The war in Yemen, which has killed and wounded thousands, is bringing out the contradictions in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia finds itself increasingly isolated. Tension between the different players and powers across the region is increasing, provoking instability on all levels.
Hundreds of thousands of Yemenis are fleeing their homes in search of safer areas; but as the country runs out of food and basic goods, death stalks the country. This war, which has killed and wounded thousands, is also bringing out the contradictions in the Middle East as Saudi Arabia finds itself increasingly isolated.
After weeks of merciless bombing by Saudi Arabia and its allies, the official death toll in Yemen has now reached almost 800 while more than two thousand have been wounded, while 150,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
A bomb attack in San’a yesterday, killed dozens of people and wounded hundreds, while hundreds of houses were destroyed. An eyewitness at a nearby hospital told Reuters that the emergency room was overwhelmed with victims, who screamed in pain from wounds sustained by the flying debris of their homes. More than half of Yemen’s population is already “food insecure” but the situation is getting worse as the air and naval blockade is drying up the market which normally imports 90% of its goods.
In spite of the feeble protests of Russia and UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon the Saudis managed to push through a resolution at the UN Security Council denouncing the Houthis for their aggression and imposing an arms embargo on them. All this, while an Iranian proposed ceasefire was brushed aside. This shows the real nature of the UN which is nothing but a tool of US imperialism. It is clear that the reactionary Saudi regime wants nothing but to crush the Houthis as well as the Yemeni people and the UN is completely complicit in these crimes.
On April 5, the Saudi-led coalition agreed to allow limited supplies and aid workers to Yemen. But this hasn’t changed much. Ali Mohsen, a resident of Sana’a, explained the situation to the Yemen Times: “I searched for two days and found nothing. On the third day, I found a half sack of flour in a supermarket. It was the last one.” How many more had to search in vain?
On Saturday, King Salman announced that Saudi Arabia would meet the entirety of a pathetic United Nations $274 million appeal for humanitarian aid in Yemen. Yet at the same time he went on to bomb the facilities of aid agency Oxfam. An Oxfam official stated: “This is an absolute outrage particularly when one considers that we have shared detailed information with the Coalition on the locations of our offices and storage facilities. The contents of the warehouse had no military value. It only contained humanitarian supplies associated with our previous work in Saada, bringing clean water to thousands of households.” It should be noted that 10,000,000 people in Yemen did not have access to clean water before the airstrikes.
At the same time the bombing campaign was stepped up with the help of US refuelling aircraft, which means that Saudi jets don’t have to go through the time consuming act of landing and refuelling – instead they can continue bombing Yemen all day and all night.
In the wake of Iran’s call for a truce and for negotiations, the new Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal declared that “Iran is not in charge of Yemen.” Clearly he was implying that the Saudis are.
But what have the Saudis gained?
Saudi Arabia’s stated aim of the mission was to force the Houthis to disarm and accept the legitimacy of the “official” president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi – whose presidency was unconstitutionally extended indefinitely when it expired in February of last year.
However, after three weeks of intense bombing and the starving of the country from all resources, the Houthis do not seem to have been weakened much. In fact, it would seem that since the beginning of the campaign the Houthis have made some gains in and around the important city of Aden.
In the eastern parts of the country, where the Houthis have not been active, the coalition has managed to get the backing of a series of tribes which have taken power in several areas. At the same time, under the pressure of the eastern tribes, top officers stationed in Yemen’s mountainous east, have changed sides and pledged support for Hadi’s government. However, of their 15,000 troops only two brigades of 10,000 have been confirmed to have changed sides, while thousands of soldiers are unaccounted for.
None of these forces, however, have been able to make any significant gains in the north west of the country where the Houthis have support and where President Hadi and the Saudis do not have any base. Most probably in fact, support for the Houthis has risen as the imperialist onslaught has continued with the Houthis seen as the only force capable of fighting back.
In recent days the Saudis, signalling Hadi’s days might be over, have pushed him to appoint a new Vice-President, Khaled Bahah, who has more respect amongst the population. But he is unlikely to be much more effective than Hadi who has probably also tainted him by nominating him.
In the meantime Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen has benefited greatly from the situation. The Saudis have held back from attacking them, the Houthis, who have been the most effective fighters against them are busy fighting the Saudis and the US drone programme against them has had to be closed down due to the war. Thus they have taken the opportunity to take over large swathes of the south eastern rural areas as well as several town where anti-Saudi sentiment has also been rising as a result of the wars.
On Thursday they took control of the Riyan Airport and a nearby military base outside Al Mukalla, the fifth-largest city in Yemen. The group also seized the Dhabah oil terminal on the Arabian Sea coast and stormed a weapons depot, seizing armoured vehicles and rockets, after apparently forging a truce with local tribes. Local government troops did not put up a fight. Besides large territorial gains the Islamist group has also staged a prison break and robbed a bank of $1 million.
This is also a severe threat to the southern secessionist movement which has been one of the few forces supporting Hadi and the Saudi airstrikes. The secessionists’ alliance with Hadi has always been unstable. In fact they were against Hadi until the Houthis started moving towards Aden which is not traditionally an area in which they have support. At a certain stage the de facto support of the Saudis for Al Qaeda can have an impact on the support they receive from the southern movement who are a secular force.
The mighty fizzle – money can’t buy you friends
At the same time the coalition, which was announced with great fanfare a few weeks ago, is slowly crumbling under its own weight. Turkey who initially supported the campaign, has not sent any forces. Erdogan is already facing serious problems at home due to his adventures in Syria and he is not keen on opening a new front now. At the same time the lifting of sanctions on Iran is providing new business opportunities for the embattled Turkish economy. Therefore, immediately after his pledge of support to the Saudi-led campaign, he went on a visit to Tehran to discuss the further economic integration of the two countries.
The Pakistani army, which has acted as a mercenary army for all of Saudi Arabia’s wars also declared that it is not going to participate with ground troops after the proposal was voted down by the Pakistani parliament. Instead parliament voted a resolution stating Pakistan’s neutrality and its “mediating” role.
Pakistan has traditionally been very close to the Saudis who have funded the Pakistani army as well as its nuclear programme. In fact many officials openly call it “the Saudi nuclear programme in Pakistan”. It has also funded thousands of madrassas in the country from where it directed the war on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
However, the Pakistani army has slowly been degenerating over the past years. Along with class divisions and the loss of legitimacy of the generals amongst the soldiers, the army has also become entangled in the growing sectarian, tribal and gang wars in Pakistan itself. Rotten to the core and with no legitimacy, the unstable army could fracture and implode if it were sent to fight a war in a hostile terrain for a cause that no Pakistani soldier believes in. This could have devastating effects for the Pakistani state which is extremely unstable and weak. It is clear that a part of the ruling elite see the dangers in this and are not willing to risk it for Saudi Arabia.
At the same time this would also be a provocation towards Iran, which has significant influence in Pakistan and which is also looking to be a core business partner in the Chinese-led “Silk Road” project going through both countries.
The Pakistani withdrawal was a big blow to the House of Saud which sees the Pakistani army, and in fact Pakistan itself, as its private property, similar to the way a master sees his dog. Not only does it see the Pakistani army as its property, but it sees its nuclear weapons as its property which it could claim back at any time. But the crisis in their relationship puts a question mark over the plan B of the Saudis in their war against Iran, i.e. to get nuclear weapons from Pakistan.
Therefore it is not surprising that the Saudis were displeased with their dog when it disobeyed them. Their position was laid out by a UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash who strongly condemned Pakistan’s and Turkey’s moves adding that Pakistan will pay a “heavy price” for its “ambiguous stand”.
Saudi Arabia was counting on Pakistan, not only to help it lead a land invasion, but also to show that it can reach Iran from its own eastern border. However, the result has been to isolate and humiliate Saudi Arabia. In a situation of deep crisis in both countries, the chain reaction of reciprocal revenge can severely damage the Saudi-Pakistani relationship.
Egypt thus stands as the last remaining major ally for the Saudis. The Saudis have poured billions of dollars into Egypt to stabilise the military regime which took over in 2013. Egyptian President Sisi was also the first and most thunderous supporter of the aerial bombing campaign when it first set off, proudly proclaiming warships, jets and probably ground troops to defend the Saudi brothers.
But as the weeks have gone by, a growing sense of worry seems to be descending over Egypt about following Saudi Arabia into a land invasion. Lively discussions of the five-year war that Egypt waged against Yemen from 1962-67 have taken place throughout the country. That war is seen as Egypt’s Vietnam and as a major factor in the defeat of Egypt in the Six-Day war with Israel.
Under the pressure of mass dissatisfaction with Sisi’s war designs, skeptical voices have been raised in the newspapers and by political parties who are opposed to another adventure. Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, a commentator and old friend of late President Gamal Abdel Nasser who ordered the 1962 invasion said: “We shouldn’t jump to war… Yemen is a sleeping volcano south of the Arabian Peninsula. If it erupts, it will sweep the entire region.”
This has exposed Al-Sisi’s weakness at home, as he has had to publicly assure the population that there are presently no Egyptian ground troops in Yemen. Last week’s meeting between Al-Sisi and the Saudi defence minister Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud did not lead to any announcement of sending ground troops. With the Pakistanis and the Turks pulling out, the Egyptians are thinking twice as well.
The real reason is, however, not to be found a lack of will within the Egyptian ruling class, but in their fear of a new revolutionary backlash on the back of a military adventure. The Egyptian revolution is at an ebb at the moment, but this does not mean that the movement has been defeated. Anger and frustration has been steadily on the rise again as the new government has accelerated the onslaught against the workers and poor.
Over the summer, austerity measures have seen the price of fuel, bread and basic goods rise and the government is preparing to introduce further cuts. This is an explosive mix for Sisi who was only elected by a humiliating minority vote. This and an increasing crackdown on political activism, has raised tensions amongst the masses. In the discussions on the war this anger has found an outlet.
Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City told Time magazine: “This is the kind of situation where they [the state] could face very real public disgruntlement and dissent. There are very few issues that could produce that kind of reaction. This seems like one. There has been an interesting level of questioning. That hasn’t been the case in the past year and a half.”
Thus it seems increasingly unlikely that Egypt will send troops to Yemen. For the Saudis, therefore, the situation is getting more and more difficult. Even if they managed to fight back the Houthis, they would not be able to defeat this hardened guerrilla force. At the same time the legitimacy of Hadi is extremely low, thus a Saudi supported government would not be able to rule without a strong ground force to prop it up, but where is that force going to come from? Saudi Arabia’s own forces are extremely weak and untrustworthy, which is why the Saudis were relying on Egyptian and Pakistani troops. A ground incursion into Yemen would risk a deep crisis with the army which could implode or crack along sectarian lines – neither side of which would support the ruling Saudi elite.
The cooling relationship with the US
In the US reception to the campaign has been ambivalent to say the least. Of course, US imperialism is supporting the campaign officially and helping the Saudis with intelligence. In spite of their questioning of the mission they clearly have no qualms in destroying hundreds of thousands of lives.
The Republican party has been fully supportive of the mission. John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee accused the Obama administration of going soft on Iran’s regional ambitions and praised “our Arab partners” for intervening in Yemen. “The prospect of radical groups like Iranian-backed Houthi militants” was “more than [U.S. Arab allies] could withstand.”
But more intelligent people in Washington have a different view of the situation. A senior commander at Central Command, told Al Jazeera that, “the reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans, is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”
Another U.S. official, told the LA times that the air campaign was a “disaster,” saying the Saudis don’t have a “realistic endgame” for the bombing.
The Wall Street Journal, echoing similar reports wrote:
“The Obama administration is skeptical the airstrikes will reverse the Houthi gains. Worried by the risk of more direct intervention by Iran, U.S. officials say they are urging the Saudis to set their sights more narrowly on halting rebel advances and reaching what amounts to a battlefield stalemate that leads all sides to the negotiating table. (…)
“U.S. officials have grown concerned that some Saudi leaders may be shifting their war aims, wanting to bomb the rebels back to their base in the country’s north, according to officials involved in the discussions. Such an extended campaign could take a year or longer, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.”
Michael Horton, a Yemen expert close to US and UK governments and armed forces, said that he was “confounded” by the intervention, noting that many in Special Operations Command “favor the Houthis, as they have been successful in rolling back AQ [Al-Qaeda] and now IS from a number of Yemeni governorates” — something that hundreds of US drone strikes and many military advisers had failed to achieve.
It is clear that the US administration was not “keen” on this war, which does not fit Obama’s plan to stabilise the region by making a deal with Iran. However, by coming closer to Tehran he has stirred up his allies in the Arab Peninsula who see Tehran, with their strong army and populist rhetoric, as an existential threat. In order to calm them down, Obama has confirmed his dedication to their “security” several times. Now the Saudis are testing out his promises and trying to push him into conflict with Iran.
Confirming this, an ex-administration official told the LA Times: “We’re doing this not because we think it would be good for Yemen policy; we’re doing it because we think it’s good for U.S.-Saudi relations.”
For the Obama administration, the threat of IS in Syria and Iraq is far more important than the Houthis in Yemen. And there, the US is fighting on the opposite side of the Saudis. The Iraqi prime minister Haider Al-Abadi, revealed the real situation after a meeting with Barack Obama last week when asked about Iranian efforts to push a peace deal for Yemen: “From what I understand from the (Obama) administration, the Saudis are not helpful on this. They don’t want a cease-fire now.”
He then put the US on the spot saying: “Can you work both? Both sides? Here (you) are with Iraq against (Islamic State), there, against Yemen?”
The Saudis-US relationship has been entering a crisis in recent years. The Saudis were alarmed by the lack of US support for the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak during the Arab revolution. For them this meant that the US would not come to their rescue either if a revolutionary movement developed in Saudi Arabia itself. Obama has confirmed the fears of the Saudis recently when he stated that he would defend his allies against external threats, but not against the much bigger internal ones which were caused by poverty and lack of democracy.
Saudi Arabia is also under threat from rising Iranian influence in the Middle East as an effect of the US war on Iraq. Especially since the US – itself being unable to intervene as it wishes – has been forced to rely more and more on collaboration with Iran in its war against Islamic fundamentalism in Iraq and Syria.
The Saudis have stepped up their operations in the region’s proxy wars as a result of the conflict with Iran, but this has only increased the dependency of the US on Iran. The present war in the Yemen is a major escalation of the conflict, as Saudi Arabia has traditionally relied on diplomacy, bribes and proxies to fight its battles. This time the Saudis are showing that they are willing to drastically up the stakes, without consulting the US.
At the same time the Saudis are aiming at putting the US-Iran relationship to the test by pulling the Americans into the war. But Iran is upping the ante as well. Last week Iran sent a group of seven to nine ships, some of which were equipped with weapons, to the Gulf of Aden for a highly publicized “anti-piracy” mission. At the same time Iran has raised its security level and called in reserves to the army as a step towards mobilisation.
The Americans have said they would intervene against Iranian ships if they try to resupply the Houthis. They have deployed more aircraft carriers and significantly upped their activities in the region, but this is mainly meant as a deterrent because they desperately want to avoid a confrontation. This, however, adds to the explosive material concentrated around Yemen.
Clearly the Iranians are not going to let any of this go by easily. The Iranians have been in touch with the Houthis who, although they are not fully aligned with Iran, belong to the same regional bloc. The continuous provocations and escalating Saudi attacks are a direct threat aimed at Iran.
Wars and instability
The real reason behind the escalation on Saudi Arabia’s side is the crisis of the kingdom which is being torn apart by its internal contradictions. Widespread poverty, a large oppressed Shia minority as well as a large layer of Sunni fundamentalists who do not acknowledge the King as a legitimate ruler, means that the base of the kingdom is extremely narrow. The rotten ruling family with their eternal extravagant lifestyles only provoke disgust amongst the people. Their only legitimacy comes from the money they can hand out to a narrow layer of yes-men.
Eaten up by internal rot, the Al-Saud family has lost sense of reality. The war being waged today, is led by a 35-year old prince who has clearly never had any military training. Just as the Saudi royals go about killing servants and keeping sex-slaves without any repercussions, they also think that the war on Yemen cannot hurt them.
However, this war is unwinnable. The Houthis are war hardened people who cannot be crushed by anything but the complete annihilation of Yemen. In fact, they are only being strengthened by the Saudi attacks, which are pushing more and more people behind them as Hadi’s forces are losing ground. On the other side, Al Qaeda, which is also an enemy of the Saudis, is gaining ground. At the same time, the Saudi army is unreliable, reflecting the class tensions within the Kingdom itself. A campaign into Yemen could split it along sectarian lines and lead to mass desertion. This would be the beginning of the end for Saudi Arabia as a country.
The Saudi regime is fighting an existential struggle it cannot win. No matter what the final outcome of the war will be, it will eventually lead to some kind of humiliation for Saudi Arabia, which would further add to the disintegration of the regime. In such a situation, the Saudis would desperately step up their interventions in the region and raise the instability to new levels.
Already its international standing has received a hit by the vacillation of Egypt and Pakistan. These puppet regimes, for which the Saudis have paid so much, are coming up useless when it needs them. The same is true of its gigantic army, which is the fourth most expensive in the world. By embarking on this adventure, the Saudis have brought forward all the weaknesses of their allies. Under the pressure of rising anger and dissatisfaction, these regimes cannot act without disturbing the fragile internal social “peace”.
The relationship with the US has not gained from this either. The fact is that Saudi Arabia is not as important for the US as it used to be. It is no longer the main supplier of oil to the US and it is no longer playing a “stabilising” role in the way the US desires. In fact, the Americans, who have been weakened by their own crisis, want the Saudis to accept a bigger role for Iran – something the Saudis cannot do. Instead they have become a source of concern and instability for the Americans. The truth is that for the US the Iranians are proving to be more reliable partners.
Thus the tensions are rising higher than ever in the Middle East. The weaker and more isolated the Saudis become, the more dangerous and desperate would their position be. Both the Iranians and the Saudis are raising the stakes in a push to make the US pick a side, but their gamble could risk spiralling out of control. One wrong step or “accident” could release all the accumulated tensions leading to a wider conflagration with devastating consequences for the region and for the stability of world capitalism.
In the end, the unfolding situation is rooted in the deep crisis of capitalism and the desperate struggle of the ruling class to defend its interests and privileges in each country. In their downfall they are prepared to pull the whole region down into chaos and barbarism. US imperialism is the main culprit of this. For years it has supported the most despotic regimes to crush the independent movement of the masses. The Saudi regime has been the most reactionary force in the Middle East doing the dirty work of the Americans by funding one reactionary group after another. Now, however, the US, weakened by its pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as by the capitalist crisis, has managed to destabilise the whole region and antagonise its monstrous creation setting it off on a path of chaos and havoc.
But just as the social and economic crisis of Middle Eastern capitalism is leading to diplomatic and military crises, the national tensions are also bringing out the class contradictions within each nation. While the tensions are high, the class struggle may be subdued temporarily, but as we can see in Egypt, Turkey as well as Iran, it is a fragile and unstable equilibrium and could quickly give way to new revolutionary developments. As long as power is in the hands of a small parasitic minority, any stability achieved will be but a passing affair. It is only a movement of the masses, against the rotten ruling cliques in each country and for a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, which can achieve peace and stability for of all the peoples of the region.