Mohammed Huwais / AFP / Getty Images

Regional rivalries threaten to tear Yemen apart

Analysis: Yemen’s crisis is rooted in local politics, but foreign agendas could exacerbate rather than resolve it

Ali Abdullah Saleh stands alone at the helm of a wooden boat buffeted by inky blue waves, staring valiantly into the distance as shark fins protrude menacingly from the waters beneath. This is a painting displayed in the museum set up by Yemen’s former president a year after he handed over power to his long-standing deputy, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi in 2012. Another object in the museum is the pair of scorched pants Saleh was wearing when he miraculously survived a June 2011 rocket attack on his presidential compound.

Now the strongman, ousted after 33 years, finds himself somewhat improbably back in the eye of a storm engulfing his country. In the early hours of Thursday, a three-hour bombing raid by fighter planes from Saudi Arabia and regional allies launched Operation Resolute Storm, a military intervention in Yemen’s civil war.

The main target of the Saudi-led bombardment was the capital’s Al-Daylami air base, which doubles as Sanaa International Airport and is in the hands of rebel Houthi forces. Military bases housing army units still loyal to Saleh — and his home village of Sanahan — were also struck.

Saleh and forces loyal to him have supported the Houthis in their advance from their northern stronghold of Sadaa beginning early last year. The Houthis eventually seized the capital, Sanaa, and then marched on Aden, Hadi’s last stronghold in the south.

The six rounds of war waged by Saleh on the Houthis from 2004 to 2010 underscore just how unlikely the Saleh-Houthi marriage of convenience is. In 2011, during the heyday of the Arab Spring, Houthis left their weapons at home to join peaceful street demonstrations alongside old rivals in the Islah Party — Yemen’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood — demanding that Saleh step down.

But it was the political deal that followed that set the stage for Saleh-Houthi cooperation. The deal, crafted by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to end Yemen’s political crisis, granted Saleh immunity from prosecution and allowed him to remain the leader of his General People’s Congress Party (GPC). The argument at the time was that that would prevent civil war. But it required either inexcusable ignorance or willful denial to believe Saleh would retire quietly to tend his garden and write his memoirs, as he claimed he would do in his first media interview after ceding power to Hadi.

The government formed after Saleh stepped down was a reshuffle of longtime political players rather than a real change. Split evenly between the GPC and the pre-2011 coalition of opposition parties that formed the Joint Meeting Parties, it excluded the Houthis and southern secessionists.

The transition process, initially framed as a two-year process during which Hadi would act as the country’s interim president, came to a virtual standstill. A National Dialogue Conference, ostensibly to promote inclusive negotiations, failed to enfranchise the marginalized secessionist Southern Movement or the Houthis, both of which were persecuted under Saleh’s rule.

As the transition dragged on, it became increasingly clear to observers that Yemen’s political solution — touted as a major success — was a facade, concealing the scheming of the old elite and postponing an inevitable conflict.

Legitimate Houthi grievances and the mobilization of Saleh’s backers for revenge against Islah, which he blamed for his ouster, set the course for insurrection. The incompetence and corruption of the new government allowed the Houthis to cast themselves, even in the minds of many neutrals, as a force for national salvation.

But the advance of the Houthis, with support of military commanders loyal to Saleh, left violent retribution against their foes in its wake, and attempts to negotiate agreements to halt the Houthis’ advance repeatedly failed. Tension came to a head in recent days as Hadi urged the United Nations and Arab powers to intervene to stop the Houthi advance, which Hadi and his regional backers branded as a regional power grab by Iran.

The predominantly Shia Houthi movement enjoys some degree of support from Iran, although there’s little evidence to prove claims about the extent of Tehran’s role in the Yemen crisis. Still, casting the conflict in line with a regional power struggle prompted the Saudi-led coalition, backed by the U.S. and other Western powers, to intervene to save the Hadi government.

The turmoil is far more complex than the simplistic Iran-on-the-march narrative allows, beginning with the international community’s decades-long support of Saleh while his forces killed thousands of his citizens during the Houthi wars. It was exacerbated by the failure of the GCC deal to yield real political change.

But a second night of airstrikes has confirmed a sense that the region’s main geopolitical powers are turning Yemen into a proxy battleground. The wooden boat in the painting of Saleh as helmsman is now at serious risk of being torn apart. The sharks — Al-Qaeda, hunger, sectarianism and revenge — are circling ominously. Few in Yemen, the poorest nation in the Middle East, will escape the far-reaching consequences of military intervention. On Thursday, Hadi arrived safely in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but there has been little talk of the whereabouts of Saleh. While his country’s 26 million people are left to flounder, many wonder whether the self-styled helmsman has made a lifeboat for himself.

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