vehicles and anti-tank missiles. U.S. officials claim that they were not consulted beforehand on the Saudi decision to declare war on Yemen. The Saudi move to launch an all-out air offensive against Yemen is being interpreted in the U.S. as a sign of Saudi anger against the Obama administration’s efforts at a rapprochement with Iran. Besides, the Saudis do not want a government with an independent foreign policy in their backyard. The IS is on the Saudi border with Iraq. The Iraqi government also views neighbouring Saudi Arabia with suspicion. When Yemen did not follow the American/Saudi diktat during the first Gulf War, the Saudi government expelled more than a million Yemenis working in Saudi Arabia. Yemen is among the poorest nations in the region.

The Saudis are asserting that the bombing will continue until the Houthis are militarily defeated and Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi is restored to power in Sana’a. The Houthis show no sign of retreating but the chaos and mayhem caused by the Saudi-led bombing have come as a shot in the arm for the Al Qaeda-affiliated forces in Yemen which freed 300 prisoners after taking over the city of Al Mukalla in Hadhramaut province. Among those freed is the Al Qaeda commander in the region. This is the first significant gain from the Saudi-led attacks as the militant Islamists are staunchly anti-Houthi. The Saudis and the Qataris have on previous occasions shown that they have a preference for groups like Al Qaeda and the IS. In Syria and Iraq, it is Saudi and Qatari financing and arms that led to the initial surge of these groups. There are reports that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. have a back-up plan of dividing the country into two once again. The Saudi-led alliance’s focus on the port city of Aden is said to be part of this strategy. The secessionist Southern Peoples Committee has been getting funding from U.S. and Saudi sources. The Houthis, while vowing to resist foreign meddling in the internal affairs of the country, have indicated that they are open to dialogue and power sharing with the other key players in Yemeni politics, barring the AQAP and other radical Islamist groups.

As expected, it is the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the conflict. Saudi Arabia’s attack was a unilateral action. Very few countries have condemned it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov did say that the United Nations Security Council should urgently “act in a principled manner” on the Saudi military intervention. He had earlier said that the situation in Yemen had similarities with what happened in Ukraine and that there were “obvious double standards involved”. The U.S., he said, supported the fleeing President of Yemen while refusing to extend the same courtesy to Viktor Yanukovich, the President of Ukraine, after he fled Kiev.

The Saudi-led assault has not spared even power and water utilities. According to reports put out by humanitarian aid agencies, hundreds of civilians have already perished in the bombings. According to the reports, refugee camps have also been hit. The UNICEF said that 62 children were among those who have died as a result of the aerial bombings. Thousands of people have fled their homes as a result of the indiscriminate Saudi bombing. When the Saudi-led attacks started, more than 3,34,000 Yemenis were already residing in refugee camps because of the fighting between domestic foes. The U.N. Human Rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, said that the situation in Yemen was “extremely alarming”. He warned that the country seemed to be “on the verge of total collapse”. Because of the blockade imposed on the country by the military alliance led by Saudi Arabia, no humanitarian aid is reaching the country.

Foreigners working in Yemen were caught totally unprepared. The Indian government was quick in despatching five ships and four planes to Aden to evacuate the 4,000 Indian citizens in the country. More than half of them are in the nursing profession. Two Indian Air Force C-17 Globemaster planes capable of carrying over 180 passengers have been sent to Djibouti. Indian ships were initially allowed into the port of Aden to pick up civilians caught in the vortex of a war they least expected. Later on, due to heavy shelling, many of the Indians had to be rescued by smaller boats. Hundreds of Indians have already returned in special flights to Mumbai and Kochi. The Indian authorities will, however, find it more difficult to rescue stranded civilians from the north of the country. According to reports, the main international airport in Sana’a is no longer fully operational. By the end of the first week of April, more than 2,000 Indian nationals were safely evacuated from Aden. Twelve Indians were evacuated by a Pakistani ship from Al Mukalla, which had fallen into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants. As the fighting intensifies, evacuation of the remaining citizens is getting to be more difficult. The remaining 2,000 Indians are mainly in Sana’a and nearby areas.

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