Despite the violent split between Yemen’s former—and now dead–leader Saleh and the Houthi rebels– two major groups involved in the Saudi imposed Yemen war who jointly fought Saudi coalition as allies for some time–the Saudi coalition has failed to take advantage of the prevailing situation and turn the tables in Yemen, where the coalition has largely failed to achieve any of its declared objectives so far. While the split in itself was a product of Saleh’s gradual shift away from supporting the Houthi rebels to co-opting the Saudis, the Saudi coalition has been unable to take this shift to its logical absolute turn, thanks to their unchanged brutal and indiscriminate bombing of Yemen and their proven involvement in killing civilians, including the children.
For instance, according to the UNO’s latest findings, the Saudi coalition was involved in killing at least 68 children in Yemen in just three months between July and September 2017. The report also said that the coalition conducted about 20 air attacks every day which targeted schools and homes on an indiscriminate basis and thus directly contributed to the worsening of the crisis. This indiscriminate targeting of civilians and non-combatants directly contributes to fuelling anti-Saudia sentiments among the Yemenis, making it difficult for Saudia and Saudi supported groups to win over popular sympathy.
On the contrary, however, the fact that the Houthi rebels were able to kill a Saudi proxy has added to their power and the symbolic capital they have been carrying ever since taking up arms against the Saudi backed government of Hadi and the coalition bombing their country. Therefore, the north of Yemen, where most of Yemen’s population lives is even less likely to oppose the Houthis. Besides it, the split between the Houthis and Saleh’s forces has not led to an automatic support for forces loyal to Hadi. As such, despite having military advantage and superior air power and despite having been able to win over support of Saleh, the Saudi coalition has been unable to break down the Houthis’ powerful appeal to masses, which builds upon notions of Yemeni nationalism and defence of Yemen from those trying to force it into submission.
The Saudi coalition efforts have now backfired. With the Houthis now inching closer to a clear military victory in Sanna, the chances of a negotiated end of the war have shrinked further. With the Houthis being now more powerful than they were before the Saleh’s death, the Saudis are not going to engage in negotiations with them, at least at this stage. Their preferred position will be to strike the Houthis hard as a means to force them into submission and accept the Saudi hegemony. But chances of doing this are bleaker than ever.
Proxies are falling apart
While any strategy to bring the Houthis to the table would require a lot of military resources and a big and well-equipped ground force, it will also require cohesiveness in the proxy groups the Saudi coalition has been relying on for their war.
According to the latest reports, for last several days, Yemen’s southern separatists have been battling their estranged partners — forces loyal to ousted President Hadi. The fighting taking place in the important city of Aden has not only exposed how fragile the whole Saudi Yemen project is, but also that Yemen remains best by its historical grievances, which the Saudi coalition’s money and weapons has magnanimously failed to redress and bridge.
One of the primary reasons for this infighting, according to reports, is the stark inability of the Hadi government to improve the lives of the Yemeni southerners. The region remains a sight of conflict and continues to be repeatedly targeted by suicide bombing of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Current clashes took place as a result of the expiration of the deadline given by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) to the Hadi government to dismiss this government, which has been accused of massive corruption and mismanagement.
On wider scale, the in-fighting has also exposed strategic and policy differences between Saudi Arabia and the UAE. With UAE being the chief sponsor of STC, and Saudi Arabia being the main sponsor of Hadi government, the clash is much more than just local fight between two groups; it does also reflect how differences have started to emerge and leave an impact on a war that both countries have spent—and wasted– billions in. More than anything else, it also very strongly signifies the conspicuous absence of a new strategy after the death of Saleh on the part of the coalition and the resultant awkwardness with which the war has begun to turn.
The only thing that might work to Saudi advantage is decrease in the Houthi popularity after Saleh’s death. But this isn’t happening. While the Houthis are certainly targeting factions of forces loyal to Saleh, they are also discriminating between those involved in hitting the Houthis and those who haven’t. And while they have shown sensitivity to the political dangers of completely alienating Saleh’s forces, they are trying to forge a new alliance with what is left of these forces in Sanna. This is significant in the context of Yemen; for, if they alienate Saleh’ forces, they will end up becoming a sectarian group, having no national foundation, support and sympathy beyond the areas under their direct control.
Even if it doesn’t happen, it will take much more than the death of Saleh to shrink and damage the popularity of the Houthis in Yemen. More than anything else, the Houthis will remain strong as long as they are controlling Yemen’s north. And unless north sees a massive uprising against the Houthis, their position will remain unchallenged. And as it stands, there are no signs of revolt against the Houthis. At the moment, the southerners have revolted against the Saudi supported forces. It is time for the Arab coalition to worry and do a re-think because this in-fighting, if it spreads, will do an irreparable damage to their interests.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.