Behind the mask: The war in Yemen

The civil war in Yemen that has raged since 2015 has led to one of the gravest humanitarian catastrophes of our age. What is behind it?

The concept of showing solidarity to the oppressed and persecuted has always been an important principle of socialist, internationalist and progressive political movements the world over and certainly Irish Republicans. Che Guevara famously said: “Above all, always be capable of feeling deeply any injustice committed against anyone, anywhere in the world. This is the most beautiful quality in a revolutionary.” And James Connolly envisioned the Irish Republic for which he died as “a beacon-light to the oppressed of every land”.

Hunger as a means of warfare & oppression

This feeling and thinking should certainly move Republicans and other Irish people in the case of Yemen. Beyond the general spirit of international solidarity that causes Irish Republicans to rally behind Palestinians, Basques, Bretons and Kurds, the situation in Yemen especially should strike a chord with Irishmen and Irishwomen that know the history of their country and their people. The Saudi-led coalition uses hunger as a means of warfare and oppression, just as the British did in Ireland during an Gorta Mór. Millions of people in Yemen face a slow and agonizing genocide by starvation.

Possibly as many as 85,000 children have already starved to death, 13 million people are at risk of starvation in what the United Nations calls the worst famine in 100 years. A horrible situation that should be appalling to any decent human being.

While outrage and a feeling of solidarity with those suffering are a good start, those who seek to go further and do something about the situation or at least raise awareness on the topic with others should have an understanding of the nature and reasons of the conflict.

A mask for nefarious activities of imperialist & reactionary forces

Much of the media in Ireland and elsewhere frames the war as a religious conflict between different sects of Islam. It is part, they say, of a regional war of Sunni Muslims against Shia Muslims, rooted in “centuries of hate”. This reading of the conflict is historically and politically misguided and should be rejected by all interested or active in the Yemeni situation.

It is not merely an oversimplification or misinterpretation. The truth is more sinister. The narrative of a religious war between tribes is a conscious deception, a mask for the nefarious activities of imperialist and reactionary forces from the region and beyond.

The dominant sectarian understanding of the conflict is as false as the framing of the 1969-98 war in the Occupied Six Counties as a conflict of “Catholics against Protestants”. Certainly, there are utterly sectarian forces involved in the fighting in Yemen and sectarian narratives are employed by almost all parties. But the root causes are not religious.

The religious fault line that seems so apparent at the moment is not, as some would have you believe, the natural state of living of a supposedly backwards, tribal society. Rather, this division has been – to quote the Easter Proclamation – “carefully fostered by an alien government”. Or actually several.

Origins of the Yemeni war

When analyzing the situation in Yemen, it is essential to take history into account. Any analysis that fails to do that is bound to fall for false narratives and draw faulty conclusions.

The present war has been going on since 2015 and is to a great part rooted in the so-called Arab Spring, the wave of revolutions and rebellions in the Middle East that caused numerous governments to fall. Among them was the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been president of Yemen since 1978. Intending to rule for life, he was forced to step down by popular demonstrations in 2012.

The new government under Saleh’s Vice-President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi proved incapable of bettering living conditions in the country or establish the rights and democratic freedoms the protestors had demanded. After several years of instability, the country slid into full-scale civil war in the spring of 2015.

5 major actors in the war

Presently, at least five major actors and alliances are fighting for control of the country:

The still internationally recognized government of Hadi, the Ansar Allah Movement (popularly known as the “Houthis”), the so-called “Islamic State”, the al-Qaeda organization and the “Southern Movement”.

For length, not all the actors can be discussed in detail here. The most important actors both in military terms and for discussing the topic of sectarianism are the Hadi government and the Houthis.

The Houthis are recruiting their membership from the Zaydi-Shia religious minority in Yemen. They are supported by Iran, which is a majority Shia Muslim country. The government of Hadi is composed of Sunni Muslims, they are supported by an international coalition of Sunni Muslim countries led by Saudi-Arabia and at times work together with sectarian militias close to al-Qaeda.

This seems to support the view of Yemen’s civil war as a sectarian conflict and proxy war between Saudi-Arabia and Iran. While the latter statement certainly has truth to it, the first part is, as said above, deceptive, and a look at history helps to clear things up.

Historical roots

Yemen or North Yemen to be precise (the country used to be partitioned between North and South due to British colonial rule…) already suffered through a civil war from 1962-70.

The conflict then pitted the then Kingdom of Yemen against pan-Arabist, Republican forces of the Free Officers Movement. This group of Army officers carried out a military coup to abolish the monarchy and establish a Republic similar to that Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Yemeni Monarchy was Shia, and yet Saudi-Arabia immediately rushed to support it. The issue at stake was not a religion at all, but the risk of a fellow king falling to a left-wing nationalist revolution. Saudi-Arabia feared and opposed Nasser and all the socialist, nationalist, pan-Arabist and above all republican forces in the Arab world that looked up to him.

With the Saudis right from the start were Britain and the USA, who also supported the Royalist side. Egypt meanwhile supported the Republicans, including sending tens of thousands of regular troops into what would soon be called “Egypt’s Vietnam”. Egypt, too, is a majority Sunni country. Their antagonism was political, as is the present one between Saudi-Arabia and Iran. Iran now as Egypt then is a revolutionary republican government that positions itself as an enemy of the US/British imperialism and exporter of its revolution.

With the revolutionaries of 1962 was the aforementioned Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was a Zaydi Shia who rose through the ranks of the majority Sunni post-coup republican system until he became president of North Yemen in 1978 and of unified Yemen in 1990. He remained true to his Arab-nationalist political roots as long as circumstances were favourable – during the 1990/91 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and second Gulf War, he supported Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the “heir” of Nasser.

The US “War on Terror”

But when Iraq was decisively defeated, Saleh adjusted his politics. He aligned himself with the Saudis and with the USA, becoming one of the most treasured allies in George W. Bush’s “war on terror” after 2001.

Beginning in 2004, Saleh began suppressing the Houthi Movement, their vocal hostility to the US and Israel being at odds with Saleh’s foreign policy. They might have been his co-religionists but his loyalty lay with his paymasters in Riyadh and Washington. Indeed, the Saudis supported him militarily back then, too.

After Saleh was deposed, however, he rediscovered his kinship with the Houthis. He joined their war against the Hadi administration in 2015, only to split from them again in December 2017, seeking to re-engage with Saudi-Arabia. A Houthi sniper’s bullet ended his life as he made his escape from the capital, otherwise, that would probably not have been his last change of sides.

Religious hate: a manipulation by imperialist forces

This is only a short and superficial look into the Yemeni Civil War. For an outsider, it is often difficult to see through this extremely complex and fast-changing conflict.

But one important principle to take away should be this: the narrative of supposedly ancient and unbridgeable religious hate is – in the case of Yemen as with Ireland – a manipulation by imperialist forces to justify continued meddling in other peoples’ affairs and circumventing democracy. It needs to be exposed and rejected.