Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Barend Vlaardingerbroek: Yemen and Islam’s internecine war

Yemeni President Hadi: rebels are ‘stooges of Iran’ – BBC

By regional standards, Saudi Arabia and its allies moved like lightning to intervene in Yemen. Countries outside the Arab League have also pledged to throw in their lot if needed, including Turkey and Pakistan. Compare this burst of energy with the sluggish (or non-existent in some cases) regional response to ISIS. And yet the Islamic State is surely a much greater regional threat than a bunch of renegades grabbing power in one of the world’s poorest, least influential and most shambolic nation-states, hardly worthy of the epithet, occupying the bottom end of the Arabian Peninsula. So why the flurry of activity? What threat do the Houthi pose that ISIS doesn’t?

The only way to get a handle on what is happening in Yemen is by analysing events through the lens of the ages-old Sunni vs Shia struggle. Shortly after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, there was a major schism in Islam that saw the emergence of the Shia branch of the religion. Ever since then, the two strands of Islam have been at loggerheads and vying for domination. The struggle is an asymmetric one as Sunnis vastly outnumber Shias in most Muslim countries. But the formation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 gave the Shia a centre of power and Teheran has been flexing its muscles ever since. The expression ‘Shia Crescent’ describing the swathe of territory in which Iran has influence was coined by King Abdulla of Jordan 10 years ago.

The Iranian-backed Houthi are Shia, and the countries that have taken up arms against them are Sunni (or led by Sunni political elites). Right next door to Yemen is Saudi Arabia, the global centre of Sunni Islam. The establishment of an arm of the Shia Crescent right on the border of Saudi Arabia is a poke in the eye the Saudis and their Sunni brethren can’t not respond to.

ISIS are Sunni extremists, but Sunni nonetheless. It is an open secret that ISIS is largely a creation of sections of the Sunni elites of the Gulf countries who provided the financial and logistical means that enabled it to present a real threat to the whole region (and beyond). Whatever their excesses, ISIS were useful by cutting across the Shia Crescent – and not far from the borders of arch-rival Iran. Now, through trying to establish an Iranian satellite in Yemen, Teheran is giving Riyadh (whom they hold ultimately responsible for ISIS) a dose of their own medicine.

Yemen has been one country only since 1990, before which it was divided into two separate nation-states, the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen). The marriage never worked all that well owing to tribal divisions and alliances and their ideological concomitants. I think we may be seeing a de facto divorce in the near future leaving the north as an unruly, largely ungoverned and indeed ungovernable place – just perfect as a base for the likes of al-Qaida (already well established there) and ISIS (who have a foot firmly in the door).

The Islamic State’s days are numbered. Mosul will be retaken within months and Raqqa will likely follow a few months later, thereby erasing ISIS from the map (if not erasing the movement, which has been actively seeking to establish new nuclei in Libya and Yemen). All this has been made possible in part through Iranian intervention. I suspect the Houthi will find themselves in a parallel position of losing their territorial power base in south Yemen thanks to Saudi intervention.

With the south of the country secure and in friendly (i.e. Sunni) hands, I doubt whether Saudi Arabia and its mates would have any great appetite for going after rebels, be they Shia or Sunni, in the north – they really don’t want their very own version of the Afghanistan debacle on their hands. So they’d bolster their border security but leave the anarchic shambles on the other side thereof under the control of warlords and jihadis and their assorted militias to stew in their own juice and hopefully engage in incessant internal warfare. Which, given the Sunni/Shia mix, they almost certainly would.

The West is supportive of Saudi Arabia and its allies in taking action against the Houthi because the West shares their Sunni allies’ goal of containing Iran. The disintegration of Yemen and the emergence of a new stomping ground in its north for the West’s mortal jihadist enemies may be the upshot. However, the disintegration of a failed state that never amounted to much is no skin off anyone’s nose, while that lawless territory created by it is nothing all that new either judging by the fact that al-Qaida is already a fixture there. Militarily powerful Saudi Arabia will moreover be as keen on containing the mixture of threats it poses as are the Western powers, especially given the Iranian interest in their back yard. From a Western strategist’s point of view, the unfolding scenario is far from an unfavourable one. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – Middle Eastern crystal balls are notoriously unreliable.

Barend Vlaardingerbroek BSc (Auckland), BA, BEdSt (Queensland), DipCommonLaw, PGDipLaws (London), MAppSc (Curtin), PhD (Otago), is associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and a regular contributor to Breaking Views on geopolitical and social issues. Feedback welcome at

1 comment:

Brian said...

Yemen.... Islam on the March.
Enjoyed your analysis, especially in conjunction with Dr Smith’s Blog.
The one factor that stands out is when, not if, Saudi Arabia defeats the Iran “Houthi” will this pose a further threat to trade passing through the Red Sea and the Canal? Also will the Saudi’s forgo the chance to “elect” a puppet state in the Yemen to ensure “that control of their vital interests” is maintained! Watch this space.!!!!!
In my comment to Dr Smith’s Blog it would be prudent to “Let them fight it out among themselves...forever if possible”. If not, our best alternative would be to adopt Baden Powell’s slogan as far as the future is concerned “Be Prepared”.