Yemen: Brutal onslaught on country’s poor

For unity of workers and poor against imperialism and sectarianism

Over 500 people in Yemen were killed and terrible devastation, injuries, trauma and displacement inflicted in the first two weeks of Saudi Arabia led air strikes. One missile hit a refugee camp near the capital city, Sanaa, killing over 40 people. Hospitals and schools have been hit.

The bombardment has escalated the suffering of civilians who were already caught up in one or more of several bloody conflicts that have been raging across the country. Yemen is the poorest Arab country and imports 90% of its food and medicines. The UN calculated last year that nearly half of the population has chronic malnutrition, one of the highest levels in the world.

Now the humanitarian crisis is worsening further, particularly in and around the southern port of Aden, the second largest city, where fighting has recently been intense. Food, water, medical and fuel supplies are greatly disrupted. Even fleeing the shortages and violence has been cut off as an option for many, as the Saudi-led coalition has blockaded the air, sea and land exit routes.

The Gulf autocracies backed by US, British and French imperialism, among others, launched their onslaught in support of an anti-Houthi coalition based in the south of Yemen that is fighting the advancing Houthi movement and its allies. Just as the Socialist Party and CWI condemned the bloody foreign interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Gaza, we also condemn this brutal onslaught on Yemen and all other forms of intervention in that country by foreign capitalist powers – they will only cause greater catastrophe for ordinary people.

Sunni-Shia dimension

The Saudi rulers assembled an unprecedented coalition of nine Sunni Muslim Arab regimes to bombard the predominantly Zaydi Shia-variant Houthi forces in Yemen, which captured Sanaa six months ago. This intervention has ratcheted up the Sunni-Shia sectarian dimension of the conflict, a dangerously growing feature across the Middle East. Allegiances in Yemen have traditionally been along the numerous tribal lines rather than based on religion, with much shared culture between the tribes.

The declared aim of the coalition’s onslaught is to re-install Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi to power. Hadi was engineered into Yemen’s presidency by the Gulf elites, US and the EU, in a 2012 election that was boycotted by substantial sections of the population and in which Hadi was the only candidate.

The ’Arab Spring’ uprisings in 2011 not only led to the fall of dictators Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Gadaffi in Libya, but also protests of hundreds of thousands in Yemen caused the fall of the 33-year regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh. However, like in those other three countries, workers and the poor in Yemen were not able at that stage to seize the initiative in an organised way against the pro-capitalist leaders, with the result that Hadi was able to form a short-lived government.

But now Hadi and his ’caretaker’ prime minister have been forced out of office by the Houthi advance, which has extended across around half the country. Hadi fled to Aden and then to Riyadh, and the state military forces have fractured towards different loyalties.

Saleh, when president, had sent Yemen’s army into a prolonged battle, aided by Saudi forces, against the Houthi minority’s uprising which began in 2004. But enraged by his removal from power in 2012, he did a U-turn to ally himself temporarily with the Houthis because of their dramatic advances. These military successes were aided by parts of the armed forces that remained under Saleh’s influence – whether by direct participation or simply by staying in their barracks.

Aims of Saudi elite

There are several reasons behind the Saudi onslaught, with none of them being to bring any relief or benefit to the Yemeni people. The media globally emphasises the House of Saud’s determination to counter developing Iranian influence in the region – manifested in Iran’s links with Shia related forces across the Middle East, including the regime in Baghdad, Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and in Yemen’s case, the Houthis. The Saudi foreign minister pointed to this when he said that the bombing mission was designed to counter the "aggression of Houthi militias backed by regional powers", meaning particularly Iran.

The Gulf autocrats along with Israeli prime minister Netanyahu were furious when western powers recently reached a preliminary agreement with Iran on its nuclear programme, which might possibly lead to Iran having sanctions removed.

The Iranian theocracy has been reported to have flown weapons to the Houthis (while denying this) and recently moved two naval ships to waters near Yemen saying they are there to protect against ‘piracy’ in the trade route connecting the Indian ocean with the Red Sea. But what sickening hypocrisy it is for the Gulf elites, the US government and others to condemn Iranian intervention and then themselves orchestrate a far greater and more devastating intervention into Yemen. "Iran needs to recognise that the United States is not going to stand by while the region is destabilised or while people engage in overt warfare across lines — international boundaries — in other countries", said US secretary of state John Kerry, while strongly supporting the Saudi-led coalition that is doing just that.

The Saudi-Iran rivalry and enmity is a key factor in the Saudi action but other factors are also involved, as touched on by Robert Fisk in an article in the Independent (27th March): "Perhaps half of the Saudi army is of Yemeni tribal origin. Saudi soldiers are intimately – through their own families – involved in Yemen, and the Yemen revolution is a stab in the guts of the Saudi royal family".

For sure the Saudi rulers fear the rising instability on their doorstep – they share a long border with Yemen, there is a Shia minority in Saudi Arabia of around 3 million (including communities of Zaydi Shia near the Yemen border) and they are concerned about a spillover of the al-Qaida and Islamic State-linked forces in Yemen. Most of all they fear a future uprising in Saudi Arabia to overthrow their rule – an inevitable fate for the brutally repressive and autocratic Saudi monarchy.

One key issue at stake for the recently anointed Saudi King Salman is his elite’s prestige and influence and its ability to defend its own interests in the region independently of the US – a world power painted as an ’infidel’ by Saudi Wahhabi clerics.

The sea trade route mentioned above, which has one of its narrowest points near Yemen’s coast, is of massive importance to the Gulf states and the west, being a crucial route for oil and other goods. But all the interventions in the area by the regional and world powers have only served to increase instability and risk to production and trade, as this latest onslaught on Yemen will also prove to do.

US policy failure

Obama’s heralded ’counter-terrorism’ operations against al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen lie in ruins. The US last month even evacuated its embassy and military personnel from Yemen. The regular and ongoing US drone strikes aimed at AQAP have hit many civilians, resulting in fury on the part of many Yemenis towards the US and serving as a recruitment agent on the ground for AQAP and Islamic State (IS). Likewise the Saudi-led bombings aid recruitment on the ground to the Houthis.

Rather than being pushed back, AQAP – considered by western intelligence agencies as the most dangerous al-Qa’ida affiliate globally – has used the collapse of central government and the increased instability due to foreign intervention to extend its reach and undertake more offensives.

IS claimed responsibility for four suicide bombings on 20 March in Sanaa that killed over 142 people, mainly Houthis, an indication of the horrific barbarity that Yemenis can suffer at the hands of such organisations if they develop further.

Obama’s separation from direct involvement in the Saudi bombardment doesn’t carry much weight considering that the US has been supplying intelligence information to the coalition fighter jets regarding sites to target, conducted aerial refuelling of those jets and stepped up weapons deliveries to the coalition. The US gave £90 billion in military aid to Saudi Arabia over the last four years. Britain and France have also been major suppliers of weaponry to Saudi Arabia.

However, further failure and deep trouble for US foreign policy in the region is seen in the vast quantity of weaponry supplied by the west to the Iraqi and former Yemeni regimes that is now in the hands of deemed enemies of the western powers.

Now, not only does US imperialism face the dilemma of being a de facto nominal co-fighter with Iran against IS in Iraq, but in Yemen it is backing the air strikes on the Houthis who are the main force on the ground fighting AQAP and IS.

The Houthis are also countering Sunni militias that include the Muslim Brotherhood – labelled as a terrorist organisation by Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But the Houthis are not countering the right-wing Sunni organisations and jihadists with a non-sectarian force; precisely the opposite. Based on the Zaydi minority in the north, the Houthi leaders are trying to force their rule on other tribes and peoples in the south, including by shooting on the many unarmed demonstrators who have opposed them. Their advance has helped the Sunni militias – including AQAP and IS – to use the Sunni population’s fears of invasion and discrimination to boost their own fighting forces.

No capitalist solutions

Around 150,000 Saudi troops are reported as being on the Saudi-Yemen border. A ground invasion has not been ruled out by Saudi Arabia, possibly involving Egyptian troops, as it’s clear to the coalition that air strikes alone won’t win their war. But so far they have not gone beyond the aerial bombings and airdrops of weapons to allies on the ground because a ground invasion would likely mean getting immersed in a prolonged quagmire with no end in sight, of the type that US-led forces faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Calls abound from pro-capitalist commentators globally for a UN brokered ceasefire, followed by UN-led peace talks. But the UN is backing Hadi’s ’side’ in the conflict and among the key players at the top of the UN are the imperialist powers who have historically (and today) wreaked division and exploitation on the Yemeni people – including over a century of repressive colonial rule of south Yemen by Britain’s ruling class.

Sunni-based Hadi, who requested the Saudi bombardment, would be seen by Houthis as being as divisive as former Iraqi prime minister Maliki was towards the minority Sunni population in Iraq. Even most Sunnis in Yemen have little confidence in Hadi, knowing that a new government headed by him would again be corrupt, inept and weak. Given the history of wars and civil wars between and within the former North and South Yemens, both before and after they unified in 1990, it cannot be ruled out that the present Yemeni republic could break up.

But as one country or not, no support can be given to any ’solution’ that would divide the spoils of war, including Yemen’s oil fields, between the leaders of the main fighting forces on the ground. They have all presided over atrocities and all promote capitalist market relations that can offer no future for the people of poverty-stricken Yemen, with its 40% unemployment rate and rapidly growing, young population. 45% are under the age of 15.

Only by working class people organising independently on a non-sectarian basis and adopting socialist demands, can unity of workers, the unemployed, soldiers and the rural poor be achieved across the tribal, religious and other divisions and a path out of war and poverty be taken. Such a programme would need to include taking into public ownership the major national companies and land holdings, in order to lay the basis for developing resources to meet people’s needs for adequate housing, nutrition, water, etc. The programme must also guarantee full rights to all minorities and recognise the importance of solidarity with workers’ movements as they develop in neighbouring countries – because only on the basis of a voluntary socialist confederation in the region will a peaceful and decent future for all the peoples be secured.

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