Why is Yemen burning? – The News International

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The Middle East is on the boil all over again. Perhaps for the first time in its eventful history, the region is battling the effects of four major wars all at the same time. After Iraq, Syria and Libya, it seems it is now Yemen’s turn to unravel. Besides, there are other low-intensity conflicts in Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, Sudan and Lebanon that in one way or the other are linked to the general pattern of strife plaguing the Muslim world. Not far from the neighbourhood and increasingly seen as part of the ‘greater Middle East’ is the long simmering Af-Pak conflict.

Look at it anyway, the Islamic world is in great turmoil. How did it end up here? And who stands to gain if more and more Muslim countries are drawn into this conflict?

Of course, Yemen has been in free fall for quite some time, much like the rest of the region, thanks to the petty games of world powers and the hubris and selfishness of leaders like Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Even after enjoying 33 years of absolute, unquestioned power, Saleh was loath to leave in the face of popular uprising. He had to be cajoled and virtually dragged – screaming, kicking and bawling – out of power following a national reconciliation accord facilitated by the GCC and UN. There was so much euphoria and hope of a new dawn in the country.

However, out of power and out of the country, Saleh has proved more disastrous for Yemen than he had been in power, perpetually plotting against his former deputy and elected successor. In his desperation to return to power, he has had no qualms in joining hands with the Houthi rebels, who fought long and hard against his rule for years.

So what if Yemen, the fabled land of Queen of Sheba, is destroyed in the process? The aging potentate and his progeny must continue to rule till kingdom come, even if they have to kill their subjects. The lust for power, like bloodlust, never seems to end. So Bashar al-Assad must remain in power even if the price is 300,000 Syrian lives.

All said and done, what is unfolding in Yemen and the rest of the Middle East is nothing but an old-fashioned struggle for power. The Houthis who have stunned the region by taking control of the country are fighting for it. And it is inconceivable that they could have effortlessly captured Sanaa, including the presidential palace and President Hadi, and nearly the entire country, without the collusion of former president Saleh and blessings of Iran.

And it is even more unimaginable that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region would have stood around and stared as Iran or an Iran-backed regime planted itself deep in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. If Yemen’s usually cautious big neighbour and leader of the Arab world has taken the extraordinary step of sending fighter jets to bomb targets in a neighbouring Arab country, it has evidently plenty of reasons to do so. By capturing Yemen and its institutions and unseating President Hadi and his legitimate government, the Houthis and their patrons crossed several redlines.

The Arabs have already been alarmed by Iran’s increasing, overarching presence and involvement in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the region. The Houthis’ ascent in Yemen brought the Iranians right at the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, putting them in a direct collision course with the Gulf and Arab neighbours.

Given its long and porous border with Yemen and the historically close and symbiotic relationship that Saudi Arabia has shared with Yemen for centuries, the alarm in Saudi and Gulf capitals is understandable.

The Arab states have also been troubled by Iran’s nuclear programme and the shifting geopolitical equations in the region. The shrinking diplomatic distance between Tehran and Washington after years of hostilities hasn’t helped. No wonder the Saudi campaign in Yemen has elicited unequivocal support by Arab and Muslim neighbours, and western powers.

It would however be dangerously simplistic for an already volatile, fragmented region and the larger Muslim world to cast this conflict in binary, sectarian terms. The Houthis, a Zaidi Shia sect, have a long history of insurgency even under Saleh, himself a Zaidi.

However, unless efforts are made to find a swift and peaceful resolution to the Yemen conflict, it risks spilling across the region. Riyadh clearly knows this and has called for dialogue involving all parties in Yemen. This is the way to go. And the OIC leadership, which pleaded for Islamic unity at the Arab summit in Sharm el-Sheikh last week, should take the initiative to bring all stakeholders together for lasting peace in Yemen and the region.

Iran, or for that matter any country, wouldn’t earn itself any friends in the region or around the world if its policies and actions continue to foment strife and disunity in Muslim ranks.

Doubtless, much of the current mess in the Middle East is a legacy of colonial masters. Beginning with the ‘blood borders’ that the infamous Picot-Sykes map drew up in between the two Great Wars, it culminated with the US invasion of Iraq. But our own role in perpetuating our misery isn’t insignificant. We have played right into the hands of our enemies.

The 2003 invasion did not just unravel Iraq and the Middle East; it has dealt a body blow to the Ummah, splitting wide open a dangerous sectarian schism across the Islamic world. It opened the gates of hell, unleashing nightmarish forces like Isis. The bloodshed and carnage witnessed in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere over the past few years would find no parallels in the Islamic history of the past 14 centuries.

The Muslim world has never been more divided and fissured. The New American Century project of the Neocons to redraw the map of the Middle East, breaking it into numerous perpetually warring principalities, appears to have achieved its goal. And how!

From Africa to the Arab Maghreb and from the Gulf to Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Muslim world is up in flames, with all its time, energy and resources being squandered in fire-fighting or fighting monsters like Isis. The issue of Palestinian dispossession has receded further into the background.

You do not have to be a pundit to know who stands to win if the Islamic world implodes. We will have an Armageddon on our hands if Muslim nations and leadership allowed this conflict to fester any further.

It is in the interest of Iran, already isolated internationally and reeling under long years of sanctions, to reach out to Saudi Arabia and other Arab neighbours to win their trust and confidence. An Arab-Iran engagement and rapprochement would not only heal the rift in Yemen, it could stabilise Iraq and Syria as well.

A less partisan approach by Tehran would have saved hundreds of thousands of precious lives in Iraq and Syria, and wouldn’t have given birth to Isis and created this mess in Yemen. By perpetually playing with fire, you end up scalding your own hands. The resources and energies of the Islamic world are better spent on confronting their common enemies, not each other.

The writer is a Middle East based columnist. Email: [email protected]

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