The Strange War in Yemen
What sense does this make? The U.S. is abetting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Jordan. Morocco and Sudan—all ruled by Sunni Muslims who despise Shiite Muslims—to attack and roll back advances by the Shiite Houthis of Yemen who are eager to fight al-Qaeda and ISIL in that impoverished, unstable nation.
Recall that shortly after 9/11, the George W. Bush administration declared that “he who is not for us is against us,” scaring the shit out of anyone hesitant to cooperate with U.S. war plans. Yemeni strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had come to power in 1990, cooperated with the U.S. during the first Gulf War, arranged to get his nation removed from the U.S.’s “terror sponsor” list, purchased weapons from the U.S., and cooperated in the investigation of the al-Qaeda attack on the U.S.S. Cole in Yemeni waters in 2000, rushed to Washington in November 2001 to declare fealty.
This meeting was followed up by a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney, de facto leader of the U.S. “War on Terror” and Saleh in Yemen’s capital Sana’a in March 2002. In the interim the U.S. announced that it would send hundreds of troops to Yemen and afterwards the Yemeni government confirmed that the U.S. would dispatch 200 “advisers” to train local troops against al-Qaeda terrorists (whom, by the way, were then small in number but have burgeoned steadily ever since).
In Yemen on March 14 Cheney stated that the U.S. was “being responsive to Yemen’s request for training its special forces in their counter-terrorism mission, [and also] planning to address essential military equipment needs and to increase assistance to Yemen’s Coast Guard and economy.” But on April 11 Saleh told al-Jazeera the real story: “As for the American anti-terror security experts and technical equipment, it is not we who requested them. It is the U.S. government that said ‘prove your genuineness and let the experts in’ so we let them in.”
Meanwhile Yemen’s ruling General People’s Congress (GPC) accused U.S. ambassador Edmond Hull of “interfering” in domestic affairs and threatened to expel him. “Since he was appointed (last September), ambassador Edmond Hull has behaved like a high commissioner, not like a diplomat in a country which is opposed to any form of interference” by a foreign state, reported a GPC-linked newspaper. “Edmund Hull adopts a very haughty behaviour, far-removed from his diplomatic duties, when he speaks to certain Yemeni officials,” adding that Hull should “respect Yemen in order not to become persona non grata.” From the very beginning of the U.S.-Yemen alliance, the relationship has been characterized by mutual antipathy.
Thirteen years and countless anti-U.S. demonstrations later—protesting U.S. political interference, the asinine anti-Islam Youtube video of 2012, and most importantly the drone strikes—radical Islamists are more numerous and active than ever in the Arab world’s poorest country, where 45% of the people live under the poverty line. Over 800 “al-Qaeda militants” have supposedly been killed by drone strikes, but it’s hard to know how much credibility to attach to the claim. The Obama administration considers any post-pubescent male in the wrong place at the wrong time a “combatant” suitable for slaughter.
In November 2011, the 40-year-old U.S.-born cleric Anwar Awlaki was killed by a drone strike. Few in this country mourned, although the legal precedent (target-killing a U.S. citizen that way without any trial or conviction of a crime) caused some unease in some quarters. Less attention was given to a separate strike the next day that apparently targeted and killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and a teenage cousin. Apparently their only crime was the family connection.
According to the Long War Journal, 35 civilians were killed in U.S. drone strikes in 2012, along with 193 considered “militants.” A 12-year-old boy was among the victims of a strike Feb. 9 this year, after which Slate Magazine asked, “What if drones are part of the problem?” What if they’re just generating more of what the CIA calls “blowback”?
Recall that during the “Arab Spring” of 2011, President Obama concluded at some point that Egypt’s President Mubarak, who had long been a “staunch ally” of the U.S. , had become so unpopular with his people that further U.S. support would damage the relationship with Egypt. So he gave Mubarak his marching orders. (You can do that if you’re the president of the United States.
The Egyptian dictator was succeeded by a democratically elected member of the Muslim Brotherhood, then toppled by the military with tacit U.S. approval. In Yemen, where the “spring” also brought massive protests against the regime in power, Obama ordered long-time U.S. ally Saleh to step down. Saleh was obliged to comply in February 2012, while remaining active behind the scenes in his retirement.
Before that—in the early months of the “Arab Spring” in 2011—Glevum Associates conducted a poll in Yemen of 1005 adult men and women. Its results are telling. It found that 88% of Yemenis at the time thought their country was heading “in the wrong direction.” 98% had an unfavorable perception of the U.S. government (55% “very unfavorable,” 43% “somewhat unfavorable”). Only 40% approved strongly or somewhat with President Saleh’s cooperation with the U.S.
99% opposed the U.S.-led “War on Terrorism.” 99% had an unfavorable perception of U.S. relations with the Islamic world.
66% thought the U.S. had no or very little concern about Yemeni interests. The analysts concluded, “The overwhelming majority of Yemenis think that the economic, military and cultural influence of the U.S. in the world is bad and that the U.S. does not take into account the interests of countries like Yemen when it acts.”
52% of those surveyed thought that the Arab League was best able to help Yemen (only 1% thought this of the U.S.). Perhaps most shocking, Anwar Awlaki’s popularity exceeded that of President Saleh’s.
On September 12, 2012 demonstrators stormed the U.S. embassy in protest of the anti-Islam film posted on YouTube. They were mistaken in supposing that the U.S. government was behind it, or might have prevented it, but this was an indication of the profoundly anti-U.S. sentiments documented in the Gleuvum Associated study. In November there were more demonstrations in Sana’a, this time in support of the ousted Saleh, blaming the U.S. for his departure. They were largely Shiite-led demonstrations.
This is significant. It showed that Saleh (depicted in U.S. propaganda as a casualty of a popular uprising) actually retained his own social base in a complicated society, and that while he had fought the Houthis in the past, with Saudi and U.S. support, he was now aligning himself with Houthis and his fellow Shiites in general against the U.S.-orchestrated Hadi regime.
The U.S. political class and State Department-briefed mainstream press have shown themselves (again) to be totally clueless about intra-Muslim issues. It is as though they find these problems so arcane, requiring so much homework to figure out, that they can dispense with them all together and boil them all down to one allegation: Iran is the headquarters of global Shiism, and wherever Shiites are struggling to retain or acquire power, Iran must be held responsible for their actions.
Syria is led by Alewites, a branch or offshoot of Shiism. Ergo, Tehran supports the Assad regime. Hizbollah in Lebanon is a Shiite movement, so it must be a pawn of Iran. The demonstrators in Bahrain as mainly Shiites; thus the mullahs in Iran are instigating their protests. The Houthis are Shiites, so Iran must be driving their rebellion in a bid to dominate Yemen.
This interpretation is absurd. It is immediately refuted by the fact that Iran has not embraced the cause of Azerbaijan, and its claim to Nagorno-Kabarach, in relation to the Republic of Armenia that supports the independence of the ethnically Armenian region surrounded by and claimed by Azerbaijan. (In 1923 the Soviet government made the decision to make Nagorno-Kabarach an autonomous oblast within the Azerbaijan SSR. With the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the new leaders in Azerbaijan sought to retain control over the region—rather like the new Georgian state tried to retain control over South Ossetia and Abhkazia. Armenia supported the secessionists in the subsequent Nagorno-Karabakh War of 1988 to 1992.)
Iran is the largest primarily Shiite nation in the world, with 81 million people, 90 to 95% of them Shiites. Iraq is number two; of its 32 million people, 60 to 65% are Shiites. Azerbaijan is the third most populous mainly Shiite nation in the world, with 8 million people, around 85% of them Shiites. The Azeris have a mixed Iranian-Turkish culture. And there are only four majority Shiite nations in the world, after all (the last being Bahrain). Shouldn’t Iran be best friends with them?
The answer is no. Tehran is more friendly with Christian Armenia than it is with Shiite Azerbaijan, for various geopolitical reasons that have little to do with the Shiite religion. But how often do you recall this matter being discussed in the U.S. press?
Still, Shiism is an important factor in political and military events in the region. U.S. policy in Iraq from 2003 produced the sort of civil conflict between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority that Baathist secularism had kept in check for decades. The fools in charge, arrogantly traipsing around Baghdad in cowboy boots, had no idea their policies would give rise to Iran-backed Shiite parties and militias rising to power on the one hand, and a Sunni resistance vulnerable to terrorist manipulation and even leadership on the other. The current confrontation between ISIL and combined Iraqi and Iranian forces, that has shaped up so dramatically and unexpectedly, is a lesson in what absolute stupidity and indifference to religious history can produce.
Look at a religious map of the Middle East. I recommend this one.
Notice how there are Shiite communities from Afghanistan to the Anatolian Peninsula and the Levant. (There are also millions in India and Pakistan.) Notice how the island country of Bahrain, located across the Persian Gulf from Iran, is mostly Shiite. Over 60%, in fact, but it is ruled by a Sunni monarch. Feeling themselves victims of discrimination, Shiites rose up in the “Arab Spring” in peaceful demonstrations. The king, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khaifa, cracked down severely, and in March 2011, Saudi Arabia and other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council invaded to quell disturbances. “I saw them chasing Shiites,” one Sunni resident of the city of Sitra recalled, “like they were hunting.”
It might be worth noting in this connection that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi ambassador to Washington from 1983 to 2005 (and a dear friend of the Bush family) once told MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove that, “The time is not far off in the Middle East, Richard, when it will literally be ‘God help the Shia.’ More than a billion Shia have simply had enough of them.” A chilling prediction?
The Saudi-led invasion of Bahrain came just after U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had paid a call on the king to thank him for hosting the U.S. Fifth Fleet. The U.S. position on the suppression of this particular expression of the “Arab Spring” was to reiterate its support for the Bahraini and Saudi governments, both of whom blamed Iran for inciting the Bahrainis to rise up. Little evidence has ever been adduced for that.
Similarly, after Shiites in Lebanon responded to the Israeli invasion in 1982 by forming the resistance movement Hizbollah (now aligned with more secular Shiite-based Amal Movement), that movement has been dismissed by its foes as mere proxies and puppets of Iran. As though oppression and invasion do not in themselves invite resistance, but the latter has to be explained in terms of outside agitators’ nefarious interference!
There is in fact a close relationship between Iran and Hizbollah, due in part to deep religious affinities and the studies of its clerics in Iran’s holy city of Qom. But Hizbollah also enjoys close ties to Baathist Syria, which is a far different and more liberal society than Iran. (Women need not wear headscarves. Beer is brewed and sold legally. The state is officially secular, etc.) Those prone to deny the reality of oppressed people’s agency need to depict them as someone else’s surrogates.
And so we come to Yemen. It seems the Bahrain intervention was a mini-dress rehearsal for this, just without the bombs. The Saudis are amassing a huge force to invade, abetted by their allies and receiving logistical and intelligence support from the U.S. Why?
The Yemeni government has long faced multiple insurgencies, including a southern secessionist movement dating back the unification of North Yemen (the Republic of Yemen) and South Yemen (the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen) in 1990. That movement has Baathist and Nasserite elements and is a separate phenomenon from al-Qaeda and ISIL movements in the south. Neither is related to the Shiite movement led by the powerful Houthi tribe in the north. (The Shiite population of Yemen is estimated at 30-35% of the population, the great majority members of the Zaidi denomination of Shiism. This is quite distinct from the form of Shiism prevalent in Iran.)
For many years Houthis have campaigned for a more representative government in Sana’a, and for a greater Houthi voice in parliament (which they dissolved last month). Their primarily peaceful protests, which have never evolved into secessionist demands, met with violent repression in 2004, by the Saleh regime. This led to a six-year war ending in a ceasefire in 2010.
Ironically perhaps, President Saleh was and is a Zaidi Shiite himself, like the Houthis. But he is not overly religious and (according to the Gleuven report) was as well supported by the Sunnis as the Shiites in Yemen while in power. He resigned as noted above in February 2012. In the election for his successor, Vice President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, a Sunni, ran unopposed with U.S. blessing. The point was to appease the masses who had called for Saleh’s resignation (not that he lacked a certain social base which remains supportive), while insuring the continuation of the status quo particularly the U.S. alliance.
But Hadi was less adept at handling the situation(s) in the south, raising Houthi concerns of an al-Qaeda or ISIL takeover or division of the country. Having already obtained control over the governates of Sa’da and al-Jawf (where they have eradicated al-Qaeda), they pressed south to the capital of Sana’a, taking it virtually without bloodshed in January. Representing maybe 40% of the Yemeni population, they seem to enjoy considerable support. They indeed appear to have ex-president Saleh’s support at this point.
In a New York Times interview published February 10 the leader of the Houthi militia, Saleh Ali al-Sammad, said he wanted Yemen to have good relations with the U.S. and other countries, including Saudi Arabia, so long as national sovereignty was respected. He added that the Houthies would reach out to political rivals. Why is Saudi Arabia so determined to crush them—if not to strike terror into the hearts of Shiites everywhere, particularly the rulers of Iran?
The current round of Saudi bombing of the Houthis is by no means the first. In 2009 alone, the Saudi Air Force dropped U.S.-made cluster bombs on 164 locations in the northern province of Sa’ada from U.S.-supplied F-15S fighter jets and UK-supplied Tornado aircraft. On January 22, 2010 UPI reported that Saudi fighter jets had made bombing raids over Houthi rebel positions in northern Yemen, killing about a dozen people and destroying homes.
In late 2010, the director of Amnesty international UK, Kate Allen, reported that over the previous year “Saudi Arabia’s fighter bombers – very likely supplied by the UK – have taken part in the Yemeni government’s massive bombardments of entire villages in Yemen’s restive north, an operation targeting Shia rebels. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of civilians have been killed, with thousands more forced to flee their homes.” Such reports have drawn little attention, much less outrage, in this country wedded at the hip to the Saudi absolute monarchy that routinely beheads people found guilt of adultery, homosexuality or even “witchcraft.”
Some talking head on CNN or MSNBC was noting how odd it is for the U.S. to be supporting Shiite militias led by Iranian officers against (Sunni) ISIL fighters in Iraq, while supporting Sunnis against Shiites in Yemen. Of course there’s more to it than U.S. forces siding confusedly with this or that form of Islam in the Middle East, or tolerating the expansion of Iranian influence in one country while challenging it in another. It’s not that simple.
In Iraq, the U.S. cannot allow the regime it brought to power (however disappointing its performance has been, causing some to charge in exasperation that “We did all this for them, and then they blew it!”) to fall to forces even more hideous than al-Qaeda or Saddam Hussein. Even if it does mean making common cause with Iran and the al-Sadr Brigades. The alternative—ISIL in Baghdad, crucifying and beheading, blowing up monuments—would show the world all too clearly how utterly evil and inexcusable the invasion and occupation of Iraq (that directly produced these results) have been.
And on the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda’s original breeding ground, it cannot alienate the Saudi leaders, whose cooperation is vital in containing al-Qaeda and ISIL, promoting peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and most importantly supplying a steady flow of cheap oil to the world market. A Shiite-led Yemen engaged in ongoing conflict with its Wahhabi Sunni-ruled neighbor could lead to all-out war in the Middle East, pitting Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizbollah against a coalition of Sunni tyrannies whose religious prejudices (that mean nothing to Washington) could draw this country into even more disaster.
The arrogant Americans who once thought they could call the shots in Yemen have been forced to flee the country with their tails between their legs. Obama, who as recently as last September proclaimed Yemen as a model of the “strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines” has been embarrassed by the collapse of his partners.
In January Hadi resigned as president, citing an irresolvable political “stalemate.” Under house arrest, his home surrounded by Houthi forces, he was able to flee to Aden in February, pronouncing himself once again as “president of the republic” before fleeing the country for Somalia March 25 after Houthis seized the Aden airport.
Meanwhile on February 10 the U.S. embassy, which had evacuated non-essential staff in August 2013, closed down entirely, citing security issues in Sana’a. On February 12 al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula overran a government military base in southern Yemen. Five weeks later 100 U.S. troops evacuated a hitherto secret base near the city of al-Houta as al-Qaeda forces attacked. Not since the retreat of the last U.S. forces from South Vietnam in 1975, or the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, has U.S. imperialism met with such abject humiliation.
Now Washington must rely on Saudi Arabia and its anti-Shia, anti-Iran coalition to re-impose an acceptable level of stability in Yemen. Meanwhile Obama seeks rapprochement with Iran in part to stabilize Iraq, the current catastrophic condition of which is basically the result of U.S. crimes.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org