Yemen, Trump and Iran

Summary: military deadlock in Yemen. Saudi coalition stalled. Iran says it is ready to deal. Trump sphinx-like.

The war in Yemen continues; the death toll has now passed 10,000. The UN special envoy who has just returned from a two-day visit to Sanaa is to brief the Security Council on 26 January. We recommend as a concise summary of the war and its background the BBC report available at link, a discussion with Elisabeth Kendall of Oxford University and Safa al-Ahmad, a Saudi journalist.

Sporadic reports of the fighting include a success for the Yemeni army which has taken the port city of Mokha, inflicting and suffering casualties totalling around sixty killed, and an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition which reportedly killed five people including two children in Houthi-held north Yemen.

In the main conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis it has been clear for some time that deadlock has been reached. According to a report in the Independent “Nothing has gone well for the Saudis in Yemen and Syria. The Saudis apparently expected the Houthis to be defeated swiftly by pro-Saudi forces, but after fifteen months of bombing they and their ally, former President Saleh, still hold the capital Sanaa and northern Yemen. The prolonged bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country by the richest has produced a humanitarian catastrophe in which at least 60 per cent of the 25 million Yemeni population do not get enough to eat or drink.” A report by Bloomberg “Saudi Cash Can’t Buy Military Clout” quotes a former US ambassador: “It’s hard to describe this Saudi intervention as a success. The Saudi bombing campaign has not managed to bring the Houthis to their knees. It has inflicted enormous damage on Yemen’s infrastructure and enormous suffering on the people of the country.” A short debate in the House of Commons on 12 December concentrated on the humanitarian disaster and the controversy over the use by the Saudis of British weapons in possible war crimes.

Two drone strikes presumed to be US killed three suspected al-Qa’ida fighters in al-Bayda province in southern Yemen on 22 December. If confirmed these would be the first drone strikes since the accession of President Trump. Saudi commentators continue to stress Iranian involvement on the side of the Houthis (the Australian government has just released details of thousands of weapons including grenade launchers seized by HMAS Darwin in 2016 which appear to be Iranian made), and according to Reuters the Gulf Arab states are applauding Trump’s accession because of his hostility to Iran. The veteran Saudi commentator Abdulrahman al-Rashed said “Perception is important: Trump does not look like the kind of guy who will bend towards Iran or anyone else. If he behaves as he says, then we will see another Ronald Reagan, someone all the forces in the region will take seriously. That’s what we have missed in the past eight years, unfortunately.”

President Trump has not yet shown his hand on the Yemen war. His only recorded comments, now a year old, are hard to interpret: “I will say this about Iran, they’re looking to go into Saudi Arabia. they want the oil. They want the money. They want a lot of other things having to do. They took over Yemen. You look at that border with Yemen, between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. That is one big border, and they’re looking to do a number in Yemen, and I think they want it to go. That’s phase one, to go into Saudi Arabia, and, frankly, the Saudis don’t survive without us. And the question is, at what point do we get involved, and how much will Saudi Arabia pay us to save them? Because that’s ultimately what’s going to happen… I would want to protect Saudi Arabia. But Saudi Arabia is going to have to help us economically. They were making, before the oil went down, now they’re making half, but they were making a billion dollars a day… [action against Iran would depend]  on what the deal is, I would have to do that. I would defend certain groups of people over there… I want to be unpredictable. I’m not going to tell you right now what I’m going to do… it depends on the circumstances. But, the voters want to see unpredictability. They’re tired of a president that gets up and says every single thing… I want to protect, but I also want to be reimbursed for the protection. We’re dealing with tremendously wealthy countries, and we’re never reimbursed.”

The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in Davos last week “I do not see any reason why Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies towards each other. We can in fact work together to put an end to miserable conditions of the people in Syria and Yemen and Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia were able to actually stop impeding the process of the presidential election in Lebanon. We have a success story.”

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