Proxy War in Yemen
17 May 2015
When we hear “proxy war” we think of the Cold War, but the idea of a proxy war can be extrapolated beyond the particular circumstances of the Cold War to apply to any war fought between two or more nation-states that is not fought on the territory of the nation-states in question. Yemen has become a battleground, a proxy war, within the larger de facto war taking place within Islamic civilization (which I have touched upon in The Neurotic Misery of Islamic Civilization and The Problem of Islamic Terrorism). Yemen is, one might say (with a certain ruefulness), the “perfect” venue for a proxy war in the region. On the edge of the Arabian Peninsula, directly bordering on Saudi Arabia, the Yemeni government is not strong enough to enforce an internal security regime, and is routinely referred to as a “failed state” (cf. Yemen and Warfare in Failed States).
In a couple of posts on the developments in Yemen during the events following the Arab Spring — Definitive Ambiguity in Yemen and Saleh gives the Saudis the Slip — I discussed the murkiness of Yemeni politics. As we now see, the definitive ambiguity in Yemen has given way to civil war and proxy war. The situation in Yemen has calmed down for the moment, but it is the nature of proxy wars to pass through cycles of relative calm punctuated by flareups of spectacular violence. We should expect to see further such flareups.
Yemen has long been a primarily tribal society, and as such it has been an easy mark for outside powers, who can usually find a willing client among the many tribes. The country was split in two during the Cold War between North Yemen and South Yemen in an earlier proxy war. In more recent events, after the ouster of Ali Abdullah Saleh and the installation of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi during the turbulence of the Arab Spring, Houthi rebels, Shia backed by Iran, established control over a considerable portion of the country, sending Hadi packing, and Saudi Arabia responded by bombing Yemen to push back against Houthi gains. Interestingly, former president Saleh has sided with the Houthis (cf. Eyeing return, Yemen’s ousted Saleh aids Houthis).
There is a backstory to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s proclamation of support for the Houthi rebels making progress in Yemen. During the Arab Spring (seems like a long time ago now, right?), when autocrats who expected (and attempted to enforce) a life tenure in office were falling left and right, the Saudis pressured Saleh into giving up power. Saleh, apparently a wily character, tried his best to hang on, and even slipped out of Saudi Arabia after receiving medical treatment in the Kingdom. One suspects that this current ploy is (among other things) an opportunity for Saleh to poke Saudi Arabia in the eye with a stick after they were instrumental in his ouster from power.
So Yemen finds itself between a rock and a hard place, with Iran backing proxies and Saudi Arabia bombing the country. Iran, the contemporary representative of an ancient civilization derived from the west Asia cluster, Persia, possesses a dimension of prestige that extends to before the the advent of Islamic civilization. This might seem a bit recondite to enter into contemporary geopolitical hardball, but it is not far below the surface. The Financial Times quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy adviser to Ayatollah Khamenei, as saying, “Yemen is an independent country with an old civilisation, much older than Saudi Arabia.” The subtext of this message is that Iran is an independent country with an old civilzation, much older than Saudi Arabia.
It has been argued that the conflicts among Islamic nation-states are not religious conflicts per se, assimilating conflict within Islamic civilization to conflict within the nation-state paradigm, and doing so where that paradigm is at its weakest, even as groups like ISIS seek to score ideological points by flaunting conventions of the nation-state, as in their pointed abrogation of territorial boundaries (cf. ISIS and Sykes-Picot).
It has also been argued that Iran and groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban have been for decades contesting for the title of vanguard of revolutionary Islam, with the idea being whichever can prove itself the more radical and ruthless will win the acclaim of the Islamic masses, and that this rivalry transcends the split between Sunni and Shia because it pits the Ummah against Dar al-Harb, and presumably unifies the Islamic masses against a common enemy. (One then wonders why ISIS, most recent representative of radical Islam, makes a point of mass executions of those they regard as infidels, most of whom are fellow Muslims, although not sharing the exact beliefs of ISIS.)
If both of these arguments are taken seriously, then we could safely ignore the Sunni/Shia split in Islamic civilization and proceed to predict the actions of agents in current regional conflicts in purely secular terms, without reference to Islam. At this point, we realize that this is a familiar argument and that we have seen it before. This is exactly the sort of thing that Sam Harris has criticized in his many books on the role of religion in public life: the moderate views of the many come to facilitate the radical views of the few, as the radicals are dismissed as not “really” representing the religious views of the community, therefore they can safely be ignored and treated as criminals, terrorists, insurgents, or whatever. All the while, unquestioned moderate religious beliefs are the backdrop that gives plausibility and prestige to radical views disclaimed by moderates. (In Hearts and Minds and Akhand Bharat and Ghazwa-e-hind I called this the principle of facilitating moderation.) The Sunni/Shia split is embedded in the moderate representatives of Islam, and cannot be disentangled from regional diplomacy without falsifying events on the ground.
The illusion of a secular conflict in MENA, in so far as this illusion is perpetuated, will turn diplomacy into a sideshow unrelated to the reality on the ground, and ineffectual for that reason. The most recent message from Al-Khalifah Ibrahim, Ameer Al-Mu’mineen, Al-Sheikh Al-Mujaahid Abu Bakr Al-Husayni Al-Qurashi Al-Baghdadi, “March Forth Whether Light or Heavy,” takes pains to disavow any secular interpretation of the actions of ISIS:
O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (peace be upon him) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation. He was ordered with war until Allah is worshiped alone. He (peace be upon him) said to the polytheists of his people, “I came to you with slaughter.” He fought both the Arabs and non-Arabs in all their various colors. He himself left to fight and took part in dozens of battles. He never for a day grew tired of war.
In the public discourse of the US, the recent nuclear agreement with Iran was primarily about delaying the eventual Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons in order to ameliorate the perception of an existential threat to Israel. Here in the west we have our own problems with mainstream religious moderates making excuses for religious extremists, who use their extremist credentials to establish their bona fides with the Christian masses. Thus the Israeli-Iran conflict plays well in the US press, and is uncontroversial because all political parties in the US support Israel. But the recent U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David (cf. More than Keeping Up the Facade: The U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David by Anthony H. Cordesman) reveals that there is much more going on in the deal with Iran than is part of the public discourse of ensuring Israeli security.
The US has long-standing security relationships with Sunni Arab states, and especially with Saudi Arabia (which spends six times more on its military than does Iran). The Gulf Sunni Arab states are worried that a US-Iranian rapprochement will mean that long-frozen Iranian assets will be made available to Iran, and, with the reintegration of Iran in the global financial community, Iran will have even more money to back its regional proxies, which have long been Iran’s most effective foreign policy tool. This is a legitimate concern on the part of the Gulf Arab states (Saudi Arabia itself knows all too well the soft power it buys with the money is spreads around; Iran does the same thing with far less money, but with hard power assets thrown into the deal), but this is not a concern that plays well in the US press, and no Saudi prince is going to receive an invitation to address a joint session of Congress, especially over White House objections. Moreover, there is an ideological overlap between the Salafist extremism actively supported by Saudi Arabia and the extremism of ISIS (an overlap that goes beyond their common Sunni beliefs), and, if this were to be widely discussed in the US press, Iran would look good by comparison.
The nuclear deal with Iran is as relevant, if not more relevant, to Saudi Arabia than it is to Israel. It is widely understood that Saudi Arabia partially funded Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program with the understanding that, if Saudi Arabia wants nuclear weapons, then they will be made available. Thus Saudi Arabia has access to nuclear weapons without having to host the industrial infrastructure of the nuclear fuel cycle on its own soil — a triumph of plausible deniability. The Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, while primarily about regime survivability, must also be seen in the light of Saudi Arabia’s deniable nuclear capability (which can be understood as an instance of nuclear ambiguity).
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