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Yemen’s Great Divide

The number of dead is so high that the International Committee of the Red Cross has taken the unprecedented step of donating entire morgue units to Yemeni hospitals
By The News · 22 of December 2016 10:39:57
Tribesmen attend a gathering held to show support to the new government formed by Yemen's armed Houthi movement and its political allies, in Sanaa, Yemen, Tribesmen attend a gathering held to show support to the new government formed by Yemen's armed Houthi movement and its political allies, in Sanaa, Yemen December 6, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah, photo: Reuters/Khaled Abdullah

Ceasefires and truces be damned, the fighting in Yemen just keeps on going.
In October, the United Nations put the death toll from the country’s 22-month civil war at more than 10,000, a staggering figure for a country of just 24 million.

In fact, the number of dead is so high that the International Committee of the Red Cross has taken the unprecedented step of donating entire morgue units to Yemeni hospitals.

And neither the minority Houthis (backed by Tehran) nor the majority Sunnis (backed by Riyadh) seem willing to budge in what has become one of the bloodiest armed standoffs in the region.

As things stand now, the only viable solution for the 530,000-square-kilometer country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula may end up to be a de facto political division into two separate states.

At the root of the fighting are ethnic rifts that go back centuries and which have been exploited by Saudi Arabia and Iran to wage a proxy war in their military face-off to gain control of a pan-Islamic Middle Eastern alliance molded in the likeness of their own individual perception of Mohammedanism.

The Houthis, or Zaydis, as they prefer to call themselves, are adherents of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam and account for about 45 percent of Yemen’s population.

They are primarily concentrated in the country’s northern highlands.

The Sunni Shafi’i, who represent most of the remaining Yemeni population, are mostly centered in the southeast and along the southern coast.

Despite their minority status, the Houthi sect ruled Yemen for more than 1,000 years, up until 1962, when a military coup overthrew their state.

The ensuing political instability 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 kowtowing to 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.

But 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 they started to organize.

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

Fast-forward 21 months, and the entire country has become an open firing range for just about every foreign power in the region, with Saudi Arabia using the northern segment for shooting practice for its air force, and the Iranians defiantly dumping tanks and rifles on the ragtag Houthi militias.

Saudi-backed Yemeni Prime Minister Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi has repeatedly rejected a United Nations road map for a political peace process and the Zaydi rebels obstinately refuse to put down their weapons.

Earlier this year, the Houthi militia fired a Scud missile at Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca, courting the ire of the entire international Sunni community and escalating tensions even further.

Currently, the Hadi government has a fragmented authority over the south of Yemen, while the rebels brutally govern in the north.

Both sides refuse to recognize the other, and neither is willing to make any concessions toward a compromise government.

Consequently, Yemen’s existence as a unified state is increasingly endangered.

If a middle-ground solution is to be reached, Hadi will have to step down and accept an interim government that will be more inclusive of the Zaydi minority, while the Houthis will need to surrender their arms and adopt a political, rather than militaristic, stance for seeking an address to their grievances.

It in only in the context of a sustainable peace that a stable, unified Yemeni state can be reestablished.

Unfortunately, there is far too much distrust on both sides to make a compromise solution likely any time in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, the Yemeni people — particularly the country’s children — are paying the price for the Shafi’i-Zaydi impasse, and the Yemeni stalemate is bringing the nation ever-closer to a territorial divide.

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