Crisis in Yemen: Significant Milestone

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Crisis in Yemen: Significant Milestone | In October 2014 I published an article entitled “Sixty Six Egyptian Fisherman, Yemen, and Instability in The Middle East” in which I said:

The events in the fall of 2014 would result in increasing instability in the Middle East.

The developments in Yemen at that time would have serious regional ramifications.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt would not tolerate the deteriorating situation in Yemen threatening their strategic interests.

My predictions have been fully realized:

On March 25th, a military coalition of the Arab Gulf states (except for Oman) plus Jordan, Morocco, and Sudan, and one non-Arab state (Pakistan), led by Saudi Arabia, launched aerial attacks on Houthi Shiite tribe targets in Yemen. Reportedly, The Saudi military is preparing to operate forcefully on the ground, while Egyptian battle ships have taken positions in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait.

The dramatic developments in Yemen should viewed within the following context:

Yemen has become the playground for foreign factors – Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and others

Yemen has become yet another stage for the expanding Iranian influence in the region, thus fueling growing Arab anxiety. (I wrote about the Arab anxiety in the above-mentioned article, as well as in my most recent article, entitled Pax Amer-Iran published only a few days ago).

Inner Yemeni politics; Yemen is – to put it simply – a collapsing state. Its history throughout the second part of the 20th Century is mostly a violent one. It has become the stage for almost every possible political violence: Sunni tribes vs. Houthi Shiite tribes; Marxists vs. Republicans; Government vs. Militant Islamic groups, etc.

Under these conditions, it is no wonder that Yemen has also become a haven for Militant Islamic groups – and mostly Al-Qaeda – who controls the district of Shabwah in South Yemen.

The result is a state that has simply crumbled under its own never ending violence, domestic and regional power struggles, as well as corruption.

The Arab world is chaotic in large parts – and Yemen is the quintessential example of that chaos.

The rapid occupation of twelve, out of twenty-two, Yemenite Districts by the Houthi Militia (which is estimated at 20 – 30,000 militants) in the last couple of months, has to do primarily with the inner Yemeni politics.

The major reason for the rapid Houthi Military achievements is the silent consent of the Yemenite Military. Yemen has a considerable army, yet in most cases, the army remained in its bases, watching indifferently as the Houthi occupied more and more districts. One reason for that is the fact that the Yemenite army is mostly loyal to Yemen’s former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh who is trying to come back to power through building an alliance with the Houthis. The other reason is that Saleh and the Houthi pay the salaries of the Yemenite soldiers, thus securing their passive position.

The interesting fact is that not so long ago, Saleh was a close ally of none other than the Saudis. In fact, after being badly injured in a failed assassination plot, Saleh received medical treatment in both Saudi Arabia as well as in the USA. Today Saleh is allied with the Houthi tribe, a local Yemenite factor which is backed by Iran, and this jeopardizes the Saudi strategic interests.

If you are feeling dizzy at this point, here is another fact that will probably put you over the edge. Saleh – like the Houthi – is a Shiite. That fact did not prevent him from conducting a fierce military campaign against the Houthi during the time he was the President of Yemen. This is a typical Middle East politics; yesterday’s enemy is today’s ally.

And there is of course the United States perspective.

In my most recent article Pax Amer-Iran published only few days ago, I predicted that the United States policy may results in increasing instability in the Middle East. The dramatic developments in Yemen not only support my analysis; they also reinforce the serious questions I posed in that article regarding the concept and mindset that guides US policy towards the Middle East and the possible – and deeply concerning – ramifications.

The US administration officially expresses that is “understands” the Arab coalition operations in Yemen. However, it is more of a reluctant “understanding”; it is quite clear that the US prefers dialogue and agreements. The problem is that all attempts to reach agreements with the Houthi through dialogue failed thus far. The Arab Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia have tried to mediate a political compromise – in vain.

The US policy towards the crisis in Yemen begs – and not for the first time – the question: Does the United States administration fully understand what is going on in the region and is it aware of the ramifications of its policy. The USA policy regarding the crisis in Yemen is quite puzzling:

Why does the US seem to ignore the fact that attempts to solve the crisis diplomatically failed – mostly because the Houthi simply demanded that the agreement would be on their terms?

Did the US administration think that Saudi Arabia or Egypt would sit back and quietly watch Iran expand its influence to yet another Arab state and gain control over one of the most crucial sea passages in the world?

Did the US administration assume that Saudi Arabia would watch quietly as Iran deploys missiles and rockets in Yemen, in Saudi Arabia’s backyard, and gain control over the Bab el-Mandeb Strait?

Was there not one single advisor within the US administration that understood that the deteriorating situation in Yemen would likely result is a serious regional crisis, deepening the chaos and violence that the Middle East is already experiencing?

These questions are deeply disturbing given the fact that the script regarding the crisis in Yemen was clearly written on the wall. Twenty-year old college students of mine from Gettysburg College in my program at the Eisenhower Institute “Inside the Middle East – Intelligence Perspectives” issued an Intelligence Report in October 2014, in which they accurately predicted the growing potential for dangerous instability in Yemen.

Is it possible that the United States Intelligence Agencies, with an annual budget of 70 billion dollars and thousands of brilliant minds failed to predict that scenario? It is simply inconceivable.

The only explanation left then is that the current policy of the United States towards the Middle East is guided by some big plan – perhaps, as I wrote in my article “Pax Amer-Iran” – by the concept of reaching out to Iran at the expense of the Arab-Sunni world. Analyzing the policy of the USA in the Middle East today – and Yemen is one example – one can seriously argue that the US administration’s guiding concept and policy has a serious weakness; it seems more and more as if it does not consider reality.

In the same article, I also wrote “…It is hard to imagine that Arabs and Sunnis will do nothing to push back the Iranian occupation of Arab soil.” Indeed, the current Arab coalition move in Yemen proves my prediction was accurate. As could be expected, almost all Arab regimes (except for Oman) participate in the coalition, alongside Egypt, Sudan and Pakistan. The involvement of Pakistan – the only non-Arab factor in the coalition – is significant given the fact Pakistan is the only Muslim state that possesses military nuclear capacities. In that context one should note that Turkey, a major Sunni state, is not operating within the coalition, though the Turkish President made very clear demands from Iran to withdraw immediately from Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and to stop its attempts to expand in the region.

The Arab Coalition operation aims to block the Iranian influence in Yemen. The operation does not aim neither to eliminate the Houthi, nor to deprive them of political power. It aims to bring the sides to the table and to portray clear red lines to all participants. Indeed, Saleh already called for the resumption of the diplomatic process. His call – as of now – met a cold Saudi reply; the Saudi’s discouraging reply to Saleh’s initiative signals that the Saudis will be the ones to set the terms and time for the resumption of the diplomatic process. The Arab Coalition prefers to avoid a ground operation and hopes that the aerial raids on Houthi targets will be sufficient to set the right conditions for the resumption of the diplomatic track.

The immediate question is what will be the Iranian counter-move?

Will Iran escalate the military conflict in Yemen or will Iran blink and withdraw?

The answer has to do mostly (though not only) with the aftermath of the talks regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The Iranian regime is stretched beyond its capacities. Its imperialistic aspirations place a growing – almost unbearable burden – on the crumbling Iranian economy. If International sanctions on Iran are not lifted, and oil prices continue to drop, the Iranian regime will not be able to continue its expansion in the Middle East as it wishes. They will have to compromise. Since Iraq and Syria are of a greater importance to the Iranian regime, it is more likely they will make the compromise in Yemen.

Many Arab commentators welcome very enthusiastically the Arab Coalition operation; they describe it as a triumph of the Arab world. Obviously, it is premature to estimate the ramifications of the recent Arab coalition operation in Yemen. However, the excitement of Arab columnists is understood. In the shadow of the Iranian momentum at the expense of Arab states, and while Arab leaders seem to be powerless to confront the Iranian threat, in addition to being unable to lead the Arab world through the deep crisis in Arab societies, sentiments of failure, humiliation and lack of hope become very common in the Arab world. Moreover, the ability of Arab leadership to unite and to operate decisively to ensure Arab interests is not a common scene in the Middle East. The Arab League, for example, is viewed by Arabs as incompetent, corrupt, and a useless body – and to a large degree, that uncomplimentary outlook was accurate.

The operation in Yemen brings back pride and hope for Arabs. In the Middle East mindset, and mostly these very days, pride is a very powerful factor. The Arabs send a clear message to Iran: We are determined to gain back control and to block you. The Arab Coalition operation may indicate the beginning of an interesting change in the balance of power in the Middle East; it may signal the beginning of an Arab Sunni momentum. Such a momentum could affect other arenas in the Middle East like Iraq, Lebanon and Syria where Iranian-Arab confrontations are taking place openly.

One thing is clear: in the complex picture of power struggles and balance of power in the Middle East, the Arab Coalition military operation in Yemen is a meaningful and significant milestone.

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Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed
Avi Melamed is an expert on current affairs in the Arab & Muslim World and their impact on Israel & the Middle East. A former Israeli Intelligence Official & Senior Official on Arab Affairs, Fluent in Arabic, English, and Hebrew, he has held high-risk Government, Senior Advisory, Intelligence & Counter-Terrorist intelligence positions in Arab cities & communities - often in very sensitive times - on behalf of Israeli Government agencies. He is the Founder & CEO of Inside the Middle East | Intelligence Perspectives - an apolitical non-partisan curriculum using intelligence methodology to examine the Middle East. As an Author, Educator, Expert, and Strategic Intelligence Analyst, Avi provides Intelligence Analysis, Briefings, and Geopolitical Tours to diplomats, Israeli and foreign policymakers, global media outlets, and a wide variety of international businesses, organizations, and private clients on a range of Israel and Middle East Affairs.

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