Yemen is a proxy war between the Iran-supported Shi’a Muslims and the Saudi-led Sunnis

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Published in The News Hub 27th March 2015

There is little doubt that the insurgent movement in Yemen is backed by Iran in its continuing power struggle with Saudi Arabia, but the influence of these two regional powers has been widespread and significant for some time, with disastrous consequences.

On the one side of this power struggle is Iran along with her close strategic partner, Syria. Islam is the religion of 98% of Iranians and 89% of Iranians are Shi’a. Syria however is mostly Sunni, but Bashar al-Assad, like his entire family and the ruling military elite of Syria, is an Alawite. Alawites are a prominent minority religious group who describe themselves as a sect of Shi’a Islam.

Iran sees the survival of the Syrian government as being crucial to its regional interests. In the civil uprising phase of the Syrian civil war, Iran was said to be providing Syria with technical support based on Iran’s capabilities developed following the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters backed by Tehran have taken direct combat roles since 2012. In the summer of 2013, Iran and Hezbollah provided important battlefield support for Assad, allowing it to make advances on the opposition. By December 2013, Iran was thought to have approximately 10,000 operatives in Syria.

Iran also backed the former Iraqi Prime Minister, Al-Maliki, who began his political career as a Shi’a dissident under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He spent 24 years in exile in Syria and Iran, building relationships, before returning to Iraq to take up office following the 2003 invasion and is largely blamed for ostracising the Sunnis in northern Iraq, which acted as a catalyst for the spread of Islamic State (ISIS) throughout northern Iraq and much of the northern and eastern parts of Syria.

On the other side of this regional axis of power is Saudi Arabia. In the 18th century, a pact between Islamic preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab and a regional emir, Muhammad bin Saud, brought a fiercely puritanical strain of Sunni Islam first to the Najd region and then to the Arabian Peninsula. Most of the 15 to 20 million Saudi citizens today are Sunni Muslims.

The Saudis have many allies in the region, all dominated by Sunni Islam. It’s the dominant religion in Egypt with around 80 million Muslims, comprising 94.7% of the population. Almost the entirety of Egypt’s Muslims are Sunnis. The recent air strikes in Yemen were led by the Saudis, but Egypt, Sudan and Jordan confirmed they were supporting the operation and were discussing sending air, navy and ground forces to support their Saudi allies and financial backers. Al-Arabiya television station, which is close to the Saudi authorities, said that besides the internationally recognised Yemeni government loyal to Mr Hadi, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain had also joined the coalition and sent planes.

Of course, Yemen isn’t the only country in The Middle East being torn apart by sectarian violence. The Muslim population of Iraq is approximately 60-70 percent Arab Shi’a, 20-30 percent Arab Sunni and 10 percent Kurdish. Syrian population is 74% Sunnis and 13% Shi’a.

The Iraqi insurgency, which followed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq later joined other Sunni insurgent groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council, which in October 2006 proclaimed the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). Under the leadership of al-Baghdadi, ISI sent delegates into Syria in August 2011 after the Syrian Civil War had begun. This group named itself al-Nusra Front and established a large presence in Sunni-majority areas of Syria. In April 2013, al-Baghdadi announced the merger of his ISI with al-Nusra Front, and announced the name of the reunited group was now Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In June 2014, the group renamed itself ‘Islamic State’ or ISIS.

All this happened partly as a result of what was happening in Baghdad and Damascus – the influence of Iran and Syria and the ruling Shi’a governments, but the Saudis played their part too by supporting the anti-Shia jihad in Iraq and Syria. Sir Richard Dearlove, who headed MI6 from 1999 to 2004, doesn’t doubt that substantial and sustained funding from private donors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to which the authorities may have turned a blind eye, played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.

Dearlove, drawing on past experience, sees Saudi strategic thinking as being shaped by two deep-seated beliefs or attitudes. First, they are convinced that there “can be no legitimate or admissible challenge to the Islamic purity of their Wahhabi credentials as guardians of Islam’s holiest shrines”. But, perhaps more significantly given the deepening Sunni-Shia confrontation, the Saudi belief that they possess a monopoly of Islamic truth leads them to be “deeply attracted towards any militancy which can effectively challenge Shia-dom”.

The former head of MI6’s view that Saudi Arabia was involved in the ISIS-led Sunni rebellion attracted surprisingly little attention when it was expressed in July 2014. Western governments traditionally play down the connection, but consider the fact that 15 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, as was Bin Laden and most of the private donors who funded the operation.

Saudi sympathy for anti-Shia “militancy” was identified in leaked US official documents too. The then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wrote in December 2009 in a cable released by Wikileaks that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups.”

There are numerous other examples of Saudi military aggression or the financing of such. In March 2011, around 1,500 Saudi troops were sent across the causeway to the island kingdom of Bahrain, another Sunni ruling monarchy to the east of Saudi Arabia, to quash peaceful demonstrations from the majority Shi’a population, which they did with great brutality. Shi’a mosques and shrines were destroyed in the process.

So what about the Yemenis? They themselves are around 50-55% primarily Shafi’i and other orders of Sunni Islam and 40-45% Zaidi order of Shi’a Islam. The Zaidis of the northern highlands dominated politics and cultural life in northern Yemen for centuries. With unification and the addition of the south’s almost totally Shafi’i population, the numerical balance shifted dramatically away from the Zaidis. But the Houthis, the Zaidi Shi’a group sponsored by Iran, are winning back control of power and the Saudis and their allies don’t like it.

It’s hard not to imagine, given what has happened elsewhere, that Yemen will be yet another casualty of these two regional superpowers as they scrap it out with each other by inflicting death and destruction everywhere they turn.