Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Yemen Crisis

This article is written by Brother Adnan Khan

What has led to the current crisis in Yemen?

The US-led war against terrorism entered a new phase in December 2009 when military action switched from Afghanistan to Yemen, the US launched Cruise missiles in concert with Yemen government forces, who used tanks, helicopters and artillery to storm mountain villages suspected of harbouring Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Yemen appears to be facing multiple issues on various fronts, which the weak central government has failed to solve diplomatically and continues to use primarily military means to solve. Yemen faces civil war with it's largely Shi'ah population in the North. It faces secessionist calls in the South who are demanding a reversal of the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen. Yemen also apparently faces al-Qaeda attacks throughout the country. Yemen today is a nation that remains largely underdeveloped and is led by many different tribes, central government has been unable to change this reality.

Why is there Civil war in the North?

In 1962, an army coup ended centuries of rule by Shi'ah (Zaydi) imams, establishing the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in north Yemen. The North looked for a union with the South due to its oil wealth. The two leaders - Ali Salim al-Baidh in the south and Ali Abdullah Saleh in the north - declared a union in May 1990. Electors in the north voted for an Islamic party, Islah, and Saleh's General People's Congress (GPC). In the south they elected Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) candidates. The lingering divisions between the North and South resulted in civil war in 1994 which ended in southern defeat. After the war the authorities in San'a pushed many southern military officers and civil servants into retirement, and replaced them with northerners. In August 2009 the Yemeni army launched a major offensive, dubbed Operation Scorched Earth, against Sa'ada, the Shi'ah in the North launched an uprising against the Yemeni government. Most of the fighting has taken place in Sa'dah Governorate in northwestern Yemen. The government claimed that the fighters, who are named after their leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi, seek to restore the Shi'ah imamate system, which was overthrown in a 1962. The Houthi clan is part of the Zaydi madhab, a branch of the Shi'ah that is unique to Yemen. Most of the fighters are tribesmen who would probably put down their arms if they were given economic help by central government and concessions such as roads and schools. There is consensus in Sanaa that eventually the crisis in the north will have to be resolved through negotiations. But for the moment the central government's strategy is to force the rebels into a position of weakness so that they will accept a political settlement. This situation has been complicated by the involvement of Saudi forces on the side of the Yemeni government which in turn accuses Iran of backing the rebels.

Why are there Secessionist calls in South Yemen?

The 100,000 retired southern military officers and civil servants in 1994's civil war, only sporadically received their pensions. The former civil servants, who were forcibly retired, called for their reinstatement and increased pensions. These former officers formed the Society of Retired Military Officers (SRMO) and began a series of sit-ins and protest marches. Southern demands now include more employment opportunities, an end to corruption, and a larger share of oil revenues for Southern Provinces. By mid-2009 the Southern movement had begun to demand secession and the re-establishment of a southern state. In June 2009, the Southern Movement reportedly appointed a five-person Council for the Leadership of the Peaceful Revolution of the South. There are increasing tensions between "southerners" and the Shi'ah in the south, who see themselves as culturally distinct from each other. Human rights watch outlined the reason for this: "There are elites in south Yemen who feel marginalised, but the groups they head represent real grievances of the people. The people want lower prices, better services, and more employment. That is the reason they line up behind the secessionist slogans." (‘In the name of unity', Human Rights Watch report, December 2009).

The Al Qaeda threat?

Yemen was home to many of the Mujahideen who fought against the Soviet Union when they invaded Afghanistan. Many Mujahideen returned to Yemen after the conflict ended. At the end of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union training camps flourished in Yemen for much of the 1990's. One of these - at Huttat in southern Yemen - was the base for the Army of Aden-Abyan. As the US manhunt for the Mujahideen (who the US has termed as al Qaeda operatives) around the world after 9/11 intensified, Yemen was given an ultimatum to join America's crusade against the Ummah. Like Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, President Ali Abdullah Saleh capitulated to US demands and as part of the deal agreed with President Bush he accepted US aid in return for promising to round up the former Mujahideen. The government in San'a needed the help of the Mujahideen in the 1994 civil war against the South - mainly former Marxists - who were attempting to secede. This all changed when the USS Cole in Aden was attacked in October 2000 where 17 American sailors were killed. 9/11 only intensified US demands on Yemen.

How much of the Crisis is due to foreign interference?

Both Saudi Arabia and the Yemen government have attempted to link the Houthis's to Iran, the evidence being that both are Shi'ah even thought the Yemen Shi'ah are Zaydi, whilst Iran is largely Itna Ashar'I (twelvers). Saudi Arabia has long been troubled by Yemen's increasing lawlessness, its porous border, and the ability of local villagers to cross at will. Saudi Arabia is currently enforcing a 10 km-deep buffer zone inside the Yemeni border.

On orders from President Barack Obama, the US military launched cruise missiles on the 20th December 2009 against two suspected al-Qaeda sites in Yemen. The US has now directly intervened in Yemen. The US has until now used a carrot and tick approach with the Yemeni government. Special Forces trained with American help have carried out attacks based on US intelligence ever since Ali Abdullah Saleh joined America's war on terror. Such attacks by the US military represent a major escalation of the Obama administration's campaign in the region.

Does the US have strategic interests in the region?

The Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden for the US and any power will always represent an important strategic waterway. Over 30% of all crude oil and over 10% of global trade pass through this region. The US has also failed to achieve victory in Somalia - which across Yemen has a coastline with the Gulf of Aden and as a result focused on controlling the region through the seas. There has been a heavy presence of foreign naval warships in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somalia coastline. There are ships from the US Navy Fifth Fleet in the region, which of late have become the centre of numerous hijackings of international ships. Interestingly mostly European ships have been hijacked, no US ships have been hijacked, which are present in large numbers, in fact, under US policing such attacks have been conducted.

The United States Central Command set up the Maritime Security Patrol Area (MSPA), a specified patrol zone in the Gulf of Aden in August 2008. Its borders although unmarked are a narrow, rectangular corridor between Somalia and Yemen, within the Northern sector of the gulf. From this is would seem the US is working to construct a permanent base in the Gulf of Aden to protect its interests in Africa and is using the inability of the Yemen regime to deal with its domestic issues to justify its presence in such an important waterway. A senior French military official stated in the Asharq Alawsat on the 28th October 2008 "by deploying its forces in Djibouti, America aims to ensure its permanent presence in the horn of Africa in the hotbeds of conflict in Yemen, Somalia and even Sudan."

In conclusion is appears the launching of US attacks in Yemen fit within US aims to control the Gulf of Aden after failing to defeat the Somali regime and due to America's general strategic interests in Africa. Like the Sudanese government's inability to deal with what was in origin tribal differences over land the US intervened and used the conflict to achieve its aim of controlling Sudan's oil wealth. It seems the US is using the Yemeni's regime's inability to deal with its domestic problems to meddle in its affairs and establish a permanent presence in the strategic waterways of the Aden.


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