"Even by the standards of the Middle East, its irrationality, the wanton destruction, the constant, intensifying imperialist machinations and wars, then the Saudi-led attack on Yemen earlier this week reaches new levels of surrealist absurdity: the Saudis are leading a Sunni Muslim coalition of ten nations including non-Arab, nuclear-armed Pakistan in an attack on Yemen. Local gangsters like the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar are involved but also the Egyptian dictator al-Sisi and the genocidal clique of Sudan’s al-Bashir. All these despots are backed by the USA and Britain, which has offered the coalition ‘logistical and intelligence’ support". This is what we wrote in April 2015 in an article called 'Militarism and decomposition in the Middle East' just after the launch of what the Saudis optimistically called "Operation Decisive Storm". The war in Yemen has since become much worse, much more dangerous and, after Syria, possibly pivotal for imperialist developments in the Middle East, not least the stakes in the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, their respective "allies" and the major powers.
In one of the poorest countries in the world, with a population of some 23 million, the Saudi "coalition" (which Pakistan has quietly ducked out of) has poured US and British-made bombs into what is essentially a confrontation with Iran for regional power. A glance at the map of the Middle East shows the general geostrategic importance of Yemen and the factor that it now plays in local and global rivalries. Ten thousand have been killed by the shelling and air-strikes during which hospitals, schools, residential areas and mosques have been hit. Three million homes have been destroyed and ancient buildings reduced to dust, in what the Romans called "Blessed Arabia". In addition to the bombing the Saudis have imposed a blockade on both emergency aid and commercial imports, which the Red Cross has called a "medieval siege", causing tens of thousands more deaths. Fourteen million people have no access to sanitation and clean water, and cholera cases have reached a million. The spread of famine and malnutrition is also accompanied by the spread of the easily-preventable ancient disease of diphtheria as well as increases in Dengue fever and malaria. In thirty long months since its declaration of war the Saudi coalition, with the assistance of the US and Britain, has pummelled the life out of an ever-greater number of civilians, reducing them to living like animals and surely feeding the next wave of refugees fleeing from this hell across the Arab Peninsula or via the African route towards Europe.
Iran increases its spread and influence in Yemen and beyond
What the Saudis and their backers are most fearful of, and what, in the "logic" of imperialism they have contributed to bringing about, is an increase of Iranian influence, not only in Yemen, but via a "pincer" movement around Saudi territory through the land connection between Iran-Syria-Iraq-Lebanon, along the Turkish border and the Gulf of Aden into Yemen and, ominously, building up its interests and forces in Africai. Iranian regional influence has never been more widespread and powerful than it is today, and this is despite the recent US attempts to thwart it at every turn. Iran now effectively controls a land corridor that runs from Tehran to Tartus in Syria on the Mediterranean coast "giving it access to a sea-port a long way to its west, and far from the heavily patrolled waters of the Persian Gulf" (Guardian, 8.10.16). The more the US has weakened and is weakening in the Middle East the more Iran has strengthened. The position of Russia has also strengthened on the back of it, but Iran is no simple pawn of Russiaii.
The Yemeni Houti forces currently fighting the Saudi-backed militias in Yemen took over and dominated the wave of anti-government and anti-corruption demonstrations that emerged in Yemen as part of the "Arab Spring" of 2011. It started as an obscure revivalist Shia movement in the 1990s called "Believing Youth", was radicalised by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has wider support among many Sunnis showing that, though the irrationality of religion plays a role, this is no simple Sunni/Shia division (there's been no serious history of ethnic or religious divides in Yemen except what the major powers, including Britain, have stirred up). The Iranians call it the "Ansarullah" movement and despite its links with Iran its history is again not one of a simple pawn. By late 2014 large parts of the country were taken by the Houtis and as the war has gone on so the Houti-Iranian-Hezbollah links, forged in the conflict, have strengthened. In December, when the Yemeni leader and warlord Saleh turned away from the Iran/Houtis and towards Saudi, he was killed with a ruthlessness that was reminiscent of the CIA assassinations of the 60s, which is something Hezbollah is also familiar with.
There are recent reports of Iran sending advanced weapons and military advisers to the Houtis, including its battle-hardened Afghan mercenaries (New York Times, 18.9.17). These are probably overestimated by the west but the Iranians think in the long-term as they did with their build-up of Hezbollah, which has now become Iran's arrowhead against Israel and part of its general strengthening and build-up throughout the Middle East. The ballistic missiles aimed at Saudi targets do suggest a Hezbollah involvement. These are perfect weapons for the Houtis aimed at high value Saudi targets and only one has to get through eventually; in the meantime they sow terror and uncertainty among the Saudis in the same way as the Nazi V2's did for London. At any rate, the Houti leader, Abdul Malik Badreddine al Houti, addressing Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrullah in the summer, said: "Your bet on the Yemenis is proper" and he went on to talk about joint forces against Israel bringing in the Palestinian questioniii. These moves will only be bolstered by the foreign policy of Trump and his Saudi-Israeli embrace.
It's worth stepping back a bit to see how things have changed regarding the Middle Eastern imperialist snake-pit: just a short while ago US and Iranian forces were acting together in Iraq at high military levels up to and including coordinated and joint military actions against Isis, but it was clear to everyone that once the latter was defeated new tensions would break out. Again, even in Yemen, US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) preferred to work with the Houtis in the fight against al-Qaida in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and Isis; and US generals said Saudi action in Yemen was "a bad idea" (al-Jazeera, 15.4.17) given the involvement of the Saudi-supported Yemeni secret service (PSO) being deeply connected to the terrorists. While Washington showered the Yemeni government with political and financial support, former president Saleh, an ally of the Saudis, was manipulating the terrorists’ activity in order to get Washington's supportiv courtesy of the "War on Terror".
Washington finds it difficult to cope with the quagmire of the Middle East and its attempts to do so can only make the situation worse
Trump's National Security Adviser, H. R. McMaster, said in October: "What is most important for all nations is to confront the scourge of Hezbollah, the Iranians and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards)" (Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, 9.12.17). How the Americans plan to do this without further inflaming and destabilising the Middle East is anyone's guess. The US de-certification of the Iranian nuclear deal has, amongst other things, caused a serious rift with Europe (and won't encourage the North Koreans "to come to the table"), in particular the three major countries active in the region - France, Britain and Germany. Trump's incendiary recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel - a totally stupid and unnecessary move which will mainly please his evangelical base - can only rebound on US imperialist interests. It will fan the flames of Palestinian/Arab nationalism and, despite the theatrics of the UN, particularly from Turkey's Erdogan, arouse more global protests against the US from both Shia and Sunni wings of Islam. It also gives the jihadis of Isis and al-Nusra a life-line (one of Bin Laden's strongest recruiting drives was the oppression of the Palestinians) and makes it harder for Saudi Arabia and its allies to work with Israel and the US, while furthering the interests of Tehran.
The situation of the Saudi regime is more fragile, from its embrace of Trump which was followed by a major falling out with Qatar, gangster-like purges of its enemies, including those hostile to Trump, and bizarre summonses of Lebanon's President Hariri and Palestinian leader Abbas to Riyadh. The Saudi prince, the effective ruler of the country said in April last, that he "wanted out" of the war in Yemen and had no objections to the American interceding with Iran to this endv. Whatever his wishes, or those of any individuals involved, imperialism, decomposition and irrationality are the driving forces behind the Yemeni disaster and, with Iran, these forces are only going to strengthen.
i Iran has established a growing interest in Nigeria, Cameroon and Sudan, amongst others. See https://weekly.ahram.org.eg/News/19900.aspx. The Saudis have responded with a plan from crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to set up an Islamic military coalition providing logistical, intelligence and training to a revamped G5 Sahel "counter-terrorism" force after discussions with France in mid-December (Reuters, 14.12.17).