From the beginning of 1904, under Yemen’s gentle winter sun, the largest army ever seen on its soil slowly flowered. Five brigades—26,000 men in all, trained in modern European tactics, armed with modern rifles and artillery, and supported by a baggage-train of 800 animals and 2,000 porters—had been assembled under the command of Mehmet Reza Pasha, with a simple mission: to stamp out the ill-armed and untrained Zaydi rebels who had challenged the might of emperor Sultan Ahmed II.
Then, in a single afternoon that February, the desert devoured this colossal force. Ambushed near the Yazil ridge, the Ottoman brigades were annihilated. Within a year, the 110,000 Turkish troops sucked into Yemen had suffered 25,000 casualties. The empire disintegrated in the First World War; the Zaydis remained.
Earlier this week, as Houthi rebels launched missiles and drones at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Generals in the two countries likely recalled that disastrous campaign. The American-made THAAD interceptor system shot down the incoming missiles, but the Houthis have shown they can give their enemies a bloody nose—more than once. Houthi missiles now threaten oil infrastructure as well as shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, a threat to the world economy.
In 2015, when Saudi Arabia went to war in Yemen, its leaders thought it would take six weeks to sort out the mess. Like the Turks before them, they were seduced by the appearance of their own power. Thousands of bombs, and tens of thousands of civilian deaths, have instead made the problem all but impossible to solve.
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The birth of Houthi insurgency
For the best part of a thousand years, the Houthi clan—followers of the Shi’a Zaydi sect—ruled northern Yemen, their Imamate ebbing and expanding in response to pressures from regional and imperial powers. Like so many religious ideologies, the Zaydi faith helped consolidate a political identity, too, holding together northern Yemen’s tribal alliances in the face of predation by powerful outside forces.
In 1962, the Imamate was overthrown by a new generation of military officers with a modern education. Long years of civil war led to the formation of the Yemen Arab Republic. The birth of this new nation coincided with the culmination of a successful insurgency against British imperial rule in the south, and the formation of the socialist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The two new states’ relationship ranged from peace to outright war—each relying on regional sponsors, as well patronage from the rival Cold War superpowers.
From the 1980s, meanwhile, Saudi Arabia began seeking to expand its religious influence in north Yemen, leveraging its relationship with long-ruling military strongman Ali Abdullah Saleh to send in state-backed preachers and proselytisers. This caused a backlash among the Zaydis. Inspired by Iran, the main Houthi armed group, Ansar Allah, began fighting for a Zaydi theocratic state.
Even though the two Yemeni states merged in 1990, the peace proved short-lived. In 2004, the Zaydi cleric Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi began an uprising against the Saleh-led government, fighting six rounds of war until 2010. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, grew dramatically in the south.
In 2011, when the so-called Arab Spring erupted across West Asia, massive protests forced Saleh out of power. The Gulf Cooperation Council brokered a deal, installing Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi as president. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not last.
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State(s) of perpetual anarchy
Faced with chaos on its southern border, Saudi Arabia stepped in, hoping to deliver a sharp blow that would bring the Houthis to the table. Its first wave of airstrikes were intended to push the Houthis out of Sana’a, which they had taken by allying with long-standing enemy Saleh. Instead of healing a fractured Yemen, though, the intervention has ended up creating more than half a dozen more warring fiefdoms.
The Houthis have consolidated their power in the north, modelling their quasi-state on the theocracy in Iran. Their insurgency, using small, highly mobile forces to render Saudi conventional superiority irrelevant, is focussed not on victory, but denying it to the kingdom. Iran, meanwhile, is supplying the Houthis with military equipment, including components for drones and medium-range missiles—part of its geopolitical competition with the Saudi kingdom.
Along the Houthi frontlines in Hudaydah, near the Red Sea, Tariq Saleh—nephew to the former president, who was eventually assassinated by his Houthi enemies-turned-friends-turned enemies—runs a mini-state of his own.
Around the city of Taiz, the Houthis are competing with power with the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Islah. The UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council holds the southern port city of Aden, as well as the island of Socotra; Lajh, north of Aden, has seen power seized by the neo-fundamentalists Giants Brigades, again with the backing of the UAE.
Hadramawt province is split between the UAE-backed Hadrami Elite Forces, who control the coast and Islah. Al-Mahra, on Yemen’s eastern border, is witnessing Oman and Saudi Arabia jockeying for power with local tribes, while former President Hadi’s units hold the gas fields of Marib and Shabwa.
And that’s not counting multiple groups of fighters from al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, who control a patchwork of territories—each of them potentially a base for strikes of regional, even global significance.
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A problem without solutions
Iran and Saudi Arabia are now talking—but it might be too late to put the war-making djinn back in the bottle. Tehran and Riyadh are both reluctant to back away from their proxies, believing it might cede ground in a larger geopolitical struggle where the existence of both regimes is at stake. Ethnic and religious power-brokers inside Yemen, moreover, depend on violence to secure both resources and influence.
There is, sadly, a long list of similar crises confronting the world: Afghanistan, Mozambique, Nigeria, Syria, Libya, Myanmar and even Mexico have states that have collapsed. The international system of states is broken: neither the resources nor the will to address these crises—this despite the risk one might give birth to the next 9/11. Going to war when crises boil over, Yemen shows, doesn’t fix them; it often makes things worse.
Bato, who led the long Dalmatian revolt against Rome, told his imperial captors: “You Romans are to blame for this; for you send as guardians of your flock not dogs or shepherds but wolves”. The world’s great power, then as now, should have listened—but probably won’t.
The author tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)