Yemen is a disintegrating country that over the past three years has become a heap of rubble that The New York Times recently called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
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The statistics are horrific. Most than 10,000 people killed and tens of thousands wounded; 7 million people homeless, half a million people sick with cholera, 2,000 of whom have died of it. Less than half of the humanitarian aid required to keep people alive has reached it so far and seems no one cares about ending the war.
Beyond the terrible human toll, Yemen has no government or leadership that can take responsibility for matters of state or begin any negotiations to end the fighting. The United States is moving away from Yemen and leaving Saudi Arabia to fail resoundingly in handling the battlefield. Russia and the European powers make pitying noises and give money that no one knows where it goes.
The revolution in Yemen in 2011 that deposed its president, Ali Abdallah Salah, offered a chance to establish a well-run state, more democratic and less corrupt. But the political disputes typical of a tribal society drew Yemen into a whirlwind of internal clashes. Tribes that supported the ousted president Salah felt threatened by the new government, and rose up against it.
The Houthis, a group of tribes belonging to the Shi’ite Zaidi sect (different from the Shi’ites in Iran) saw the revolution as an opportunity to improve their position and launched a new military campaign, almost a decade after its previous struggle against Salah’s regime. In 2014, they were able to take over the capital, Sana’a and from there, continued to expand their control over the northern and southern parts of the country.
A year later the Saudi ruling house, led by Mohammad Bin Salman, launched a military campaign against the Houthis, aspiring to block the penetration of Iran. At first, Iran that proposed to the Houthis to refrain from war against the regime and but the Houthis, having had their fill of disappointment and discrimination, brought the forces of the deposed President Salah into their ranks.
For Saudi Arabia this is not a battle to protect its borders against spillover of the war in Yemen. It is a war of prestige, intended to showcase Saudi military capabilities and symbolize its ability to stand in the breach against Iran. But two and a half years into the war, it appears that the sophisticated weaponry is no guarantee of military victory. The war has become a farce that presents Saudi Arabia as a military limited country, despite the Sunni coalition it has managed to put together to help it in the war.
The Yemenite front shows clearly how limited Arab countries are in their ability to resolve conflicts by either diplomatic or military means, and highlights Yemen’s need of the intervention of Western countries or Russia.
But compared to Syria, where the interests of Russia, Iran, the United States, Turkey, Jordan and even Israel intersect, Yemen is godforsaken in that respect. The United States is only interested in the battle against Al-Qaida bases, Russia is not present and even Iran is taking part only from a distance with weapons and financing.
Ostensibly, Yemen is a much more important arena than Syria, especially because of its geographical location and its control over the entrance to the Red Sea. But control over Syria gives a direct or indirect ruler access to the entire Middle East. Neither country is an oil or gas superpower, neither has precious natural resources, outside of the Yemen-grown drug khat and the best honey in the world, which Yemen produced until the war started. Syria doesn’t even have these resources.
And yet Syria has managed to maintain the image of a tempting country strategically speaking, while Yemen is considered marginal, in need only of a small fleet to keep the Red Sea open. This is the reason for Yemen’s status as a country worthy of rehabilitation and assistance. In contrast, humanitarian aid to the citizens of Syria is an inseparable part of the political discussions, while Yemen is considered a bottomless pit. That is the tragedy of its 27 million citizens, who have almost no diplomatic leverage with the international community.
A number of attempts have been made to reach a compromise or at least a cease-fire, but these have failed, largely because Saudi Arabia still hasn’t given up the possibility of “winning” and being able to dictate Yemen’s future. But even from this perspective, Yemen will have to wait in line. After Saudi Arabia lost Lebanon to Hezbollah and Iran, it had to agree to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s remaining in office, and until this year, boycotted Iraq because of its Iranian patronage, Yemen is an uncertain consolation prize. Until it is awarded, its people will continue to fear every bomb dropped on them by the coalition forces.