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A Prospect for Peace in Yemen
The US Loses Relevance as the Middle East Becomes Less Violent
“For tyrants and imperial cities nothing is unreasonable if expedient, no one a kinsman unless sure; but friendship or enmity is everywhere a matter of time and circumstance.” - Euphemus [Thucydides, VI.85.1]
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After 8 years it appears the brutal Saudi-led war in Yemen is ending. Saudi Arabia “intervened” in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 following skirmishes on the barren border between the countries. As part of the wide-ranging reconciliation following the China-brokered deal between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia [KSA] and Iran, Yemen’s Houthi faction have recently met with the Saudis for productive Omani-brokered peace talks in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa; there was no UN or Western involvement in the negotiations. For almost a decade the Yemen War has fueled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the impoverished desert nation. The United States has long backed the war and efforts from within the US to end this backing have been persistently unsuccessful. The war in Yemen has been framed as a proxy war against Iran because the Houthis are alleged to have received nominal support from Iran. However, the reality is that the the Houthis are primarily just the people who live in the region who launched a revolt against their government, while the Saudis decided it was necessary to flex their regional muscles by maintaining a puppet government over their southern neighbor. Now, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has seen that its policies in both Syria and Yemen have been a failure, and are moving a different direction while the US scrambles to maintain relevance in the region. The ending of the wars in Syria and Yemen will represent, for now, at least, the end of large scale direct or proxy sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shi’a countries in the Middle East. Much to the chagrin of Western powers it appears that this volatile region wants to sit out the second Cold War, and try to maintain relative peace among the Muslim states.
To the extent people have heard of Yemen, it is most well known for poverty, violence, and an extraordinarily high rate of private firearm ownership. Culturally and economically the region has stronger ties to the Horn of Africa than the Mediterranean region, due to the proximity across the Red Sea as well as the harsh terrain to the north. Yemen was long a divided country, which is part of what has made the success of the Houthis in maintaining control so surprising. For most of modern history Yemen was separated into North and South Yemen. Strangely, North Yemen is actually the west and South Yemen is the east; the tips of what was South Yemen are both more north and south than any part of North Yemen. As far as I can tell, these names are because the major port city of Aden, the capital of South Yemen, controls the south coast of the country. The area was split between the Ottomans and the British Empire, with the Ottomans controlling North Yemen until 1918, while the British held South Yemen as the Aden Colony and the Aden Protectorate until the 1960s. Following the British withdrawal, Yemen remained split for the rest of the Cold War, with North Yemen being the non-communist Yemen Arab Republic, and South Yemen being the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The reunification of Yemen did not go smoothly, and the country has suffered from chronic instability. The Houthi faction launched many revolts against the central government, both against long-time President Ali Saleh, and then with him against his replacement, the Saudi-backed Abd-Raddu Hadi; Saleh betrayed the Houthis in 2017 and was killed when trying to escape from them. This round of civil war has been complicated, including a time during which Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] controlled large segments of the country. AQAP is considered the most capable Al Qaeda branch in terms of launching large scale terrorist attacks against the West, so depending on how you look at it this conflict has either empowered them or kept them occupied. AQAP is the only component of the war that has a clear relation to US national security. For the current peace talks what is at issue is the conflict between the Houthis, who have controlled the capital of Sanaa since 2014, and the Saudi-backed Presidential Council, to whom Hadi ceded “power” to in 2022. Western powers generally consider the Presidential Council to be the government of Yemen.
The Houthis are drawn from tribal people in Yemen’s mountainous north who have practiced the Zaydi sect of Shi’a Islam for over 1000 years. The Houthi faction arose out of the teachings of a Hussein al-Houthi in the ‘90s, in resistance to Saleh’s rule. The name they use is “Ansar Allah,” or “Supporters of God” [and they actually dislike being called Houthis, but are overwhelmingly known by that name.] Similar to the early Mujaheddin in Afghanistan, the Greek resistance to the Ottomans, or any number of other rebellions by mountain people, Houthis aren’t really religious extremists so much as from a very traditional culture. It is said they were radicalized by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and it is commonly alleged that their slogan is “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.” One finds that this claim is always poorly sourced and has primarily been seen on protest signs at various times. This is, of course, similar to the famous statement by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, and its use probably has more to do with the popularity of Iran’s revolution among the region’s impoverished Shi’a than being any sort of policy of the Houthi movement. The “Houthi slogan” has been key to selling Western foreign policy class on the importance of military involvement in Yemen by painting them as a threat to American and Israeli interests, when in reality they are local people who want self-determination. That said, it is true that they dislike Israel, with Al-Mayadeen reporting that the leader of the Houthis just stated, for Al-Quds Day,” that the Yemeni people should be ready to fight a “decisive” battle against the “vanishing” Israeli occupation. Still, as Yemen is quite far away from Israel and extremely poor, the stance of the Houthis towards Israel isn’t particularly relevant to anyone.
The United States has supported the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen since it began in 2015. It is one thing to continue selling arms while letting KSA make its own foreign policy decisions, but the United States was refueling Saudi jets in the air for the first three years of the war, until Saudi Arabia request an end to the assistance in 2018 because they no longer needed the help. American and British-made ordnance have been dropped on Yemen in enormous quantities. One of the most devastating aspects of the war has been Saudi Arabia’s fuel blockade on Yemen; though KSA has done this blockade without US assistance, the US has provided diplomatic cover by backing up the claim that fuel is seized by the Houthis for military purposes. Trump also declared the Houthis terrorists shortly before leaving office, but it was clearly to “poison the well” for Biden, who faced a large amount of criticism when he reversed the decision. Biden has claimed that he wants to end the war in Yemen since taking office, but has not accomplished anything in this regard. In fact, the Biden administration pressured Senator Bernie Sanders into withdrawing a resolution to end US support for the war in December, 2022.
The purpose of the KSA’s war in Yemen has never been clear. Their original claimed purpose was that it was in response to a cross-border raid by the Houthis. For a variety of geopolitical reasons, the Saudis considered it beneficial to support Hadi, the interim President who the Houthis chased out of power in 2014. Yemen controls a valuable shipping lane for Saudi oil, and there are some mineral resources on the border, so the Kingdom has some good causes to be concerned about Yemen’s status. However, the main reason for launching the war appears to have been the desire of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman- then newly made the Defense Minister- to increase his profile and consolidate power. Strangely, Salman has been able to consolidate power despite that the war has been a disaster and the Houthis now control an area containing 80% of the population of Yemen.
The [relatively] young royal, commonly known as MbS, is well aware that his regional plans have failed. Perhaps because he is a future king who could easily live another 50 years he is trying to fix things instead of looting his country and then retiring as you might a expect a democratic leader to do in this situation. Either way, in his defense, after indiscriminately bombing Yemen for 7 years, MbS did finally recognize his war was going nowhere. In April of 2022 the sides reached a UN-brokered cease fire. Though it was renewed twice, it expired in October, with the “government” of Yemen claiming that the problem was the Houthis making maximalist demands. It is understandable, as the Houthis control the majority of the population and are in a much better position. However, a funny thing happened: the fighting did not really restart. Perhaps both sides are just exhausted. In fact, the White House’s pretense for opposing Sanders’ War Powers Resolution was that the fighting had already stopped and it would “complicate things,” meaning the Presidential Council would not have leverage if US support for the war ended.
Yemen stayed calm for months following the cease fire expiring, though no progress was made on further talks. However, there was a sea-change in the Middle East when China brokered a reconciliation between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The White House was discussed as being “blindsided” by the sudden Saudi rapprochement with Iran and Syria. As my friend Joe Shanley recently explained in his Open Book Report substack, the US’s policy of viewing its relationship with Saudi Arabia and everyone else as a hedge against another nation, in this instance Iran, has left it behind in the region. China sees that it is a time where smaller nations see the value of cooperation, and there is great benefit to being a genuinely neutral party when negotiating a solution to such conflicts.
As far as the civil war in Yemen goes, the most important thing is that Iran agreed to stop arming the Houthis. Iran wasn’t arming the Houthis in any large quantity anyway. However, in international relations statements and posturing are extremely important. The risk of an Iranian proxy on their border has been Salman’s excuse for the war the entire time, and he needs to present this as being able to get what he wanted out of the negotiations. It put Iran in a situation to seem agreeable without really doing anything. It is kind of the perfect fiction for bringing what was always a pointless war to an end. It initially seemed as if the Houthis may be getting hung out to dry by Iran who they do rely on for trade and diplomatic support, but clearly the move is to end the war entirely, and most likely with the Houthis controlling all or most of the country.
On April 9th the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia met with the Houthi Council in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa in the talks which were mediated by the Sultanate of Oman. In and of itself this meeting is enormous, as they have been treating the Houthis as terrorists or bandits and negotiating with them in this fashion recognizes them as having a degree of legitimacy. We can be sure that KSA’s former proxy the Presidential Council will be the ones who actually get hung out to dry. In fact, the Houthis are insistent that KSA is a party to the conflict and is not there acting as a mediator, and further, have said they will not have future meetings with the Presidential Council. A high level Houthi official, Mohammed al-Bukaiti, said the following,
“Saudi Arabia is not a mediator but a party to the conflict, and we are not ready to negotiate again through Rashad Al-Alimi, who was appointed by [Riyadh] … The doors of Sana’a are open to all, and we renew the call … for dialogue to build a political process based on internal balances and achieve the sovereignty and independence of Yemen. It is too early to say for sure that the negotiations in Sanaa will be successful, but it is clear that an atmosphere of peace hangs over the region, which gives cause for optimism and hope.”
The last part is surely the most important: an atmosphere of peace hangs over the region. It is a time of optimism and hope in the Middle East. For the time being, the main progress which has already been made was a large scale prisoner exchange. Unfortunately, substack is still not embedding tweets, but if you follow this link you will see the mood at the prisoner exchange is absolutely triumphant on both sides.
A non-government official anonymously quoted in the Associated Press said he hoped a permanent deal would be made in 7 to 10 days from April 11.
As I have explained before, in the post-Cold War era, the United States was the sole global hegemon who tried to established power over war and peace. This ended with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the world order has changed in unpredictable ways. CIA Director William Burns was left scurrying to Saudi Arabia on a surprise visit in a last-ditch effort to be involved in regional diplomacy. Similarly, the US Special Envoy to Yemen, Tim Lenderking, rushed to Sanaa to feign some involvement in the peace talks with Oman. Ron Paul described the situation as “peace breaking out in the Middle East,” which is an accurate description of the remarkable near-daily progress towards a more peaceful and cooperative Middle East. For one example, just yesterday there was a major meeting between Egypt and Turkiye where they agreed to reappoint ambassadors after 10 years. This type of cooperation is bad for the US policy of using everyone as a hedge against everyone else. Ron Paul writes,
“Middle East developments have revealed a dirty secret about US foreign policy. Washington has for a long time used a “divide and conquer” strategy to keep countries in the Middle East – and elsewhere – at each other’s throats. Sanctions, covert operations, and color revolutions have all been used to make sure that these countries do not get along with each other and that DC controls who runs the show.”
Indeed, it’s a simple strategy, which had been effective up to this point. However, now these countries are seeing that there is no benefit to conflict, and that with rapprochement they can have a much more stable region, better commerce, and much lower expenses.
The Atlantic Council produced a garbage take about how dangerous it is for the Muslim world to choose neutrality between super powers calling it a “1936 moment.” Malik al-Abdeh and Lars Hauch write,
“Today’s Arab rulers are like Leopold II [of Belgium]: scared. They look around and see an assertive China challenging US hegemony, a revanchist Russia gobbling territory in Europe, and an Iran that is an ally and appears to be winning in all its regional proxy wars. On the other hand, America’s allies in the Middle East are losing everywhere. Whether it be the pro-West leaders of Iraq and Lebanon, the various shades of Syrian opposition, or the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen, being an ally of the West means likely being outfought, outmaneuvered, and outwitted.”
They’re right that US proxies are losing. However, the Arab leaders are not scared, nor should they be. No one leading the region is showing fear. If anything, they are passing over US threats and fearmongering and are optimistic about the future. It is only the US, and perhaps Israel, that shows fear at the development of a peaceful and cooperative Muslim world. It’s really quite telling about how one sees the world to think that a leader would only want peace due to fear.
The Yemeni Civil War has, above all, been a humanitarian disaster. The mindset of viewing it as a proxy conflict between the West and Iran just speaks to the depravity of Western policies and how much local conditions and the desire for self-determination are devalued compared to “the imperial chessboard.” We can only hope that the unfortunate country gets some much-deserved relief from conflict. However, the moves towards peace tell us several things. One is that Saudi Arabia’s leader bin Salman is seeing the value of responding to global instability by promoting regional stability. It also shows that the problems between nations are not irreconcilable. It is increasingly the view of the entire Middle East that a second Cold War can only be won for the region by sitting out of it. Neutrality is usually possible, no matter how many weak 1930s analogies people try to make in that regard. The US’s choices in the region are to be a partner in peace and stability or to find itself completely irrelevant, and it appears that our feckless leaders will ultimately choose the latter, perhaps to the great benefit of the common man in the region.
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