Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Yemen, one of the world’s poorest countries, has become a battlefield for the Mideast’s most vicious rivalries. That’s bad for Yemenis, bad for the region and bad for us.
Over the weekend an American destroyer, the USS Mason, came under missile fire in the Red Sea. The Mason was there to beef up the US military presence in the region after a United Arab Emirates ship was destroyed off Yemen’s shores. US officials say the Houthis are responsible for both incidents.
The Houthis belong to the Zaidi sect, an offshoot of Islam close to Shia. Although the Houthis are an indigenous Yemeni force, Shiite Iran supports them with money, weapons and training. They now control much of the country, including the capital, Sana.
Enter the Saudis. Fearing Iran’s rise — not to mention Houthi incursions into its own territory next door — Riyadh gathered a coalition of Sunni states from nearby in the Persian Gulf and as far away as Egypt and Morocco. They launched a ferocious war on the Houthis that has already killed 4,000 civilians.
This week, a Saudi air attack hit a funeral procession in Sana, killing 140 and raising an outcry around the world. Fingers were pointed not only at the Saudi-led coalition, which has committed several such atrocities in recent weeks, but also at America.
After the Iran nuclear deal raised anger at Washington across the Sunni Mideast, President Obama sought to appease the Saudis by selling them a new bundle of warplanes, tanks and other war toys. Now many in the region and beyond accuse us of complicity in war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, not all is hunky-dory among Arab coalition members. Yes, on the surface an old enmity between the two top monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, seems to have at least temporarily receded to the background. But that may not last.
As a well-connected diplomat tells me, the Qataris think any outcome in Yemen is a win for them: If the coalition loses out to the Houthis, the Saudi king, hated by the emir of Qatar, will be diminished. On the other hand, the only forces able to defeat the Houthis are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, a leading anti-Western Sunni political force, backed by Qatar. A victory of Brotherhood-affiliated militias will widen Qatar’s influence in the region.
Happy either way, the Qataris therefore increasingly support the Saudi-led coalition.
But everyone else shouldn’t be so optimistic. The Egyptians, for one, may soon realize their help in Yemen elevates the Brotherhood, which was born in Egypt and is the top domestic enemy of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.
As for America, do we really want anti-Western Sunni forces to emerge victorious? Remember, Yemen was home to the bin Laden family. It served as a base for prolific terrorist recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who inspired bombers from Paris to Boston to Chelsea’s 23rd Street.
On the other hand, do we really want victory by an Iranian-backed gang, the Houthis, which, as the weekend incident demonstrates, are no friends of ours?
What about letting them fight each other to the death, while paying lip service to Yemeni casualties by denouncing atrocities on both sides? Regrettably, that cynical solution won’t do either.
The weekend incidents are a reminder, for one, that any of the factions fighting in Yemen may eventually use Bab al Mandeb (The Gate of Grief), a narrow strait at the bottom of the Red Sea, against us, blocking a crucial naval commercial passage connecting Africa and South Asia with the Mediterranean and Europe.
Two years ago, Obama presented Yemen as a success story in his mostly neglectful approach to the Mideast wars.
Shortly after, the Houthis captured Sana after allying with the ousted former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Any hope of success in the UN-led diplomacy behind Obama’s “Mission Accomplished”-like boast died.
Yemen, a microcosm of the current Mideast mess, can in part be chalked up to America’s policy in the last decade. We tried to divorce ourselves from a region that simply refuses to accept our pleas for separation.
Our withdrawal gave rise to the region’s most extremist elements and their anti-American backers.
Regrettably, the two presidential frontrunners signal they’ll mostly continue Obama’s attempt at ending America’s traditional global leadership, which sooner or later will come back to bite us, and America will likely be drawn into a much messier war.