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The Forgotten Middle East War

For the last year and a half, the richest country in the Arab world has been bombing the poorest country in the region into near-oblivion
By The News · 14 of September 2016 08:12:24
People stand on the rubble of a school destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in an outskirt of the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen, People stand on the rubble of a school destroyed by a Saudi-led air strike in an outskirt of the northwestern city of Saada, Yemen September 14, 2016. REUTERS/Naif Rahma, photo: Reuters/Naif Rahma

A year ago, the civil war in Yemen was front and center in most international newspapers and electronic media.

Today, it is all but forgotten.

Except by the Yemeni people, of course, and by archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are still using the 530,000 square-kilometer country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula as a pawn for their centuries-old feud between Shi’ite and Sunni Islam.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia conducted airstrikes on Yemen, killing at least 19 people — mostly children — in a northern residential area and schoolyard.

A few days prior, in the Haydan District, another northern area, Saudi airstrikes hit another school, killing 10 students and wounding 28 others.

For the last year and a half, the richest country in the Arab world has been bombing the poorest country in the region into near-oblivion.

And the world says nothing.

At the root of the conflict are ethnic divides between Yemen’s minority Houthis (backed by Tehran) and the country’s majority Sunnis (backed by Riyadh).

The Houthis, or Zaydis, as they prefer to call themselves, are adherents of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.

Their sect ruled Yemen for more than 1,000 years, up until 1962, when a military coup overthrew their state.

The political instability that ensued proved to be a dangerous magnet for foreign intervention, first by Egypt and later by Saudi Arabia, which helped put in place the despicable and authoritarian regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the country up until 2012 and who was famous for playing kissy-face with the likes of Saddam Hussein and other regional despots.

Saudi Arabia used its influence with Saleh to promote its Sunni domination agenda for the Gulf region, and despite having Houthi ethnic ties, Saleh — knowing full well which side of his bread was buttered — made a point of persecuting Yemen’s Zaydi minority.

Moreover, after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Yemen became a haven for former Baathists, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia.

When Saleh’s grasp of power began to fray in 2011, the Houthis saw their chance to finally get a say in their own destiny and started to organize.

What started out as a peaceful political movement soon turned into a full-fledged civil war, and both Iran and Saudi Arabia took the opportunity of political instability to turn Yemen’s homegrown ethnic struggle into a proxy battlefield for their own mutual abhorrence.

From the get-go, Saudi Arabia has been portraying Iran as a hegemonic meddler, trying to stir the flames of ethnic hatred in Yemen by backing the Houthi rebels in a war that could at any moment overflow into a major regional conflict.

But while there is no denying that Tehran has been supplying weapons and other military support to the disgruntled Houthis, blaming Iran for the escalating tensions is both overly simplistic and inaccurate.

Saudi Arabia is demonizing Iran’s support of the Houthis to justify its own expansionist ambitions.

And for the most part, the Western press has endorsed the Saudi’s distorted perception of what is happening in Yemen.

Furthermore, while Riyadh may be spearheading the assaults on Yemen, it is supported by a coalition of nine other nations and it receives logistical support from both the United States and Great Britain (which may be one of the reasons that so little media coverage is devoted to the conflict).

For the last 50-plus years, the Houthi minority in Yemen has been marginalized and discriminated against by brutal Sunni authoritarian governments that have adamantly refused to allow any semblance of power-sharing with their Zaydi brethren.

Saudi Arabia saw its chance to cash in on the ousting of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi by “coming to the rescue” to fight off the evil Iranian-backed Houthis, in hopes of finally claiming the title of King of the Hill in the Persian Gulf.

Certainly, Tehran was quick to pick up the gauntlet that Riyadh threw down, but it is important to remember that it is Saudi Arabia that has always been the key outside aggressor in Yemen.

Also, by attacking the Houthis, Saudi Arabia is further provoking regional destabilization and is debilitating one of the few groups in the Arabian Peninsula that has successfully abated al-Qaeda and other extremist organizations.

More than three months after the lackadaisical UN-brokered peace talks collapsed in a stalemate on Aug. 6, Saudi airstrikes, which had paused for five months, resumed almost immediately.

And the civilian death count — already at 6,000 in a country of just 25 million, with three million displaced persons — began to rise again.

A recent United Nations report showed that the Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for over 60 percent of the children killed in the conflict.

The Houthis represent a full 40 percent of Yemen’s population and any chance of peace for that country must include a real and practical power-sharing scheme.

Unless a compromise agreement can be reached that includes a firm Houthi voice in decision-making — in other words, an inclusive society — Yemen will continue to be scorched by foreign military intervention.

And, sadly, its gory conflict will most likely continue to be relegated to the back pages of most international newspapers.

Thérèse Margolis can be reached at therese.margolis@gmail.com.