The Port of Aden
The war in Yemen is like the drought in the Sahel or the carnage in the streets of south Chicago: an ongoing unpleasantness of which we are but vaguely aware, a regrettable but irrelevant fact of life. It is nevertheless remarkable that the capture of Aden by southern Yemeni separatists on August 10 has received scant media attention in the U.S.: the turmoil on the northern side of Bab el-Mandeb, a key maritime choke point, may profoundly affect the geopolitical balance if the Iranian crisis escalates to the point where the Strait of Hormuz becomes unsafe for navigation.
The details are confusing, and a brief summary of the Hobbesian riddle at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula is in order.
Yemen, the poorest Arab country, lies on the northern side of Bab el-Mandeb, right across from the Horn of Africa. With Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east, its land borders are buffered by the Empty Quarter, a vast, uninhabited desert. On the African side of the straits, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia are linked to Yemen by trade, religion and culture. Devoid of oil or minerals, poor in water resources and arable land, the country’s most significant asset is geographic: it overlooks one of the world’s most important shipping routes.
The 2011 Yemeni protests resembled the early stages of the “Arab spring” elsewhere. They coincided with the Egyptian Revolution and other mass protests in the Arab world in early 2011. The ensuing Yemeni “national dialogue” collapsed in 2014, however. Thousands of Houthi fighters entered the capital Sanaa and took control of many parts of the populous northern Yemen. The Saudi-backed government of Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi–“internationally recognized” but essentially illegitimate–ran south to Aden. In March 2015 Saudi Arabia responded by creating a coalition of Arab states to combat Houthi rebels.
The Houthi movement, officially called Ansar Allah (“Supporters of God”), is a religious and political armed front composed almost exclusively of Zaidis. Members of the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam account for just over a half of Yemen’s 28 million people. They feel–with reason–that the Sunni-controlled government had marginalized them ever since the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in 1962. Their key demand is the creation of an autonomous entity with a Zaidi majority. Unsurprisingly, they see Iran as their natural ally–but Iranian support has been limited due to logistic difficulties. Their main supply problem is that the Houthi-controlled Port of Hodeida is exposed to land attack and hostile interception from sea.
The Saudi intervention nevertheless has been a humiliating military fiasco, Riyad’s “Operation Decisive Storm” a tragic misnomer. Up to 3,000 Saudi soldiers have been killed thus far and another 20,000 wounded, despite their notable attempts to avoid fighting on the ground. The war has settled into a quagmire at an enormous cost for the Yemeni people. It is characterized by the gross ineptitude of Saudi pilots — they fly expensive U.S.-made machines, yet seem unable to hit any but civilian targets–and by the operational uselessness of its ground forces. The Houthis, by contrast, have developed into a determined, battle-hardened force.
Seeing the inability of the Saudis to end the war which has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in today’s world, the leaders of Riyad’s closest ally, United Arab Emirates, have started hedging their bets. They still support an array of Sunni militias loyal to Hadi (some of which still pretend to be “the Yemeni army”), but at the same time they support the southern Yemeni separatists who have turned against Hadi’s Saudi-controlled regime, and who now control Aden.
The separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) is also composed of Sunni Muslims who detest Houthis. They have broken with Hadi because they want to regain independence which SouthYemen had enjoyed until 1990. Their leaders are adamant that unified Yemen is dead, and it is hard to see who can dislodge them from Aden. We do know who cannot do any such thing: Hadi’s “unionists” and their Saudi mentors are provenly unable to break the Houthi resistance in the north, let alone to fight a two-front war.
On the political front the Saudis have emphasized the sectarian nature of the war–Wahhabi Sunnis vs. Shiite infidels–which has made its peaceful resolution well nigh impossible. The main culprit is Saudi crown prince Mohamad bin Salman (MbS). According to Bruce Riedel of Brookings,“he is rightly associated with the reckless decision to intervene, the failed planning process, mismanagement of the coalition and the starvation of millions of innocents.”
Nominally still allied to Riyad but eminently pragmatic and distrustful of MbS, the Emirates want to have a stake in Aden. Almost all of the trade between Europe and China, Japan, and the rest of Asia passes through the Bab el-Mandeb. Its closure could prevent Gulf tankers and container ships laden with Chinese goods from reaching the Suez Canal. Diverting them around the southern tip of Africa would greatly increase transit time and cost. Furthermore, North African southbound oil flows would need to take the same long route in reverse.
The Emiratis withdrew most of their own military contingent from Aden over the past six weeks, thus enabling the STC to attack the hapless “unionist” forces. Hadi’s regime is now terminally discredited. Having lost Aden, it is left without any semblance of functioning government. The Saudi-Emirati alliance is also finished, although both sides will pretend otherwise.
The United States and the rest of the world–especially those countries potentially most affected by the closure of Bab el-Mandeb–would be well advised to accept the new reality and seek accommodation with southern Yemeni separatists. The country’s breakup is both imminent and natural. It should be accepted and managed, just as Sudan’s breakup across the Red Sea could not be avoided and was successfully managed in the end. The Saudis, and Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman personally, will suffer yet another loss of face and credibility, which is a very good thing for the region and for the world. America in particular has no reason to support any outcome in Yemen but the one which promises regional stability and uninterrupted trade flows. Whose flag flies over the Aden State House is immaterial.
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