The Republic of Yemen, the poorest state on the Arabian peninsula, is sinking deeper into political turmoil, carrying with it the risk of an all-out conflict, drawing in both regional and big powers and adding further to the chaos and war now gripping a huge region centred on the Middle East but stretching from West Africa to Central Asia.
On 20 February, an attempt was made, with United Nations mediation and pressure, to form a new legislative body, dubbed the People’s Transitional Council, with the stated intention of preparing for a more inclusive and representative political settlement. But hopes for its success, in paving the way to a comprehensive peace and reconciliation process and preventing a slide into civil war, were generally low.
The renewed political manoeuvrings were spurred on following the take-over of the streets of the capital, Sana’a, by Houthi rebels in September last year.
The crisis worsened when negotiations on a power-sharing agreement collapsed in January. The Houthis then closed parliament and forced the US-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi to step down, placing him under house arrest. At time of writing, Hadi had still not been replaced as head of state and most government ministries are also empty.
The Houthis adhere to the Zaidi offshoot of the Shiite wing of Islam and hail from the northern part of the country. Shias make up some 30 percent of Yemen’s population of 26 million and they have long complained of discrimination and marginalisation at the hands of the Sunni majority.
The Houthis are often said to be backed by Iran and more occasionally by the Lebanese Hezbollah. Their flags and banners feature slogans denouncing the United States and Israel, although, since taking control of Sana’a, they have reiterated on a number of occasions their willingness to have constructive relations with all countries, including the USA.
The Saudi Arabian dimension
And, whilst concrete details of Iranian backing for the Houthis are generally thin on the ground, what is beyond dispute is that the neighbouring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the centre of Sunni-based extremism, has long regarded Yemen as falling within its sphere of influence. Indeed, as far back as the 1960s, Saudi Arabia fought a bloody proxy war with the then revolutionary government of Egypt’s Gamal Abdul Nasser on Yemeni soil. Nasser’s Egypt was backing a national democratic transition in the north of Yemen (at the time the south of the country was still under British colonial rule) and the Saudis were fighting to restore feudal and religious obscurantist forces to power.
On 15 February, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) threatened to take action against the Houthis unless the “international community”, namely the GCC’s imperialist masters, did so. This likely prompted the flurry of activity by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his special adviser on Yemen, Jamal Benomar.
Ban linked the UN action to the threat of al-Qaeda, stating: ” Yemen is collapsing before our eyes. We cannot stand by and watch. The current instability is creating conditions which are conducive to a re-emergence of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).”
Under the plan announced by Benomar, the new legislative chamber is to replace the Shura Council in the country’s two-house legislature and is supposed to be made up of delegates from traditionally unrepresented sectors of Yemeni society, including the Houthis, young people, women and people from the south of the country. However, he provided no details as to how many seats it would have or how its members would be selected. Effectively it is to operate as an upper house, with the existing lower chamber left in place.
Together with this existing House of Representatives, the transitional council is supposed to craft legislation to facilitate the country’s political transition.
This represents a significant concession by the Houthis, who had previously said that they would dissolve parliament in favour of their own revolutionary committees.
Response to UN proposals
One of the few positive responses to these reforms from among the country’s established political parties came from the Justice and Building Party. This party was formed in 2011 by some key defectors from the then ruling and now discredited General People’s Congress (GPC), following youth-led demonstrations and uprisings that threatened and ultimately helped topple its rule. The party’s founders felt that the GPC had strayed from its original, nationalist purpose and that they must take the side of the people once they had risen up.
Its president, Mohammed Abdulahoom, whilst admitting that the deal was not a major breakthrough, said that it was nevertheless, “exactly what Yemen needed“, adding: ” Political factions now have the trust and belief that they can solve their problems through dialogue and not arms and war.”
Other political forces were less positive, with those among the most opposed to the Houthis, representing religious fundamentalism or the old elite, insisting that the new council had been formed under duress.
Ali al-Jaradi, a leader of al-Islah, an Islamist party historically related to the Muslim Brotherhood, declared:
” Political factions are forced to have dialogue under terms they don’t agree on. Anyone who opposes the Houthis, even in dialogue, will be oppressed, since they are the only armed group in the country and are surrounding Sana’a with thousands of their militants .”
Whilst it is a very considerable exaggeration to suggest that the Houthis are the only armed group in the county, it is the case that, as they swept into Sana’a and extended their military presence around the country, they have faced little resistance. The Yemeni army and police have mostly remained neutral, retreating to their bases or fading away as the Houthis seized territory and government installations.
Popular support for the Houthis
One reason for the rapid advance of the Houthis has been their appeal to the Yemeni masses’ hatred of imperialism, not only emblazoning anti-US and anti-Israeli slogans on their banners, but also, for example, when, in July 2014, the Hadi government enforced an end to fuel subsidies under IMF pressure, the Houthis responded by demanding the reinstitution of the subsidies and calling for mass demonstrations against the government.
As a result, the Houthis were able to gain a considerable degree of popular sympathy “far beyond their core support base“, according to an analysis by the International Crisis Group, a pro-imperialist but perceptive think tank. It was not least due to the fact that the government was almost completely discredited among nearly all sections of the population, at least in the north of the country, that the Houthis were able to seize Sana’a with ease.
Opponents of the Houthis
The main resistance to the Houthis has to date come from some Sunni tribes and particularly from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). This notorious terrorist outfit, which, for example, claimed responsibility for the January attacks in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket, has, in recent weeks, exploited the disarray in the country to step up significantly its activities, especially in the provinces of Marib, Hadramawt and Shabwa, which are home to most of the impoverished nation’s limited energy resources and hence its wealth. Hadramawt is also the ancestral home of the bin Laden family.
AQAP also serves as the major pretext for the US imperialist interference and presence in the country. The US has long had an extensive programme of drone attacks and killings in Yemen, which have stirred massive resentment and hatred among the population. The Houthis are implacably opposed to al-Qaeda, but have also repeatedly denounced the US drone strikes, citing them as examples of imperialist aggression and violations of national sovereignty.
In any event, any hope that the 20 February accord might at least bring some measure of respite to a long suffering country appeared to be shattered the next day when former President Hadi managed to escape house arrest and find refuge in Aden, the Red Sea port that is the main city in the south of the country and was the capital of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) that, in May 1990, united with its northern counterpart to form today’s Yemeni state. As Hadi is himself a southerner, many of them were pleased when he assumed the presidency, seeing it as a rebuff to perceived northern dominance. Equally, despite the diverse political and social forces involved, ranging from left wingers to fundamentalists, much southern opinion, where there is now an active secessionist movement, presently sees Hadi’s overthrow as reinforcing their subordinate status in the country.
Days before Hadi fled south, his supporters seized key buildings in Aden and a local government military commander claimed that the Houthis had “no supporters” in Aden or in other major southern cities. He added that this opposition was shared by those in favour of southern secession as well as those favouring a united Yemen.
Once he reached the safety of Aden, Hadi accused the Houthis of having staged a coup. He claimed that all the measures they had taken were “null and void” and insisted that he was still the country’s president. His stance has been endorsed by the governors of three southern provinces, Aden, Lajij and Mahra. They have also called for Yemen to become a federation of six regions.
These latest developments will certainly intensify the county’s crisis and could quite possibly be used as a pretext by US imperialism and its surrogates for escalating their foreign intervention. In the middle of February, a number of countries closed their embassies in Sana’a and evacuated their personnel. They included the US (whose diplomatic mission also housed a huge presence from the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]), Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Amongst those countries whose embassies remain open are China, Russia, Iran and Syria.
” Recent unilateral actions disrupted the political transition process in Yemen, creating the risk that renewed violence would threaten Yemenis and the diplomatic community ,” US State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said, adding: “We will not hesitate to act in Yemen.”
The transition process referred to by Psaki was cooked up by the US with its stooges in the Saudi-dominated GCC, replacing the discredited regime of long-time ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh with Hadi’s equally pliant regime, installed by means of a one-man election in February 2012 and leaving large parts of the old regime intact.
Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the US intends to respond to the steadily worsening fragmentation and disintegration of the Yemeni state by stepping up its military intervention, ostensibly responding to the threat posed by AQAP, but in reality with a view to bringing this strategically important nation under its complete control.
“The bottom line is increased danger to the United States homeland,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, a Republican, said in comments cited by Fox News. The Houthi take-over “makes it easier for them [AQAP] to plot and plan against us,” he added, blithely ignoring the fact that of all the forces in the country, the Houthis are the most opposed to al-Qaeda. By way of contrast, none other than Yemen’s long-time US-backed ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh – himself an enthusiastic proponent of the US “war on terror” – reportedly engaged the services of AQAP last year as part of efforts to destabilise the Hadi government. AQAP carried out “assassinations and attacks against military installations” on behalf of Saleh, according to a November 2014 report by a UN Security Council committee.
Without explanation, the UN report was modified weeks later to accuse Saleh merely of support for unspecified “violent groups”.
US Admiral John Kirby recently stressed that the US would continue to act unilaterally in the country:
” We still have Special Operations forces in Yemen, we continue to conduct counter-terrorism training with Yemeni security forces, and we are still capable inside Yemen of conducting counter-terrorism operations ,” he said.
Senior US politicians are also calling for a US escalation in Yemen, following the Houthis’ advance.
” Yemen has been of strategic importance to the United States, and I fear these latest developments will create a vacuum that will ultimately benefit AQAP “, Senator Lindsey Graham said in a statement, going on to claim that AQAP “continues to harbour a burning desire to attack the United States“.
The arch war criminal, Senator John McCain has called for more “boots on the ground”, demanding a region-wide military escalation against Iran and its perceived allies, including the Houthis. According to McCain, the Houthi advance demonstrated that “Iran is on the march” throughout the Middle East.
In a paper released in late January, Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a major US imperialist think tank, pointed to the strategic interests at stake for the US ruling class:
” The United States has been involved in a low-level war in Yemen for years and seems to be losing it decisively. Yemen may seem far away, but it is on the border of Saudi Arabia and a critical centre of the oil exports that feed the global economy, as well as that of the United States. Yemen is also the centre of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, arguably the most direct terrorist threat to the United States .”
Similar sentiments have been expressed by all key regional allies of the US, including Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Reflecting rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the GCC has claimed that Houthi control of Sana’a represents a grave threat to ” the security and stability of the region and the interests of its people“.
Strategic importance of Yemen
Whilst couched in terms of a struggle against al-Qaeda and the fraudulent “war on terror”, the real aim of the US in Yemen is to secure control of the strategically critical Bab al-Mandab Strait. Connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, the strait facilitates the constant passage of massive commercial flows, including major sections of the world trade in grain and three million barrels of oil per day, giving Yemen a strategic significance well beyond its small size and relative lack of natural resources. As the Bab al-Mandab Strait also controls access to the Suez Canal, whoever controls the Yemeni government potentially has a chokehold on a vital part of the global economy.
Directly across the strait lies the tiny state of Djibouti, where the US Africa Command (Africom) maintains its largest military facility in Africa, Camp Lemonnier. The base serves as a central hub for US drone strikes and covert operations across the whole of the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. France also maintains major military bases in Djibouti.
” Yemen is one of the worst places on earth to cede to terrorists due to its key strategic location, including a long border with Saudi Arabia. It also dominates one of the region’s key waterways, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which controls access to the southern Red Sea ,” noted a recent US Army War College paper, ‘The Struggle for Yemen and the Challenge of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’.
Against the background of such imperialist machinations, the masses of Yemeni people continue to eke out a miserable existence. More than half the population lives below the poverty line. Unemployment stands at around 40 percent, rising to some 60 percent among the youth. Some 60 percent of the population requires food assistance and lacks clean drinking water, while 8.6 million of the country’s population of 25 million lack access to even basic health care.
But Yemen is also significant in that the southern part of the country once formed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the Arab world’s only socialist state based on Marxism-Leninism and proletarian dictatorship and born from a victorious armed struggle for national independence against British imperialism. PDRY dissolved into a united Yemen as a result of the worldwide retreat of the forces of socialism and national liberation engendered by the triumph of Khrushchevite revisionism after the 20th Congress of the CPSU(B) resulting in the wholesale treachery of the renegade Gorbachev and the demise of the once glorious USSR. However, whilst the road is tortuous, the Yemeni masses will surely revive and carry forward their glorious revolutionary traditions in the course of struggle and will teach the imperialists a mighty lesson in the future.