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Quick Thoughts: Sheila Carapico on The Current State and Future Prospects of War in Yemen

[Administrative map of Yemen. Image via Wikimedia Commons] [Administrative map of Yemen. Image via Wikimedia Commons]

[The Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen was conceived as a short, sharp campaign that would quickly achieve the objective of restoring the government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to power. Yet it is today no closer to realizing its aims than when it began in March 2015. In the meantime much of Yemen and its infrastructure has been reduced to rubble while, the country is experiencing a severe humanitarian crisis, al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State (IS) movement are exploiting the resultant political vacuum to expand their base and conduct increasingly brazen attacks, and the continued existence of Yemen itself is increasingly in doubt. To learn more about the impact of this under-reported conflict Jadaliyya turned to Sheila Carapico, a leading Yemen specialist and Professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond.]

Jadaliyya (J): What are the objectives of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?

Sheila Carapico (SC): The initial objective of what was advertised as “Operation Decisive Storm” in late March 2015 was to restore the Saudi-backed interim government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to presidential power.  More broadly, in the historical sweep of relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic(s) of Yemen, the Saudis were pursuing a longstanding goal of exercising hegemony over its restive, populous southern neighbor. Bear in mind that Riyadh opposed the anti-colonial struggle in South Yemen and supported the Zaydi imamate against republican free officers in the north during the 1960s, advanced the career of ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, opposed Yemeni unity in 1990, mocked the Yemeni electoral process, favored Southern secessionists in 1994, and perennially bankrolled opposing factions. In other words, populism, democratic openings, and mass uprisings have always terrified Gulf royalties. With good reason. The House of Saud and its brethren among the oil monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were panicked by citizen uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, but all the more fearful of the sustained popular protests in their Yemeni backyard.

The effort to reinstate what Saudi King Salman, his son Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and international sycophants deem the “internationally recognized” client Hadi government has been an abysmal failure, and instead has contributed to internecine bloodshed and even provoked blowback into the Kingdom itself.

So, for more than a year the objective seems to be to starve Yemen into submission. The naval blockade, supplemented by bombing of hospitals, ports, bridges, and other infrastructure, has prevented imports of essential foods, fuels, and medicines and stunted delivery of basic social services like electricity and water.  Numerous accounts including this report in The Guardian by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and this one by Fergal Keane of the BBC indicate that deaths and injury from trauma pale in comparison to suffering from malnutrition, deprivation, and preventable diseases.

J: What is the current state of negotiations to end the Yemen conflict?

SC: United Nations-sponsored negotiations are a cruel joke. As I pointed out at the time, they were deeply flawed from the outset. These negotiations are based on UN Security Council resolutions 2201 and 2216. Resolution 2216 of 14 April 2015, reads as if Saudi Arabia is an impartial arbitrator rather than a party to an escalating conflict, and as if the GCC “transition plan” offers a “peaceful, inclusive, orderly and Yemeni-led political transition process that meets the legitimate demands and aspirations of the Yemeni people, including women.”

Although scarcely three weeks into the Saudi-led intervention the UN’s deputy secretary-general for human rights said that the majority of the 600 people already killed were civilian victims of Saudi and Coalition airstrikes, UNSC 2216 called only on “Yemeni parties” to end the use of violence. There was no mention of the Saudi-led intervention. There was similarly no call for a humanitarian pause or corridor. Indeed, sanctions imposed by UNSC 2216 on the Huthi and Salih families, including a general assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo, have been the pretext for a much larger embargo, enforced by the Saudi-led coalition with American support, against a nation of twenty-six million people eighty percent of whom are deprived of basic necessities.  

The ostensible diplomacy of Secretary of State John Kerry and UN Special Envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed remains wedded to UNSC resolutions 2201 and 2216, which also legitimized Saudi hegemonic aspirations in Yemen and invalidated the democratic aspirations of wide swaths of the Yemeni public. The US, the UN, and the UK continue to insist on the unconditional surrender of the “rebel” forces to the “legitimate” Hadi government (who was “elected” in a one-man plebiscite in February 2012 for a two-year term).

Let’s also not be overly sympathetic to the “rebels”, who we label as Huthis but who are mostly led, financed, and armed by the deposed dictator `Ali `Abdallah Salih. His three decades of misrule led to this whole mess. These strange bedfellows (and former adversaries) do have some following in the northern regions, especially among communities savaged by the Saudi-led air campaign, including the capital, Sana’a. But the perverse Salih-Huthi alliance’s ruthless assaults on community militias in the besieged city of Ta`iz and many parts of the historic South have won them many enemies.    

“Negotiations” between the spurious “internationally-recognized Hadi government” and the internationally-sanctioned “rebels” have no prospects for bearing fruit. Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts center on a “quartet” comprised of the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – who are, again, parties to the conflict, not neutral mediators.

J: Do you expect Yemen to survive this conflict as a unified polity?

SC: No. It is more likely to blow apart. A few years ago, the Southern Movement (Hirak) was a unified separatist or irredentist force seeking re-separation. That threatened to re-divide the polity “united” in 1990 as the Republic of Yemen through a merger of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north and People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south. Then, for some months in 2011 the youth, north and south, seemed nearly unanimous against `Ali `Abdallah Salih’s military dictatorship.  However now the historic south is riven by Jihadists and others, against the socialist legacy of the PDRY, and of the popular uprising of 2011. Even a clean re-division between north and south now seems implausible. There are deep divisions within many regions of the former YAR and PDRY.

Also, of late the rhetoric of sectarianism has superseded the political divides between progressives and reactionaries, and between southerners and the northern majority. Ten and twenty years ago Yemenis identified as Socialists or Islamists or members of the ruling General People’s Congress, Salih’s party. Nowadays Salafists and Zaydis, respectively, speak in denominational terms of Sunni vs. Shi`a identities and animosities, and that discourse has become normalized.

J: What are the main obstacles to bringing this conflict to an end, and what do you anticipate to be the main challenges once this conflict is over? 

SC: The Arabian Peninsula is divided between the dominant monarchies and city-states of the Gulf, whose opulence depends on millions of indentured Asian migrant laborers; and the disempowered farmers, traders, and ordinary people concentrated in the populous southwest of the Peninsula.  This conflict will not be “over” while misogynistic, exploitative regimes remain central to the global political economy.  It is driven in large part by the oil-for-arms bargain between North Atlantic powers and the carbon exporters on the Arab coast of the Persian Gulf.

If and when the fighting stops, the challenge will be nothing short of completely rebuilding a decimated national infrastructure and economy. It is also difficult to imagine undoing the damage to fragile marine and agricultural ecologies wrought by so much wanton destruction.

J: What is the US role in this conflict?

SC: The United States is a party to the conflict, and complicit in war crimes. President Obama found himself, perhaps unwittingly, in the role of arms-merchant-in chief to the Saudi Kingdom and its Gulf cousins.  In the past eight years American weapons sales to the Kingdom topped USD 115 billion, and that’s not counting additional US sales to the UAE and Bahrain, or British, other European, and Canadian arms transfers.  One investigative report concluded that the Obama administration’s forty-two separate arms deals with Saudi Arabia have “been a boon to a number of well-connected defense contractors including Boeing, whose F-15S combat aircraft is the backbone of the Saudi Air Force; Lockheed Martin, which sells Saudi Arabia its C-130J transport plane; and General Dynamics, which supplies the M1A1 tank.” These companies’ lobbying efforts included over USD 7 million by General Dynamics in 2016 alone, reporters have discovered.

The United States is also directly involved in combat operations, chiefly through in-air refueling of fighter-bombers and participation in the naval blockade, and indirectly through surveillance, training, and other forms of technical support. Moreover Washington – where, according to the Washington Post, the “Saudi government and its affiliates have spent millions of dollars on U.S. law, lobby and public relations firms” to spread its message  – tends to parrot the Saudi narrative about the war. Thus we hear consistent references to the “Iranian-backed Huthi rebels” and “legitimate concerns about Huthi aggression.” Between diplomatic cover, weapons transfers, direct assistance to the military campaign, and propaganda-sharing, it should come as no surprise that many Yemenis refer to the US-Saudi war that is destroying their lives.

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