The U.S.-Backed War on Yemen Is Collapsing

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This piece originally appeared on Informed Comment

Yemen, a country of 28 million and one of the poorest in the world, had already become a byword for misery over the course of the last four years of war. Now, believe it or not, things have abruptly worsened.

The strategic port of Aden has fallen to southern separatists, just as it did in 1967, when the Communists took over and created the People’s Republic of South Yemen.

The Southern Transitional Council took over the strategic port of Aden with four hundred armed vehicles that had been supplied to it by the United Arab Emirates. The UAE had joined the Saudi war on Yemen after it was launched by Mohammed Bin Salman in spring of 2015. Some of the southern secessionists are ex-Communists. Some are hard line Salafi fundamentalists. The potential for religious extremism in the South is enormous.

The Saudis are now riposting against the allies of their ally. This is not about Iran but about regional power rivalry.

In essence, Yemen is now split in three, with 1) the Southern secessionists, 2) what’s left of the government of Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, and 3) Houthi rebels in the West. There are also some areas of intense al-Qaeda and ISIL influence, in the interstices of the struggle.

The roots of southern Yemen regional patriotism go back to the early 19th century, when Britain established a garrison at Aden after Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt, which had inspired fear in London that France might cut it off from the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, India. In 1839, Britain took Aden and used it as a coaling station to refuel British ships coming back and forth to India through the Red Sea. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, British vessels had a straight shot back and forth to India. But that required three further occupations—the Egyptian Suez Canal zone, Somaliland, and Aden (which ultimately became a crown colony). Aden is a base for controlling the opening to the Suez Canal, the Mandeb Straits. Britain gradually lost control through the 1960s, though, in the age of decolonization, Arab nationalism and international Communism.

Yemeni fury at being colonized helped turn Aden and the South to Communism in 1967, inasmuch as they saw that movement as less likely to try to exploit them.

When the UAE and Saudi Arabia launched their war on Yemen in 2015, the UAE cultivated the southerners and may have all along intended to break Yemen up and create a Southern client state. The UAE has been trying to recreate the 19th-century Arabian Sea empire of Oman, asserting itself in Hadramawt, Socotra, Zanzibar, Somalia, etc.

But the Yemen war turned out to be unwinnable, and Abu Dhabi is now cutting its losses and running.

The UAE has drawn down half of its land forces in Yemen (it had 5,000 to 10,000 there) and says it is getting out entirely.

These developments have left Saudi Arabia holding the bag, as Nabih Bulus and David Cloud at the LA Times explain. It hasn’t been able to dislodge the Houthis from the northwest of the country. It was backing Abd-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who was elected president in a referendum in February 2012 after the Arab Spring unseated his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mansour Hadi by now has only a weak claim on legitimacy.

Now Mansour Hadi has been kicked out of his provisional capital, Aden, by the southern secessionists. They complained that he had allied with Sunni Muslim fundamentalists linked to the Muslim Brotherhood whom they view as terrorists. (Salafis in the South are a different kind of fundamentalist!)

That is the second capital Mansour Hadi has been kicked out of.

Donald Trump maintains that the Yemen war is about containing Iran, though that is a vast exaggeration. Iran is only involved with the Houthis in a relatively minor way. The U.S. Congress has voted on a bipartisan basis to halt U.S. military support for the Saudi war on Yemen, which has left millions on the verge of starvation.

Trump vetoed the congressional initiative and insists on keeping the Pentagon busy aiding the Saudi war effort.

That war effort is going nowhere, just like Trump’s politics in general, but a lot of people are getting hurt, just as with Trump’s politics in general.

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