In The Independent of April 10, Daniel Wickham wrote in opposition to the campaign of airstrikes, led by Saudi Arabia, against the Iran-backed Houthi militia in Yemen, which has overthrown the government in that country and is now marching on the port city of Aden where the remnants of the fallen regime reside. Wickham notes that the Houthis have behaved abominably since they took the capital, Sanaa, including the “use of torture and extreme violence to suppress dissent,” still “two wrongs do not make a right” and the Saudi-led Operation DECISIVE STORM is “very clearly wrong.” I think this is mistaken.
To get this out of the way: I e-know Daniel, and not only is this not intended as a personal attack, merely an intellectual disagreement, but it can be seen as not really even intended against Daniel as an individual. Daniel has written an articulate version of a school of analysis I disagree with, and it gives me the chance to say where I think it is flawed.
Wickham’s reasons for the wrongness of the Saudi-led operation are its indiscriminate character, and the damage it does both to the humanitarian situation and the chances for peace in Yemen.
Wickham’s contention that this campaign is a threat to the chances of peace rests on the idea that the “airstrikes could create a vacuum for extremist groups like al-Qai’da in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP] to take advantage of (something which is apparently already happening).” In fact, the Sunnis turning to AQAP had been happening before the intervention, and it was driven by the Sunnis looking for protection against an Iran-backed effort to secure total power for a minority community. Iran exacerbated this sectarian faultline to the advantage of its foreign policy, and this fed the rise of a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS), which for the first time last month claimed the bombing of two Zaydi Shi’a mosques in Sanaa, massacring more than 130 people. Both the extremists in Iran and ISIS thrive in an atmosphere of heightened sectarian tensions, and before this intervention neither had any check on their ambitions.
An air campaign always carries risks of civilian casualties. The alternative, however, is a ground operation, which carries with it risks of its own and undoubtedly protracts the operation since troops are harder to remove than war planes. It seems unlikely if—as Egypt has suggested it will—ground troops are deployed by the Saudi-led coalition, then Wickham’s complaints will diminish.
Wickham laments the deteriorating prospects for providing aid, the widening chaos, and the increased civilian casualties, but his thesis—that if nobody pushes back and the Iran-backed Houthis take over—then these things will be lessened is not what has happened in any country, Iraq and Syria most obviously, where Iran’s State influence has increased: it has led to further sectarian violence and a collapse of the State, with consequence disorder, displacement, and lack of basic provisions.
Wickham thus has this the wrong way around: it was allowing the Houthis’ continued march and Iran’s growing influence that was “deeply polarising,” ensuring there could be no political solution, and pushing Yemen further toward the abyss. The Saudi-led campaign offers a chance for reconciliation. Riyadh has begun outreach to the Islah Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with the Brothers’ strength among the Yemeni tribes, there is reason to think that Riyadh has recruited some allies on the ground in addition to the remnants of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s regime, potentially assisting in coordinating the airstrikes, reducing harm to civilians, and setting the stage for a political settlement. The dichotomy Wickham sets up between the use of force and a political settlement is erroneous; military action is part of a political solution. The Saudi-led intervention gives the Sunnis an option other than AQAP and ISIS for resisting the Iran-backed bid for untrammelled power by the Houthis, and puts the moderates in a better position to reach an accord later.
Where Wickham goes most wrong, however, is in failing to frame Yemen as part of the broader regional struggle for order, in which America has sided against the Saudi-led bloc, and with Iran. The Obama administration is pursuing a rapprochement with Iran, intended to draw the clerical regime into the regional security architecture, balancing Iran’s interests against the Gulf States, and allowing the U.S. to withdraw. By definition such a scheme requires empowering Iran, which started in a weaker regional position, and that is exactly what has been seen in Iraq, Syria—and Yemen.
Wickham decries the fact that the United States and Britain have between them provided rhetorical, logistical, and intelligence support to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, but this is to display a real want of proportion given the actual degree of U.S. support to the Saudi coalition, and its human cost, as against the U.S. support to Iran in Iraq—without even mentioning the de facto U.S. support to Iran’s client regime in Syria.
The U.S. was only informed one hour before the Saudi-led Yemeni campaign began, largely because Riyadh feared that if it gave specific intelligence to the Americans it would leak to Iran. The U.S. has provided intelligence to the Houthis and late last year the combination of a Houthi ground offensive and U.S. airstrikes drove AQAP from the city of Rada. The U.S. has legitimised Iran’s interest in Yemen, insisting on a negotiated outcome that gets “all of the sides … around the negotiating table,” rather than the restoration of the deposed, Saudi-backed president, Hadi, whom the White House itself believes to be the “legitimate” ruler of Yemen. (Whether Hadi actually is legitimate or not is a separate question: in international law terms he clearly is the rightful president.)
Contrast that with the fact that, at the exact moment Operation DECISIVE STORM began, the U.S. began airstrikes in Iraq in support of an offensive planned and led by Iranian intelligence operatives in Tikrit, made up overwhelmingly of Shi’ite militias that are proxies of the Iranian regime, many with American blood on their hands and one of them an actual designated terrorist group (Kataib Hizballah). While the Saudis got some after-the-fact rhetorical and logistical support, Iran got the full might of the U.S. Air Force; there can be no comparing the two. Given the conduct of Iran’s proxies U.S.-enabled conquests in Iraq, Amerli last year and now Tikrit, this seems a much more serious target for Western outrage than the potential harmful effects of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen which at least might make things better.
Saudi Arabia remains a horrible, corrupt tyranny at home, and its oil largesse will no doubt continue finance unpleasant causes around the world. But the Gulf States do not have the structures, like the Quds Force, to threaten regional stability in the region nor do they intend to; the Gulfies work within the American-led security architecture, which Iran, despite the best wishes of the Obama administration, intends to overturn and replace with its own hegemony. The Gulfies finally drew a line in Yemen after the fall of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, and Sanaa to assets of the Iranian State, and while the Saudi-led operation could easily end in debacle, from a strategic and humanitarian point-of-view it should be supported inasmuch as it might open an alternative to Yemen’s becoming like Iraq and Syria: a failed State in which Iran has free reign to terrorise both inhabitants and neighbours.