The war in Yemen has become a case study example of what happens when two rival countries indulge in a power struggle for dominance. The unrest and humanitarian crisis that has resulted in Yemen as a result of Saudi Arabia and Iran’s need for regional dominance illustrates that the two rivals are not going to stop waging proxy wars for regional dominance. Saudi and Iran backed Yemeni conflict could have far-reaching consequences to the peace, security, and stability of an already tumultuous region. At this point, the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is mostly rooted in the Sunni-Shia tribal lines has put Yemen in a high stakes game of chicken. As long as the tribal divisions and the fight for dominance persist, peace in Yemen is in a distant future unless equal pressure is put on both Iran and Saudi Arabia to end the conflict.
The conflict in Yemen seems to have no end in sight as the bloodbath continues unabated. When Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen in 2015 to stop the formation of an Iran backed Shiite government on its borders, the international community should have realized that the conflict in Yemen was no longer for Yemen but it had become an indirect warfare for supremacy between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. At this point, both parties (Iran & Saud Arabia), together with the Houthi rebels who are Shias and the Sunni Arab states should have been brought to the negotiation table. Negotiations among the interested parties would have to some extent helped to avoid the current humanitarian crisis that one of the poorest Arab countries has been experiencing since the start of the civil war. It can be argued that Western countries (United States, United Kingdom & France) that have abetted the Saudi led coalition that is made up of Sunni Arab States are only serving to perpetuate escalation of the conflict instead of looking for a solution that is not based on tribal lines. Some might argue that the U.S. is a Saudi Arabia ally, therefore, it should support the Saudis. But considering the humanitarian crisis that has left hundreds of thousands of Yemenis dead, it is time for the needs of those affected by the crisis to take precedence over political motivations.
As it stands, Yemen is divided into two territories, – territories controlled by the Houthi forces and those still controlled by the Hadi government / Coalition forces. The consequences of the division are not only that Yemen no longer attributes an autonomous state but the divisions have orchestrated the failure of critical aid reaching certain parts of the country. It is arguably possible that blockades for humanitarian aid to reach certain parts of the country are meant to put pressure on the Houthi rebels to give up control of the strategic port in Hudaydah. Even though the Houthi controlled port of Hudyadah has become a focal point of the conflict to see who blinks first in the high stakes game of chicken, it should be noted that Houthis do not have a good track record for compromise. Therefore, the chance that the Houthi rebels will give up fighting for Hudyadah are close to zero. As the tag of war unfolds the only people that are suffering are the millions of Yemenis in need of humanitarian assistance, a point that seems to have been forgotten in this man-made conflict.
Unlike Saudi Arabia which has chosen to show its power projection capabilities with direct military intervention, Iran has chosen a non-direct approach of intervention by supplying the Houthi rebels with weapons and logistics. Riyadh and Tehran have different military strategies but they produce same outcomes. Outcomes that have escalated the Yemeni conflict and outcomes that further risk the war in Yemen spreading out to other parts in the Arab world. The risk of spilling over the conflict increases every day. The conflict persists mainly because of the Sunni-Shia divide that already exists in the Arab region. For example, Iraq, Lebanon, Qatar, and Bahrain are playing a critical role of backing political factions based on sectarian lines. Iran and Saudi Arabia have a big role to play in discouraging conflict based on sectarian lines and they have to start by deescalating conflict in Yemen. Their proxy war in Yemen gives rise to Jihadists like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which have taken advantage of the chaos by seizing territory.
The question that has been raised by political commentators is whether enough has been done to stop the ongoing conflict. The general consensus is that the international community has not done much to influence the end of the bloody conflict. Both sides involved in the conflict are responsible for the escalation and the international community particularly Western countries aiding the Saudi led coalition are culpable. The Senate’s vote on 28 November to move forward the War Powers Act that would end America’s role in the war in Yemen is commendable even though it is a little too late considering how the escalation of the conflict has got out of hand. Ever since 2015, there has not been a justifiable reason why the United States decided to insert itself in a conflict exacerbated by Saudi Arabia and Iran’s power play in the region. Its decision to pick a side in the civil war was never a good idea. Therefore, the United States’ withdrawal from aiding Saudi Arabia would ensure a move toward de-escalation and would create room for the U.S. to encourage in peaceful diplomatic dialogue between the warring parties. As long as the U.S. supports one side in the conflict it can never be taken as an ‘honest broker’ to facilitate peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia or even in Yemen.
In an article titled Yemen Conflict: Whose Pain, Whose Gain? Sheikh Shabir suggests that
A peace deal must involve a phase-wise pull out of the Houthi forces from Sana’a and the Saudi border. Saudi Arabia needs to stop aerial bombings. An inclusive government is needed in Yemen and all provinces of the country must get representation in the governance setup. A peace offer to the Houthi camp and a promise of power-sharing can prove a game changer, giving peace a chance in Yemen. In such a situation, Yemen can rebuild itself.
Civil wars drawn on tribal lines are already complicated on their own. The only way that the international community can address these problems is to encourage a ceasefire without picking sides. Furthermore, addressing the Arab Persian split would also be beneficial to the entire region to avoid Yemeni style proxy wars throughout the region. As long as Iran-Saudi Arabia quest for dominance in the region is not peacefully addressed, conflict and instability will continue.
Header Image: Abdo Hyder/AFP via Getty Images
Ian Fleming, B.A. and M.A. in International Politics by the University of South Africa. His areas of interest include nuclear proliferation, the conduct of negotiations, the role of power in diplomatic negotiations, terrorism and the influence of social media on International and national politics. He is currently serving on the IAPSS authorial board and he is the Vice Chair of the IAPSS SRC on Conflict Security & Crime.