Sec State Antony Blinken in February 0f this year took the Houthies ( sometimes called the Ansarallah) off the terrorist list and two days after this move the same State Department became “deeply troubled” by the attacks on Saudi Arabia launched by the same organization . In fact the Houthies were so grateful to the Biden administration for taking them off the terrorist list that this week they invaded the US embassy and took a number of local staff as captives.
So who are the Houthies? Basically they are the people of the mountainous northern part of Yemen. The name comes from the dominant Houthi tribe that have been in opposition to the Yemeni “government” for decades with intermittent periods of peace. They are Zai’idi Shi’a, sometimes called the “fivers,” because they believe that the last Imam was Zaid Ibn Ali, grandson of Husayn Ibn Ali and son of the fourth Imam Ali Ibn Husain. The majority of the Shi’a in Iraq and Iran are called twelvers because they believe in the last Imam (the twelfth), Imam Al-Mahdi who lives in occultation and will return as the promised Mahdi. The twelvers constitute about 90% of all Shias world -wide. The Zaidis are about 25% of the Yemen population. The rest are Sunni of the Shafei school.
First off to understand the situation one has to remember that the State of Yemen has been divided the past 174 years- with the exception of a few years of unhappy shotgun marriage – into south and north entities. There have been innumerable coups, revolts, and two serious civil wars, presidential assassinations.ongoing tribal wars, primarily in the north. The British landed there in Aden in 1893 and did not give it up-under fire- until 1967. Today Yemen is “officially” united under President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. While the temporary capitol is in Aden, he hangs out in Saudi where he feels much safer.
The current situation is as shown on this map. To explain further ; the Western “internationally recognized” Al Hadi government controls the white area, The green area is controlled by the STC, group,a rebel group backed by the UAE, the brown by the Iranian supported Houthies, and parts of the Hadramaut are loosely controlled by various Islamist groups, Jihadis, E.G. Al Qaeda and the ISIS. In fact the Hadramaut was one of the early recruiting centers for Bin Laden and al Qaeda.
The Middle East “experts” always assumed that the interminable wars in Yemen were a result of political, ideological and tribal disputes, not religion. They wrote that the fivers were the closest to the “mainstream” Sunni beliefs and thus disputes between the shi’a and Sunni were unlikely. Western analysts are always disinclined to attribute any violence to religious motives. It makes them uncomfortable.
However with the “resurgence of Islam,” which was in fact a Sunni resurgence of the more conservative and radical movements in Islam, Shi’a were seen as apostates. This drove the Shi’a in many parts of the Middle East to become more militant as a counter-reaction. So one can say that the forever war in Yemen does include ideology, politics, and tribalism but also religion.
The Islamic Shi’a regime of Iran has made itself the savior of Shi’ism all over the world, including the Houthi faction in the Yemeni civil war. Western diplomats frequently use the term “alleged ” supporter of the Houthies, which is convenient to avoid doing anything to annoy the Iranians in the pursuit of the hopefully reconstituted JCPOA ( the Nuclear agreement). This Iranian support of the Houthies is part of the Iranian quest for a Neo-Persian empire as evidenced in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq (The Fertile Crescent). In this quest they concentrate on the Shi’a ( or groups Shi’a related like the Alawis of Syria), and in some cases, Sunni entities that fit their plan , such as the Hamas of Gaza.
Yemen was one of the oldest centers of civilization in the Near East. Between the 12th century BC and the 6th century AD, it was part of the Minaean, Sabaean, and Himyarite kingdoms, which controlled the lucrative spice trade, and later came under Ethiopian and Persian rule. In the 7th century, Islamic caliphs began to exert control over the area. After this caliphate broke up, the former north Yemen came under control of Imams of various dynasties usually of the Zaidi sect, who established a theocratic political structure that survived until modern times. (Imam is a religious term. The Shi’ites apply it to the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali, his sons Hassan and Hussein, and subsequent lineal descendants, whom they consider to have been divinely ordained unclassified successors of the prophet.)
Egyptian Sunni caliphs occupied much of north Yemen throughout the 11th century. By the 16th century and again in the 19th century, north Yemen was part of the Ottoman Empire, and in some periods its Imams exerted control over south Yemen.
Former North Yemen
Ottoman control was largely confined to cities with the Imam’s suzerainty over tribal areas formally recognized. Turkish forces withdrew in 1918, and Imam Yahya strengthened his control over north Yemen. Yemen became a member of the Arab league in 1945 and the United Nations in 1947.
Imam Yahya died during an unsuccessful coup attempt in 1948 and was succeeded by his son Ahmad, who ruled until his death in September 1962. Imam Ahmad’s reign was marked by growing repression, renewed friction with the United Kingdom over the British presence in the south, and growing pressures to support the Arab nationalist objectives of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Shortly after assuming power in 1962, Ahmad’s son, Badr, was deposed by revolutionary forces, which took control of Sanaa and created the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). The only included North Yemen as the Brtissh still controlled Aden and the Hadramut
The revolt ( actually it was more of a coup d etat by the Army) against the Imam and with Egyptian support installed Colonel Abdul al-Sallah as the new president. In fact Nasser with his Arab world imperial aspirations sent over 50,000 troops to Yemen to fight the Royalists as the Imam’s supporters were called. The Zai’dies constituted the bulk of the royalists and were supported by Saudi Arabia as the war by proxy between Egypt and Saudi Arabia heated up. The Egyptian adventurism was a disaster for Egypt – often called Egypt’s Vietnam. The Egyptian peasant soldiers were lost in the very forbidding topography and culture of Yemen. The royalists fought an insurgent type war against the Egyptian conventional forces. See Edgar O’Ballance The War in the Yemen.
An Arabic language instructor I had in Washington had served as an army psychiatrist with the troops in Yemen and told me there were large numbers of Egyptian troops who could not cope with climate and mountains, and were sent home. Conflict continued periodically until 1967 when Egyptian troops were withdrawn. By 1968, following a final royalist siege of Sanaa, most of the opposing leaders reconciled; Saudi Arabia recognized the Republic in 1970. In 1990 the the Yemen Arab Republic was formalized which, united north and South Yemen, however it was never and still is not a peaceful reunion.
Former South Yemen( A good book on this Tom Little ; South Arabia : Arena of Conflict)
British influence increased in the south and eastern portion of Yemen after the British captured the port of Aden in 1839. It was ruled as part of British India until 1937, when Aden was made a crown colony with the remaining land designated as east Aden and west Aden protectorates. By 1965, most of the tribal states within the protectorates and the Aden colony proper had joined to form the British-sponsored federation of south Arabia.
In 1965, two rival nationalist groups–the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) and the National Liberation Front (NLF)–turned to terrorism in their struggle to control the country. In 1967, in the face of uncontrollable violence, British troops began withdrawing, federation rule collapsed, and NLF elements took control after eliminating their FLOSY rivals. South Arabia, including Aden, was declared independent on November 30, 1967, and was renamed the People’s Republic of South Yemen. In June 1969, a radical wing of the Marxist NLF gained power and changed the country’s name on December 1, 1970, to the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY). In the PDRY, all political parties were amalgamated into the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), which became the only legal party. The PDRY established close ties with the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, and radical Palestinians. see Glen Balfour Paul The End of the Empire in the Middle East;
Republic of Yemen ( United Yemen)
In 1972, the governments of the PDRY and the YAR declared that they approved a future union. However, little progress was made toward unification, and relations were often strained. In 1979, simmering tensions led to fighting, which was only resolved after Arab League mediation. The northern and southern heads of state reaffirmed the goal of unity during a summit meeting in Kuwait in March 1979. However, that same year the PDRY began sponsoring an insurgency against the YAR. In April 1980, PDRY President Abdul Fattah Ismail resigned and went into exile. His successor, Ali Nasir Muhammad, took a less interventionist stance toward both the YAR and neighboring Oman. On January 13, 1986, a violent struggle began in Aden between Ali Nasir Muhammad and the returned Abdul Fattah Ismail and their supporters. Fighting lasted for more than a month and resulted in thousands of casualties, Ali Nasir’s ouster, and Ismail’s death. Some 60,000 persons, including Ali Nasir and his supporters, fled to the YAR. ( North Yemen)
In May 1988, the YAR and PDRY governments came to an understanding that considerably reduced tensions including agreement to renew discussions concerning unification, to establish a joint oil exploration area along their undefined border, to demilitarize the border, and to allow Yemenis unrestricted border passage on the basis of only a national identification card. Basically however the north and south Yemen were culturally far apart. Aden had for 174 years been a British possession and in the 20th century the city was very cosmopolitan and with a number of non Arab residents, including a large Indian population and 5000 Europeans.
In November 1989, the leaders of the YAR (Ali Abdullah Saleh) and the PDRY (Ali Salim Al-Bidh) agreed on a draft unity constitution originally drawn up in 1981. The Republic of Yemen (ROY) was declared on May 22, 1990. Ali Abdullah Saleh became President, and Ali Salim Al-Bidh became Vice President. Despite this, clashes intensified until civil war broke out in early May 1994. The war began when an Northern armored brigade and an a southern armored brigade. on one another in a military motor pool.
Almost all of the actual fighting in the 1994 civil war occurred in the southern part of the country despite air and missile attacks against cities and major installations in the north. Southerners sought support from neighboring states and received billions of dollars of equipment and financial assistance. The United States strongly supported Yemeni unity, but repeatedly called for a cease-fire and a return to the negotiating table. Various attempts, including by a UN special envoy, were unsuccessful in bringing about a cease-fire.
Southern leaders declared secession and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Yemen (DRY) on May 21, 1994, but the DRY was not recognized by the international community. Ali Nasir Muhammad supporters greatly assisted military operations against the secessionists and Aden was captured on July 7, 1994. Other resistance quickly collapsed and thousands of southern leaders and military went into exile.
The Importance of Yemen
Yemen sits astride the babel Mandeb which is the gateway to the Suez Canal . It is a relatively narrow entrance and exit from Asia to Europe. It can w easily be closed or made so dangerous that oil transport companies cannot pay the insurance. The Sumed pipeline which runs from Egypt to the Mediterranean is not an alternative because the tankers must still use the Bab el Mandeb passage.
The second reason Yemen is Important is also related to oil. The Houthies now have a considerable inventory of long range drones and the expertise to use them…thanks to their Iranian instructors. In September 2019 the Houthies launched number of attacks on the ARAMCO oil systems in the Saudi Arabia on the Persian Gulf as a not so gentle reminder of their capabilities– a signal from Iran to the Persian Gulf Arab oil producers. They have the capabilities to devastate the world oil market. In so far as the US is concerned with the Biden Administration hell bent on reducing oil and coal supplies, with the fanciful chimera of electrical power, we will be in deep cloaca.
Thirdly as we are now finding out Yemen is the perfect breeding ground for terrorism. Extreme climate, terrain , remote, hostile to foreigners, and devoid of a natural environment to support invaders.
Fourthly Yemen is the most needy country in the world in humanitarian needs. Ridden with corruption, tribal and sectarian warfare, 80% of the population requires humanitarian aid. Food, water, medical care, infrastructure, all are urgently needed and little is arriving. Ninety percent of the food must be imported. Ironically ninety percent of the inadequate and diminishing water supply is used for agriculture which is primarily used to grow Qat.. a “mild” narcotic planet which Yemenis spend hours chewing every day. It is a sort of a stimulant which produces excitement, loss of appetite, and c short-lived euphoria. Coming down from their high the Yemenis become irritable and unapproachable . At least that was my experience in my two trips to Yemen.
Oh yes. We haven’t forgotten the local employees of the American Embassy languishing in Yemeni dungeons. The State department is “negotiating” for their release.
Forget about any military incursion. We should have learned from the French in Vietnam, the British in Iraq, the Russians in Afghanistan, and the Egyptians in Yemen, as well the rescue of the American hostages in Iran. This happens when our enemies see us as weak.