A perilous escalation
Yemen’s civil war is becoming a humanitarian catastrophe, a playing field for regional rivalries and a spoiler in the geopolitical detente between the United States and Iran. This threatens to make the strategically positioned but poor country of 26 million people a failed state like Libya or Syria unless moves are rapidly made to initiate negotiations on a power-sharing solution to its conflicts.
Experts warn against framing Yemen’s many problems into simple conflicts between Sunni and Shia Moslems or Saudi and Iranian interests - even if war on this scale trumps such complexities. The Houthi rebels from the northern part of the country are from a branch of Shia Islam quite distinct from Iran’s. They were in revolt without Iranian aid over inequitable treatment for over a decade against the previous autocratic government, which was overthrown in 2011. The succeeding regime failed to resolve this and other conflicts, including one with a separate Al-Qaeda faction in the east of Yemen. As a result the Houthi groups seized their chance to take over the capital Sana’a and Aden, the principal port.
These events coincided with two crucial developments in Yemen’s immediate region: the concluding round of nuclear talks between Iran and major powers, and a change of leadership in Saudi Arabia’s monarchy. The Saudis’ rooted hostility to an Iran deal arises from their regional rivalry and a fear that the United States is shifting its allegiances. The Saudis’ rapid assembly of a pan-Arab Sunni military coalition to head off Iranian interference in the Arab world and their decision to launch an ambitious air intervention in Yemen over the last two weeks has taken the US by surprise. It is partly intended to make President Obama choose between these two regional rivals. Since the extensive air attacks on Houthi positions cannot defeat them a ground troop intervention may be planned.
That would radically transform the Yemeni and regional political and strategic landscapes for the worse, especially if it drew in other Arab states, as seems likely. The potential for greater escalation was seen in the outright hostility with which Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attacked the Saudi intervention. It is also seen in the grave shortages of food and water in Yemeni cities and the mounting death toll. A failing state that became a battleground for such proxy wars would further endanger regional security by giving Al-Qaeda type groups even more scope to expand.
President Obama should indeed choose a political way through this tangle by demanding a ceasefire, a halt to Saudi intervention and immediate humanitarian access. He should aim to sponsor talks about a power-sharing solution among Yemen’s leaders and pressure Iran to support them as part of a wider effort to stabilise the region.