The United States is providing crucial support to regional ally Saudi Arabia ― a big buyer of US arms ― as it launches a new war in the Middle East by attacking neighbouring Yemen.
A Saudi-led coalition of Western-aligned, mainly Sunni Islamist, Arab government's launched air, naval and ground military offensive against Yemen on March 25.
Saudi Arabian forces are being supported by military planes from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan and Egypt, which is also supplying naval forces.
The military intervention is in support of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the Yemeni president overthrown in January by a coalition led by Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthi movement. Ansar Allah is an armed movement based in the Zaydi religious minority, who are about 35% of Yemen's population.
The Saudi intervention has accelerated the civil war engulfing Yemen.
The World Health Organisation said on April 8 that at least 643 people had been killed and 2226 injured in Yemen between March 19 and April 6. The WHO said: “These are only health facility-based figures and casualty estimates are likely to continue to increase as additional cases are verified and reported.”
More than 334,000 people have been internally displaced and 254,400 have fled abroad.
The US has signalled its support for the intervention with repeated announcements it will increase its already considerable military aid to Saudi Arabia.
Reuters reported that, visiting the Saudi capital on April 7, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said: “Saudi Arabia is sending a strong message to the Houthis and their allies that they cannot overrun Yemen by force.
“As part of that effort, we have expedited weapons deliveries, we have increased our intelligence sharing, and we have established a joint coordination planning cell in the Saudi operation centre.”
Britain has also pledged to increase military aid to Saudi Arabia. In Washington on March 26, British foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said: “We will provide support to the Saudi operation in every way we can, but we’re clearly not going to get involved in military action itself.”
The Saudi-led assault and Western support has been justified by portraying the Houthis as proxies of Iran.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said on April 8: “There are obviously supplies that have been coming from Iran. There are a number of flights every single week that have been flying in. Iran needs to recognise that the US is not going to stand by while the region is destabilised.”
The Iranian government and Houthis have rejected these claims. Little evidence has been provided to support allegations of Iranian support for the Houthis' decade-long insurgency, although relations have grown since the Houthis overthrew Yemen's government.
Adam Baron from establishment think-tank the European Council on Foreign Relations told the April 9 Guardian: “Houthis are not Iranian proxies: the fact of the matter is that Houthis are motivated and deeply rooted in Yemen and their decision-making is largely, if not entirely, rooted in Yemeni local issues.
“I do not see this as a proxy war. That being said, I think what we are seeing is a regionalisation of an internal political conflict.”
He added that “the main catalyst for the regionalisation of this is the Saudi military campaign”.
Yemen has been beset by several insurgencies since the Western-aligned North Yemen and Soviet-aligned South Yemen united in 1990.
However, South Yemen's former ruling party was marginalised in the united Yemen government and the south was marginalised economically. This led to a mutiny by South Yemeni forces in 1994 and a brief civil war, that resulted in the further monopolisation of power by the former North Yemen's elite.
Since then, different wings of the “Southern Movement” have been involved in political opposition and armed insurgency.
The Houthi insurgency is based on the Zaydi religious community in the north. Zaydi Islam falls broadly into the Shia branch of Islam, but it is theologically different from the Shia Islam of Iran.
The North Yemeni monarchy that was overthrown in the 1950s was Zaydi and historically, there was little tension between the Zaydi community and the Sunni Muslim majority.
The Houthi insurgency began in 2004, partly in response to the growing influence of Salafi Islamism, which is virulently intolerant of all non-Sunni forms of Islam. Economic and political marginalisation of the movement's rural base was, however, an even bigger factor.
Until 2012, Yemen was ruled by the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who became president of North Yemen in 1978. The corrupt Saleh regime was backed by the US on the pretext of being an ally in the “war on terror”.
US support consisted of economic, political and military aid in exchange for Saleh approving US drone strikes. These strikes targetted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP), a group of 100-200 mainly Saudi jihadis responsible for a largely ineffective campaign of terrorist attacks against the US and Saudi Arabia.
The Saleh government did not consider AQAP a big threat. Rather, US military aid was directed against the Houthis and the Southern Movement.
For its part, the US largely ignored theses insurgencies, carrying out the drone strikes in a CIA-directed framework of targeted assassinations of individuals the US considered implicated in global anti-Western Islamist terrorist networks.
Frequent civilian deaths from the drone strikes fuelled anti-Western anti-government sentiment in affected communities.
The Saleh regime fought six wars against the Houthis, but failed to crush the insurgency. Between October 2009 and January 2010, Saudi Arabia deployed air strikes and ground forces to join Saleh's fight against the Houthis, but suffered a humiliating defeat.
In 2011, a mass uprising broke out against political tyranny and economic austerity. It was part of the wave of anti-neoliberal and anti-dictatorship uprisings known as the “Arab Spring”.
The uprising was supported by the Houthis, the Southern Movement and elements in the military that broke from Saleh. However, its leaders were drawn from a loosely organised alliance of student, urban poor and women's movement activists.
The democratic aspirations of the uprising were thwarted by a “peace process” under the auspices of the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council, and backed by the West. As part of the process, Saleh was replaced by Hadi, his vice president, who was “elected” to a two-year term in a 2012 vote in which he was the only candidate.
Under the deal, Saleh avoided charges over corruption and the shooting of protesters.
The US continued military aid to the new government as well as drone strikes. But the various insurgencies also continued, while Saleh retained considerable influence in the armed forces and began plotting a return to power.
In September, Houthi-led forces took the capital, Sanaa. This was the result of renewed protests against economic austerity and a covert alliance between the Houthis and their former enemy, Saleh. The Yemeni military is split between pro-Saleh and pro-Hadi elements.
The Houthis initially seemed focussed on winning autonomy for their community and tried influencing national politics from a distance. Taking control of broadcasting stations, military installations and other infrastructure, the Houthis tried maintaining the Hadi regime as its proxy.
In January, however, Hadi tried setting up a rival government in the former capital of South Yemen, Aden. The Houthis responded by set up a “Revolutionary Committee” in February and launched a military drive toward the south.
Hadi fled to Saudi Arabia. Aden has become a battleground between the Houthis and pro-Saleh forces on one side, and an even more unstable alliance between pro-Hadi military, Southern Movement forces and Islamists, backed by the Saudi-led intervention, on the other.
On April 8, Iran sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden and has increased commercial relations with Yemen since the Houthis took power. The Saudi and Western war against the Houthis with the stated aim of curbing Iranian regional influence is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Long-term US strategy has been to promote a Saudi-led block of Sunni Islamist regimes to counter Iran, a regional rival to the US and ally of global rivals China and Russia. Western sanctions against Iran's non-existent nuclear weapons program are aimed at countering the increased influence of Iran in the region that resulted from the US's failed war on Iraq.
However, this strategy exists alongside contradictory US policies, such as the fight against anti-Western Sunni Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda and the self-styled Islamic State (IS).
Having severely destablised Iraq and opened the way for the rise of IS, the US can only control Iraq with Iranian help.
The recent thaw in US-Iranian relations comes as the US needs Iranian help to contain the IS. A deal to create a framework to resolve tensions is awaiting ratification by US and Iranian legislatures. However, the Iranians have indicated they will not ratify it unless it means the immediate lifting of sanctions, which is far from certain.
The US's main regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, oppose this rapprochement. US support for the Saudi intervention is a signal to its allies that they have not been abandoned ― and to Iran that Western hostility is not over.