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South Yemen

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Faint Hope in Yemen

Some wars end in victory, but just as many sputter out in exhaustion. The war in Yemen, now coming up on five years old, always looked likely to end up in the second category, and the time may be quite soon.

It would be not a moment too soon, as the war has already killed at least 100,000 Yemenis, and four-fifths of the country’s 30 million people need humanitarian aid. But last week the Saudi-led coalition whose bombs have devastated the country said it would free 200 Houthi rebel prisoners and let injured civilians fly out of Sana’a, the rebel-held capital, for medical care abroad.

The Saudis are making these overtures because they are actually managing, very slowly, to lose the war. They have a monopoly of air power, so they can bomb anything that moves (including an improbable number of wedding parties). Their coalition of Arab dictatorships and monarchies, from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates, gives them ample troops on the ground. And still they cannot win.

Saudi Arabia generally avoids committing its own troops to ground combat, but the Houthis are now taking the war to Saudi territory. Their claim to have killed 500 Saudi troops and captured a further 2,000 in a raid into southwestern Saudia Arabia may be exaggerated, but something big of that sort clearly did happen in late September.

That followed an extraordinarily successful attack by cruise missiles and armed drones on Saudi Arabia’s two largest oil-processing facilities in mid-September. Riyadh tried to blame Iran, as usual, because it’s just too humiliating to be bested by poor, ragtag Yemenis, but it probably was the Houthis who did it.

And the Saudi-led ‘coalition’, such as it was, is falling apart. The United Arab Emirates, which was responsible for operations in the south of Yemen, has now transferred its loyalty from the Saudi-backed, ‘internationally recognised’ government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi to the Southern Transition Council (STC), a separatist group that wants to recreate the old independent state of South Yemen.

In August the STC drove Hadi’s troops out of Aden, the major city on the south coast and the old capital of South Yemen. When Hadi’s pro-Saudi troops tried to retake the city, the UAE stopped them with air strikes that killed 30 soldiers of the ‘internationally recognised government’, which is now decamping to the inland desert city of Maarib.

So this squalid, stupid war may finally be heading for a long-term cease-fire. There probably won’t be an actual peace settlement, because Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, will want to disguise his defeat (for it was his ‘war of choice’). But it would still be a great boon for the Yemeni people.

The horrors of the past five years came to pass because the Saudis exploited the overthrow of long-ruling Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012 to maneuver their own man, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, into power as the transitional president. Why?

Yemen has about the same population as Saudi Arabia, its northern neighbour, but it has little oil and is extremely poor. Saudis have therefore always been very nervous about the risk of radicalism in Yemen, and meddled constantly in the country’s politics (with some success, because money talks).

Their man Hadi started out in 2012 with a two-year mandate, to be followed (in theory) by a democratic election. Instead, he stayed in power after his mandate expired and promoted a new constitution that would ‘decentralise’ the country and cut the more heavily populated northern part of Yemen out of any share of the oil revenues.

Hadi’s game was simply to redirect the flow of oil revenues to himself and his cronies, but it also served Saudi Arabia’s purposes because it would deprive northern Yemen of this income. Most northern Yemenis, and particularly the Houthi tribes, are Shias, and Sunni Saudi Arabia always suspects them of being in cahoots with its great rival across the Gulf, Shia-ruled Iran.

There is no evidence that the Iranians ever sent the Houthis anything more than their best wishes, but the Houthis saw what Hadi was trying to do to them and rebelled against him. He fled to Saudi Arabia and has been there ever since, while his ‘internationally recognised’ government (it was never elected) fought a Saudi-controlled war to put him back into power.

It has now become clear that Saudi Arabia is never going to win. After five years of war the Houthis still control three-quarters of the population, they probably have majority popular support, and the anti-Houthi coalition is breaking up. The winners are clear, and it’s time to stop the war.

The tricky bit will be finding a way for His Royal Highness Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to walk away without being openly humiliated. That may take some time – and some more deaths, of course.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“In August…Maarib” and “Yemen…talks”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Middle East: Treachery and Betrayal

Things have got so complicated in the Middle East that the players are no longer just stabbing each other in the back. They are stabbing each other in the chest, in the groin, behind the left ear – anywhere that comes to hand. Friends and allies one day are targets and enemies the next.

Item One: Israel is not just bombing Iranian troops and allies in Syria, which it has been doing on an almost weekly basis for years. It is now also bombing pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, a country that is a reluctant ally of the United States (US).

There are still US forces in Iraq, but the US ignores the Israeli attacks, and the Iraqi government has to ignore them, too. Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has to please both the Americans and his Iranian neighbours, who, as fellow Shias, benefit from strong popular sympathy in Iraq. His task is impossible, but he tries.

Item Two: Turkey, a NATO member and close American ally, is getting ready to invade northern Syria. As Turkey’s strongman President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gets desperate at home (electoral humiliation, runaway inflation, popular anger), he looks for triumphs abroad.

Erdoğan is obsessed with the Kurds, a minority population in both Turkey and Syria, and he has long vowed to crush the self-governing Kurdish-ruled region that has emerged south of the border in northern Syria thanks to the civil war there. Now he’s actually going to do it.

The tricky bit is that these same Syrian Kurds provided the ground troops for the US campaign to eliminate Islamic State forces in Syria. That job is now done, but several thousand American troops remain in northeastern Syria, partly to deter Turkey from invading. Betraying the Kurds is a Middle Eastern tradition, however, and the US does not want war with Turkey.

Item Three: The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, is pulling its troops out of Yemen. ‘Little Sparta’, as former US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis calls the UAE, has been the mainstay of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen since 2015. It seems to have realised, at last, that the intervention has failed and was a bad idea from the start.

It certainly was. When a northern Yemeni tribe called the Houthi seized control of most of Yemen in 2015, driving the Saudi-imposed puppet president into exile, the Saudi concluded that it was an Iranian plot. (The Houthis are Shia.) But that’s nonsense. It was just Round 189 in a power struggle between the Yemeni tribes that has been going on for centuries.
Parting gift

So the UAE is leaving, and its parting gift to the Yemenis last week was to back rebel militias in Aden who want to revive the old separate country of South Yemen. The Saudi Air Force bombed the rebels, of course, but they still hold most of the city.

This level of dysfunction would not even have caused comment in medieval Europe, but it is unique in the modern world. There are bits of Africa and Asia where individual countries are seeing this level of violence and chaos, but not many, and no whole regions. How can we account for it?

Maybe it’s the fact that dictators and absolute monarchs are thicker on the ground in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world, but that just moves the argument back one step. Why are they the norm in this region and not elsewhere? Could it be because the Middle East has seen more foreign military interventions than anywhere else on the planet?

Maybe – and it’s still going on. Overshadowing all the local follies is the possibility that the US will attack Iran on the false pretext that it is working on nuclear weapons. You know, like it invaded Iraq on the false pretext that it was working on nuclear weapons.