22 May 2024 08:10 PM


Vijay Prashad | 24 SEPTEMBER, 2015

The Dangers of Sectarian Wars with No Endgame

Drone strikes on Yemen

US drones continue to strike targets in Yemen - with a recent strike in the country's north hitting what the US government said were "suspected al-Qaeda members".

This drone war has been going on since 2002, with the US using these remotely piloted aerial bombers to hit members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

With the disarray of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, AQAP has become its most powerful affiliate. AQAP has inspired some of the more audacious acts of terrorism against the West. It has also claimed vast territorial expanses in Osama bin Laden's ancestral lands - Hadhramaut - and in the cities of Zinjibar, Jaar and now al-Mukallah.

These have, for a long time, been dangerous portents of the efficacy of AQAP.

A US drone strike this weekend killed four passengers in a car traveling in Yemen's Jawf Province. AQAP does not have a major presence in Jawf, which is in the north, although a US drone did kill Anwar al-Awlaki, a US citizen, in that governorate in 2011.

The United Nations has recently noted that, over the past year, US drone strikes have killed at least 40 civilians.

The impact that these strikes have had on al-Qaeda is hard to quantify.

In mid-June, a US drone assassinated AQAP's founder and leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, in al-Mukallah. Not long thereafter, AQAP announced that it had a new leader, Qasim al-Rimi. Continuity is the order of the day. Each civilian death is propaganda for AQAP.

Saudi Arabia's Operation Decisive Storm - which began in March - has now continued with few clear outcomes. This campaign is not designed to target AQAP. Indeed, AQAP has not reportedly been hit by any of the Saudi or United Arab Emirates aircraft.

The Saudis and the UAE entered the war to push back against the offensive by the Houthis and their newfound ally, the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh.

It did not take long for the Saudis and the UAE to command the skies. The Yemeni air force was grounded, and all anti-aircraft batteries destroyed. Saudi and UAE bombers pushed the Houthis and Saleh out of southern Yemen. But they have not been able to force them to surrender.

United Nations mediation has not been able to bring the parties to the table. Last week, the UN said that talks were going to begin "in a few days" - but these have now been shelved.

The Saudi-backed side said it would not begin talks until the Houthis lay down arms. This means that there will be no peace talks, since it is unlikely that the Houthis would liquidate their own gains.

This war, which has brought Yemen to a humanitarian catastrophe, is unlikely to end soon.

One of the most dangerous outcomes of the war has been the deepened sectarian tension in Yemen. In March, the International Crisis Group noted that the "previously absent Shite-Sunni narrative is creeping into how Yemenis describe their fight".

The earlier war in Yemen between the Houthis and the government pitted the former against a president who was himself - like the Houthis - a Zaydi Shia.

Sectarianism did not define that war. The new battlefield has become - in an alarmingly short time - rapidly sectarian. Saudi claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy seek to make this conflict part of a wider geo-political tussle.

In no time at all, the complex political problems of Yemen that have plagued the country since unification in 1990 have been reduced to the inexplicable language of sectarianism. So much more has been at stake, but now so little is considered on the table.

Sectarianism is precisely the language of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

AQAP has taken advantage of Operation Decisive Storm to send its hardened fighters to fight the Houthis and Saleh alongside the Hirak movement and pro-Hadi forces - supplied and trained by the Saudis and the UAE.

The general mood in Aden is that there is only one front in the battle - against the Houthis.

To attack both the Houthis and AQAP would be disorienting.

This has allowed AQAP to make great gains among the population. In August, Ansar al-Sharia's Jalal Baleidi called upon all Yemeni Sunnis to fight the Houthis - bringing the geo-political sectarianism right into Yemen's political war.

That Baleidi had been touted as a potential Islamic State group leader is now moot. Neither AQAP nor Ansar al-Sharia seems interested in any internecine battles; they are focused on pushing their sectarian agenda and winning adherents amongst the general population.

A sign of the times is the turn by Dammaj Salafis. As distant from AQAP in normal times as even the Houthis, they have now made common cause with AQAP against the Houthis.

I recall how, many years ago, ordinary Afghans would say they welcomed the Taliban since these fighters provided a respite from the bloody era of the warlords of the 1990s.

The Taliban's rough justice allowed for calm when compared with the erratic violence of the warlord era. A new survey of Syrians from ORB International shows that a fifth of the population says that IS has a "positive influence" on the country.

It is likely that many judge IS rule just as the Afghans judged the Taliban between 1994 and 2001: stability is far better than war and chaos. It is a very low standard.

The current conflict in Yemen - with no outcome in sight - will possibly draw ordinary Yemeni Sunnis to consider AQAP a positive influence on the country.

This is the danger of sectarian wars that have no endgame. They will not end with a utopian outcome. They can only end where life becomes evil.