There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.
Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.
But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.
The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.
The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).
Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.
Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.
This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.
The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.
To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.
But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.
The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.
So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.
In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.
What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.
There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.
But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.
Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.
Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.
Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.
If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.
Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.
Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.
For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.
In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.
The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.
So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.
I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.
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