The Sunni Arab countries that started bombing Yemen on Wednesday night seem to think they are fighting an Iranian-backed plot to expand Shia power and influence in the Arab world. Most other countries find that hard to believe, but even if the Sunni countries are right, wars often have unintended consequences. This military intervention is likely to have results that Saudi Arabia and its friends don’t like one bit.
They’ve all shown up for this war. Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies of the Arab world (Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and even Morocco) have all committed aircraft to bombing Yemen. Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Pakistan have offered to send ground troops. And the United States (which just pulled the last American troops out of Yemen) promises to provide “logistical and intelligence support.”
In practice, however, this coalition of Sunni Arabs and Americans is unlikely to commit large numbers of ground troops to Yemen: the country has been the graveyard of foreign armies from the Romans to the Ottomans. But if they don’t do that, the (entirely unintended) result of their bombing may be to facilitate the take-over of most of Yemen by al-Qaeda and/or ISIS.
Sunni paranoia about the rise of Shia power has its roots in the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. So long as the Sunni minority ruled Iraq, it limited the influence of Iran, the paramount Shia power, in the Arab world. With the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the destruction of Sunni supremacy in Iraq, Iran’s power automatically soared – and so did its influence in Shia parts of the Arab world.
Iran didn’t have to do anything particularly aggressive for paranoia to take off in the Sunni countries of the Gulf. Of the 140 million citizens of countries that border on the Persian/Arabian Gulf, about two-thirds are Shias. With a Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Sunni Arab monarchies felt terribly exposed and began to see Shia plots everywhere.
They see such a plot now in Yemen. The Houthi militia, drawn from the warlike Shia tribes of northern Yemen, have taken control of all the country’s big cities and most of its thickly populated agricultural heartland in less than one year. This is not actually all that rare an event in Yemeni history, and it never required help from Iran before, but now the hand of Iran is suspected everywhere.
That’s why Sunni countries from all over the Arab world piled in so readily. They really believe they are fighting the Iranian bogeyman, although there is almost no evidence of direct Iranian support for the Houthis. (Nor is it easy to think of any strategic reason why Iran would be interested in Yemen.)
The historical pattern is that these periodic conquests of the country by the northern tribes usually recede again after a while, because Shias are only a third of the population and the northern tribes who provide the manpower for the Houthi milita are only a fraction of the Shias. But this time nobody is willing to wait for the local Sunni backlash in Houthi-occupied parts of Yemen to push the northerners out.
The “coalition” is now bombing the Houthis all over the country. How intensively and how accurately remains to be seen, but if they really succeed in breaking the Houthi grip on central and southern Yemen, they will create a power vacuum that will NOT be filled by the “legitimate” president of Yemen, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whom they are allegedly trying to restore to power.
Hadi’s forces have utterly disintegrated, and Houthi fighters now occupy the temporary capital that he established in his home city, Aden. (The real capital, Sanaa, has been in Houthi hands since September.) Hadi left Aden by boat on Tuesday, which suggests that he has left the country entirely – unless he plans to create another provisional capital on, say, the island of Socotra.
So if the coalition bombs the Houthis out of Aden, but does not commit ground troops of its own, the real winners will be the al-Qaeda forces that wait just outside the city. Much the same goes for Taiz, the third city, and even for Sanaa itself: it is al-Qaeda or ISIS jihadis who stand to profit most from a Houthi retreat.
The only other force in Yemen that could offer any opposition to the jihadis is the fighters who have rallied to the support of exiled ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh since he returned to the country. But Saleh is allied to the Houthis and he is a Shia himself, so it’s hard to see the coalition switching its support from Hadi to him.
Yet it’s also hard to see the coalition committing a big army to Yemen. Everybody who has done that has regretted it. So while Sunni planes bomb Shia fighters, the jihadis may step in and sweep the board. An unintended outcome, of course, but not an unforeseeable one.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.