BY REESE ERLICH
DOHA, Qatar — Mohammad Siraj pumps a car jack at a makeshift curbside car repair shop across from a Sunni mosque. He wears the traditional white dishdasha and skull cap of a devout Sunni Muslim. He puts down his tools to discuss the war in nearby Yemen, a major issue here.
That country’s civil war has sent shock waves throughout the region as local and international powers vie for power. Qatar is playing an important role, having joined Saudi Arabia and other countries in bombing Yemen and blockading its seaports.
The Yemen war pits an exiled government, backed by the US and Sunni Muslims-majority countries, against the rebel Houthi political movement, made up mostly of Shia Muslims backed by Iran. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks on US targets, is gaining strength, as are southern secessionists.
The US is arming the Sunni countries, having sold $80 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia last year. Qatar also signed a Pentagon deal for $11 billion worth of Apache helicopters and sophisticated missiles last year as the Pentagon and US arms manufacturers gear up for protracted wars over economic and geopolitical issues.
But Siraj has found a way to simplify matters: Yemen is a battle to the death between Sunni and Shia, he believes.
Iran is trying to conquer the entire Sunni world, he claims. Iran wants “all Arab areas to be under Shia rule,” said Siraj. “They want to kill all the Sunnis.”
The struggles for power in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen have taken on a sectarian character as all sides seek to use religion to their advantage. Saudi Arabia rallies Sunnis by claiming Iran wants to conquer the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Iran draws Shia support by linking Saudi Arabia to extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). IS considers all Shia to be “apostates” and has massacred many in Iraq and Syria.
But analysts in Qatar point out the core issue in Yemen is not religion.
It’s “more political than sectarian,” according to Jamal Abdullah, a researcher at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha. “I spent 20 years in Saudi Arabia. Many Yemenis were working there. We didn’t hear about Shia and Sunni in Yemen.”
He says historically in the region, Shia and Sunni lived in peace, with no greater animosity than among Christian denominations.
“Christians have Orthodox and Catholic,” he said. “In Islam there are Sunni and Shia.”
Indeed, Yemen has a long history of war and political turmoil. But until recently those problems had nothing to do with religion.
Unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, Yemen has little oil or other natural resources. But it has three key advantages, as any real estate agent would recognize: location, location, location. Yemen sits along the strategic strait that leads to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Much of the world’s oil supply passes through Yemeni sea lanes.
So major colonial powers have directly or indirectly dominated Yemen for over 100 years. The Ottoman Empire controlled northern Yemen. Britain occupied southern Yemen until the 1960s, when the US became the dominant power.
Because of its geopolitical importance, Yemeni internal struggles quickly attracted outside intervention.
In 1962 a civil war in north Yemen pitted republicans (backed by Egyptian troops) against royalists (backed by the US, Britain, Israel and Saudi Arabia).
After the British withdrawal from south Yemen in 1967, leftists and nationalists took power, and they established the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. A civil war broke out between the north (backed by the US and its allies) and the south (backed by the USSR and its allies). A series of subsequent wars eventually led to a unified Yemen in 1990 led by Ali Abdullah Saleh.
For the next 20 years Saleh ran a corrupt, brutal and pro-US regime. The leftist opposition was wiped out. It was later replaced by populist political Islam taking up some of the same issues of poverty and repression but from a conservative, religious perspective.
That populist Islam took hold among the Shia through the Houthi movement. Among the Sunni, al Qaeda took root. In October 2000, an al Qaeda suicide squad rammed a boat into the side of the USS Cole docked in a Yemeni harbor. Seventeen US personnel died.
The Saudi and Yemeni branches of al Qaeda merged in 2009 to form AQAP. The Bush administration had authorized drone strikes in Yemen since 2002, including the first acknowledged American assassination of a US citizen as part of the so-called War on Terror. The Obama administration vastly expanded the drone strikes, hoping to defeat AQAP without committing combat troops.
In 2009 the US charged that AQAP sent a man with explosives taped to his underwear to blow up a plane bound for Detroit. The Obama administration said AQAP leader and American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki had planned the bombing. In 2011 the US killed Awlaki and his son in a drone strike in Yemen.
Yeminis were increasingly angry at the drone strikes, which killed and wounded hundreds of civilians. US drones targeted 17 men but killed 273 people, including seven children, according to areport by British investigative journalists that looked into a portion of civilian deaths.
Political Islam was also taking hold among Yemen’s Zaidis, a branch of Shia Islam. Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), popularly known as the Houthis, had its origins as a conservative religious movement in northern Yemen in 1992.
Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi led the group, which gained support by opposing government repression, fighting poverty and calling for autonomy for the northern province where they had a strong base. It later took up populist causes such as fighting to maintain government gasoline subsidies, which help the poor.
Zaidis make up about 35 percent of the Yemeni population. While Zaidism differs from the Shia Islam practiced in Iran, Iranian leaders embraced the Houthis politically as part of their strategy to weaken pro-US, Sunni regimes in the region.
The Yemini military killed Hussein al-Houthi in 2004 and his half-brother, Abdulmalek al-Houthi, became leader. The Saleh government waged a total of six wars against the Houthis until finally agreeing to a ceasefire in 2010.
Meanwhile, Yemen remained the poorest country in the Middle East. Of Yemen’s 26 million people, 10 million are food insecure.Transparency International lists Yemen as the 161th most corrupt country out of 175.
Yemenis are more worried about economic development than religious sects, according to Said Al Zadjali, a consultant with Oman’s Ministry of Education.
“There was no conflict between Zaidis and Sunnis in Yemen for hundreds of years,” he said during an interview in Muscat. “Religious conflict in Yemen, and elsewhere in the world, is always promoted by politics.”
That solidarity across sectarian lines showed itself in January 2011. Inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of Sunni and Shia took to the streets of the capital Sanaa and the second city, Aden. The “Days of Rage” rally in early February drew 20,000 people.
Civil society activists joined tribal groups and religious conservatives — including the Houthis — to demand Saleh’s ouster and a representative government. Pressured by the US and Saudi Arabia, Saleh resigned under an amnesty agreement that allowed him to remain in the country. Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi became president, but he had neither the political skills nor military support of his predecessor.
Hadi allied himself closely with the US, which had become increasingly unpopular because of its support of Saleh and the civilian drone deaths. Hadi tried to rally the majority Sunni population by claiming the Houthis are proxies of Iran determined to impose Shia rule in Yemen.
It didn’t work.
Starting last September the Houthis marched from their northern base towards the capital, picking up support from local tribes and some soldiers. The Houthis occupied Sanaa. In an ironic shift, the Houthis forged an alliance with Saleh and his supporters in the military. That alliance ousted Hadi from power, and by February, he fled to Saudi Arabia.
While the Houthi leaders describe their struggle in political terms, their war has taken on a sectarian tinge. Zaidis are “increasingly drawn towards a perceived ‘Shiite camp,’ in what is more and more framed as a sectarian war,” said Laurent Lambert, an Arabian Gulf researcher at the Europaeum, Oxford University.
On March 26, Saudi Arabia and its allies began bombing Yemen in an effort to defeat the Houthis and restore Hadi to power. The US provided arms, intelligence and logistical support to the new war.
Five months in, the rebels still hold Sanaa. The Saudi coalition launched a major campaign to retake Aden. The bombing has killed more than 2,500 and wounded 11,000, according to theWorld Health Organization. The Saudi blockade of Yemini ports has worsened the crisis, with 20 million Yemenis now in need of some kind of humanitarian assistance, according to UNICEF.
Human Rights Watch documented the Saudi-led coalition’s use of cluster bombs, deadly munitions that burst into brightly colored bomblets and pose a particular danger to children.
Houthi anti-aircraft fire has killed scores of civilians and injured hundreds, according to Amnesty International. “The sheer number of injuries caused by anti-aircraft fire in Sanaa points to a disturbing pattern of attacks in which the obligation under international law to protect civilians during a conflict is being flouted,” said Lama Fakih, an Amnesty International senior crisis advisor.
While the US-Saudi intervention remains highly controversial, it has strong defenders.
Former Major General Anwar Eshki emerges from the Doha Forum walking ramrod straight. While some other Saudi participants in this gathering of international notables wear the traditional robe and headdress, Eshki prefers a three-piece suit. He’s spent a lot of time in the US for military training and makes the case for why the US should be more assertive in the Middle East.
A Saudi loss in Yemen, he says, is a victory for Iran. The founder of the Houthi movement and its current leader lived in Iran and thousands of Houthis studied there, getting military training, he claims. “Iran controls the Houthis,” Eshki said.
Iran admits to giving political support to the Houthis but denies providing military training or arms. The US government does not consider the Houthis to be Iranian proxies.
Eshki acknowledges growing differences between US and Saudi leaders but says they have good strategic relations. “They want to protect the Arab Gulf because of their interests in the oil,” he said.
But in its rush to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran, the US isn’t fighting hard enough against Iran’s regional ambitions, Eshki argues. Saudi Arabia has taken up that task. “Sometimes they have different ideas about tactics and politics,” he said.
The US has pushed for a ceasefire in Yemen and hopes for a political settlement. The Saudis, while agreeing to peace talks in Geneva, have been reluctant to stop the bombing campaign and naval blockade.
Differences over the Yemen war reflect wider divisions between the US and the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and United Arab Emirates.
In years past the US sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq in a show of strength against aggressors, GCC critics argue. Under the new “Obama Doctrine,” the US shows military weakness in the region while also failing to pressure Israel into a settlement of the Palestinian issue. The May summit at Camp David between the US and GCC leaders failed to resolve those differences.
“There’s an empty place in the region,” said the analyst Abdullah.
The current differences surfaced in 2013 when the US failed to carry out its threat to bomb Syria after the Assad regime allegedly used chemical weapons. “The whole world thought the US would do something, a military operation as the international community did in Libya,” said Abdullah. “So this was a very big mistake.”
Bombing Syria had little popular support inside the US, however, and the western bombing campaign in Libya helped produce a failed state. Yemen could face the same fate, say critics, particularly if AQAP continues to expand.
So far the Saudi bombing has allowed AQAP to capture a provincial capital and expand its area of control.
Hillary Mann Leverett, a former Middle East expert at the State Department, said, “No one in Washington is sure what the Saudis are trying to achieve. It is certainly destabilizing, empowering of al Qaeda, and further inflaming the tensions throughout the region.”
AQAP has shifted tactics in areas it controls, keeping a low profile and allowing local councils to run day to day affairs. AQAP is recruiting young Sunnis. Analyst Lambert said, “There will always be favorable conditions for the recruitment of alienated young men, ready to fight to make a living, get a purpose in life or improve their social status. If on top of that, they can get a religious blessing or even a place in Paradise, who would decline the offer?”
Saudi leaders are willing to ignore the AQAP threat so long as the group doesn’t launch attacks inside their country. Saudis share a conservative version of Sunni Islam with AQAP and a mutual hatred of the Shia Houthis.
“Why would Saudis attack them [AQAP] if they’re effectively on the same side in this war?” a Yemeni intelligence official told theWashington Post.
Saudi leaders have followed a similar strategy in Syria, where they have thrown their support behind the Al Qaeda affiliate, the Al Nusra Front.
Back in a middle-income neighborhood of Doha full of mid-rise apartment buildings, Imam Mohammad Asif Udin is also concerned about al Qaeda. The Sunni cleric, originally from India, considers himself a political moderate. He rejects the extremism of al Qaeda and the Islamic State.
But he blames the Yemen conflict on the Shia. “There’s a majority of Shia in Yemen,” he said. “That’s why they’re torturing Sunni people. They think the Islam they are following is better than the Islam we are following.”
That sentiment encapsulates the sectarian thinking that plagues both sides in the Yemen war. Shia are neither a majority in Yemen nor torturing Sunnis because of their religion. But religious intolerance fuels anger and support for the war.
At the moment, none of the warring factions in Yemen have expressed willingness to compromise. Ceasefires have been called and then broken. Eventually, government and rebel leaders will have to reach a political solution, which might just lessen sectarian tensions as well.
GroundTruth Special Correspondent Reese Erlich is author of “Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect,” now available in English and Arabic.