After Another ‘Coup’ in Aden, Which Government in Yemen Is ‘Legitimate’?

Last week, the UAE-backed separatists of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-rule in Yemen’s south after seizing Aden, the port city that is supposed to serve as the temporary capital of what the press usually calls the "legitimate" or "internationally-recognized" government of the Saudi-backed Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi. Saudi Arabia derided the move as a "coup" and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed his "concern" that "such unilateral actions only exacerbate instability in Yemen." Not all governorates accepted the STC’s power grab, however, and fighting broke out between the STC and Saudi-backed forces on the island of Socotra. On Saturday, the two sides reached a de-escalation agreement, but the STC appears to hold onto its grip on Aden, where protests against its de facto rule erupted that same day.

The move is not an isolated incident. Since January 2018, the separatists have frequently put the unity of the anti-Houthi coalition to the test by taking over control of government institutions and territory in the south. The organization came into existence before the civil war in 2007 and ultimately harks back to the desire to establish an independent country in the south, such as existed between 1967 and 1990. The UAE-backed movement joined forces with the Saudi-backed government to repel a Houthi attack on Aden in 2015, but it does not share Hadi’s aim to retake control over the whole country. For its part, the UAE disfavors Hadi’s alignment with the Islah party, which it views as ideologically close to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even as its Gulf patron started withdrawing troops from Yemen last summer, after bloody infighting the STC still managed to push through a power-sharing agreement in November. The failure of the Riyadh agreement following the latest escalation puts big question marks behind the effective power of President Hadi on the ground. Even though Hadi resides mostly abroad, Western media continue to describe his government as the "legitimate" one, whereas the Houthis, five years after taking over the capital, remain mere "rebels." A thorough look at the facts makes it clear that, if anything, the truth is the other way around.

President Hadi and Yemen’s "brighter democratic future"

So, who is Abdurabbuh Mansur Hadi? Born in 1945 and graduated from military academy in 1966, he occupied several posts in the army of South Yemen, a Marxist state propped up by the Soviet Union. As the regime was losing its strength, Hadi defected to North Yemen together with the former president following a 12-day civil war in 1986. After unification in 1990, he served as President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s minister of defense in the 1994 civil war. Because he was a southerner who had sided with the north, and because he would not constitute an internal threat due to his lack of charisma, leadership and personal following, Saleh appointed him vice president following the war, where he indeed remained loyally for the next 18 years.

Like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Yemen’s autocrat did not survive the Arab Spring. In a power-transition deal brokered by the Gulf monarchies, Saleh agreed to relinquish power to Hadi in November 2011. In February 2012, a "one person, one vote, one candidate" election (only by explicitly writing "no" in the box next to Hadi’s photo could you apparently vote against) Hadi received an international mandate to lead Yemen to democracy in a two-year – not longer – interim period. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed the (s)election as "another important step forward in their democratic transition process." While acknowledging that "there is still more work to be done," she claimed that it "sends a clear message that the people of Yemen are looking forward to a brighter democratic future." The State Department’s Victoria Nuland elaborated that the sham election, although no "true democracy," was a "beginning point" that would lead to "full, free, fair, multi-party and multi-candidate elections." Needless to say, that never happened, and Hadi became Yemen’s new dictator. Because he declared to be fighting "three undeclared wars" against pirates, al-Qaeda and the Houthis – all of which he claimed without explanation were supported by Iran – the United States did not object.

Still, the situation proved unattainable, and the Houthis stormed the capital Sana’a in September 2014 after weeks of protest against the Hadi government. One month later, the deposed Saleh, who had been allowed to return to the country, secretly started to form a tactical alliance with the Houthis. At that point, even Hadi’s own ruling political party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), ousted him and endorsed Saleh instead. Yet, stubbornly clinging on to the legitimacy of the Hadi government, whose interim mandate had long expired, the UN Security Council sanctioned Saleh and two Houthi leaders for what it considered attempts at destabilization of the country. In reaction to the immovability of the international community, the Houthis shelled the presidential palace and definitely took over the capital in January 2015. Driven into a corner, Hadi resigned and was put under house arrest, but he managed to escape to Aden in February. Once there, he retracted his resignation, but a spokesperson of the GPC said that Hadi’s ruling party did not accept his return to the presidency. Rejected by the major power brokers on the ground and facing a Houthi advance towards Aden, Hadi fled once again in late March – this time to Riyadh.

Responding to his cry for help, Saudi Arabia’s defense minister Mohamed bin Salman then quickly set up a coalition with nine fellow Sunni countries, Morocco, Egypt, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and, until 2017, Qatar. Since then, the Saudi-led campaign initiated a bombing campaign, imposed a naval blockade, deployed ground forces and employed mercenaries – both locally (including impoverished children) and internationally via Academi (formerly Blackwater). Additionally, The United States, Britain and France have deployed special forces and advisors to the coalition, but, perhaps most importantly, the West has legitimized the war through its ongoing sale of billions of dollars in arms to the countries within the coalition.

Over the last five years, the coalition has committed numerous war crimes, using internationally banned cluster bombs and white phosphorus and intentionally bombing civilian targets, such as funerals, weddings, markets, schools, school buses, hospitals and refugee camps – each time leaving scores of innocent civilians dead. Meanwhile, the blockade has barred commerce to a country that relies for 90% of its food on imports, making the population entirely depended on humanitarian help and leaving millions in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. According to the research of London Schools of Economics scholar Martha Mundy, the coalition has also heavily targeted agricultural land and facilities, which together with the blockade makes the case for a strategy of deliberate destruction of food production and distribution – another war crime. As a result, the UN’s humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien stated that as of 2017, a Yemeni child under the age of five dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes, such as cholera or general malnutrition. Indeed, conservative estimates put the starvation death toll of children younger than five at 85.000 by 2018, while 12.000 civilians have been directly killed during the war. Together, that is by all accounts more than the estimated number of fighters killed in combat. In short, this manmade humanitarian catastrophe has all the hallmarks of a genocide, one in which the West is complicit by association.

Perhaps worst of all is the fact that the Saudi-led campaign has produced hardly any results. True, they managed to repel a Houthi takeover of Aden in 2015, but since then territorially the situation has slipped into a stalemate. But now, the Houthis are again on the advance, having taken control of Jawf province and closing in on Ma’rib, Hadi’s last stronghold in the north.

Meanwhile, the powerless deposed president can only sit and watch as he loses control to the Houthis and the STC. Indeed, he has spent most of the war far away and safely in Riyadh, only having made six visits to Yemen in five years. At times, his Saudi patrons have even put him under house arrest and have barred him from traveling to Yemen out of fear of his safety. Indeed, even a couple of weeks before the latest STC coup in Aden five scholars with an expert knowledge about Yemen contracted by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies were unanimous in the fact that Hadi has negligible effective power. Still, in the press his government – even though it is hardly functioning – religiously remains quoted as "legitimate" and "internationally recognized."

The Houthis: "rebels" and "Iranian proxies," but no government

The Houthis, on the other hand, who have retained governance over large swaths of the most populous regions of the country for five years, in the press do not even get the courtesy of being described as in power of a government – let alone a "legitimate" one. They are strenuously called "rebels" fighting an insurgency against the sovereign government. True, since Hussein al-Houthi founded the movement in the early 2000s, that is indeed what they have done for years, first against the Saleh and then the Hadi regime. But when they overthrew Hadi and took over the capital, they also took over the government and have governed to the extent that this is possible given the circumstances of war and international isolation and blockade. In that capacity, they have ruled over 70-80% of Yemen’s population for years. Even when Saleh terminated the fragile alliance, turned his forces against the Houthis and was killed by Houthi fighters in 2017, the group did not only manage to maintain its power, but tens of thousands of its supporters rallied the streets to celebrate Saleh’s death.

It should be noted that the Houthis took power in a coup d’état and have ruled the country undemocratically ever since. But like so many dictators in the region, the West supported Saleh’s autocratic rule for 33 years without protest, nor are any of the countries within the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis democratic. Most are hereditary monarchies who rule without any pretense of democracy, while some, like Egypt, are as much of a sham democracy as the Hadi regime itself. The war can thus not be justified as a Wilsonian crusade to bring democracy to the Middle East.

Additionally, it can be argued that the Houthis have an appalling ruling record and are guilty of war crimes, too. They have recruited children (although many contrary to Gulf-backed mercenaries are volunteers), and Associated Press investigations have documented credible evidence of arbitrary detention, torture and rape in prison. But again, the same atrocities have been committed by Western allies. UAE officials and their mercenaries have carried out more than 100 assassinations of political enemies within Yemen, some of which were carried out by former American green berets in Emirati pay. Thousands more have been forcibly disappeared, tortured and sexually abused in numerous secret Emirati prisons across the country. Reminiscent of the post-9/11 CIA black sites, American counterterrorist officials sometimes interrogated al-Qaeda suspects after being tortured by the Emiratis. On other occasions, however, coalition fighters have cut secret deals with al-Qaeda militants and have paid them lavishly with Gulf money for leaving certain territories instead of fighting them, while American-made weapons have ended up in al-Qaeda hands and have emboldened the terrorists. Compounding the genocidal character of the bombing campaign and blockade, the Saudi-led war can thus neither be justified on humanitarian grounds.

If not for humanitarian or democratic reasons, what then is the war really about? The answer can be found in the media’s other common description of the Houthis, that of "Iranian proxies." Indeed, underneath the pretext of reinstalling Hadi, rolling back Iran’s alleged influence in Yemen is the real raison d’être on which the Saudi-led war on the people of Yemen is predicated. American and Gulf officials endlessly claim that their classified intelligence demonstrates that Iran has deployed elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces on the ground and are shipping weapons to the Houthis. Yet, they have never provided any shred of evidence so that these claims can be publicly falsified. Just as in the cases of WMDs in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear bomb and Syria’s gas attacks, the public is to belief these officials on their word. Perhaps most tellingly, the day before the United States assassinated IRGC head General Qassem Soleimani in early January in Iraq, they failed to kill another IRGC commander in Sana’a. But the only source for the claim that the targeted Abdul Reza Shahla’i was even in Yemen are the Americans themselves. For all we know, Shahla’i might even not have been in Yemen, or he might advise the Houthis through virtual communication instead.

In fact, on a few occasions the most mainstream of publications have themselves debunked the unfounded notion that the Houthis are merely Iranian proxies with no real agenda or agency of their own. The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Brookings Institute and Chatham house have all pointed out that Iranian support to the Houthis is marginal at best and have highlighted political grievances rooted in anti-imperialism at the origins of the movement instead. Much has been made of the movement’s credo, Allahu akbar, al-mawt li amrīkā, al mawt li isra’īl, al-l’ana ‘ala al-yuhūd, "God is great, death to America, death to Israel, curse the Jews." While definitely disturbing, it might be more useful and constructive to examine from were such hatred is derived. Indeed, as a Houthi activist explained to Newsweek, "we do not really want death to anyone, the slogan is simply against the interference of those governments."

Western policy makers like to describe conflicts in the Middle East as exclusively sectarian-based in order to downplay the role of Western and Israeli interventionism in the region. Based on the teachings of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, neoconservative pundits claim that the "clash of civilizations" thesis proofs that Islam is an inherently violent religion and that unsurmountable Shi’a-Sunni divisions lay at the foundations of conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere. They fail to explain, however, that the common denominator in all these conflicts is that Shi’as and Sunnis largely coexisted peacefully up until foreign intervention brought conflict and stoked sectarian strife. Even then, very much like the mislabeled "Religious Wars" of early modern Europe, opportunistic and strategic cross-religious alliances are made all the time. The most glaring example in the region’s modern history is of course the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Ronald Reagan administration and Israel traded arms with their supposed arch enemy, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, who was at the time constantly deriding America as "the Great Satan." Similarly, back in the 1960s both the Saudis and Israelis were actually supporting the forerunners of the Houthis; that is, the royalists of the Zaydi faith (the branch of Shi’ism followed by Yemen’s Shi’ites) in their guerrilla war against the Soviet Union- and Egypt-backed Arab nationalist government. More recently, in between the first and final takeover of Sana’a, a Defense Department official admitted an ongoing intelligence relationship between the US and the Houthis in the fight against al-Qaeda in January 2015 and pointed to a speech of Abdel Malek al-Houthi outlining the group’s demands of constitutional reform and new elections. This goes to show that political grievances, rather than religious differences, mainly drive regional politics.

That is not to say that religion does never play any part in Middle Eastern conflicts, but rather that it usually serves a secondary role of catalysator. In Yemen’s case, the Zaydi faith revolves around the reverence of Zayd bin ‘Ali, who adherents believe was the fifth righteous Shi’ite imam. The distinguishing feature of Zayd’s biography is that he revolted against the corrupt regime of Umayyad Caliphate in the eight century, a fight in which he was martyred. According to the Bookings Institute, Zaydis therefore elevate him as the epitome of battling corruption, and the Houthis have subsequently made this the pinnacle of their insurgencies against Saleh and Hadi, whom many Yemenis not without reason see as Saudi puppets. Not uncoincidentally, have they have employed Hezbollah, another Shi’ite group that grew out of resisting Israeli aggression in Lebanon, as a role model.

Recently, the Trump administration has started to backtrack on the claim that it is fighting Iran in Yemen. Brian Hook, the hawkish special representative for Iran, for instance, was in September of last year still claiming that Iran was "controlling and deploying" the Houthis as a "terror front." In December, however, he admitted that "Iran clearly does not speak for the Houthis." With that admission, any accuse in favor of this devastating war on the Yemeni people falls flat on its face.

How to stop the suffering?

With the war having all but decimated the health care system of what was already the Middle East’s poorest country, many commentators have sounded the alarm about the damage the incipient coronavirus outbreak in the country could wreak. Yet, however alarming, Sana’a-based journalist Nasser Arrabyee reminds us that the main threat to the Yemeni people remains the Saudi-led destruction visited upon the country by the blockade, fighting and bombing. This, more than anything else, prevents Yemenis from arming themselves against the virus, but just a couple of days ago, airstrikes have once again destroyed trucks carrying imported food and medicine. Stopping the war is thus more urgent than ever.

Both the Hadi and Houthi regimes claim to be Yemen’s legitimate government. After five years of war, neither have succeeded in taking over the whole country and imposing sovereignty. But only the Houthis have managed to retain their dominance over a vast majority of the population, possibly because of their perceived record of anti-corruption and battling foreign meddling. Meanwhile, failure to pay salaries to Gulf-backed mercenaries was cited as one of the core reasons for the STC’s latest coup in Aden, demonstrating that lavish Gulf funds have artificially inflated the demand for resistance against the Houthis. Thus, neither the STC nor the Hadi regime enjoy unambivalent consent of the governed in the sparsely populated south, where al-Qaeda and ISIS militants keep filling the power vacuum. Conversely, the Houthis never came close to losing their control of Sana’a even without major funds and under pains of international isolation. In short, only the Houthis have been able to maintain a monopoly of violence over large swaths of the population for a considerable time. Therefore, though the desirability of their rule can be debated, only they can be said to be in control of a functioning state in the most basic, Weberian sense of the word.

Recognizing this fact is the first step in ending one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 21st century. As the Saudi-led coalition’s most powerful allies, the Western powers hold the key to end the war. In the last two years, the Houthis have developed long-range missiles and drones that have struck deep into Saudi Arabia, culminating in the assault on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in September of last year. This has finally provided the Houthis with a deterrent to hold back the coalition. Having done their part, only international condemnation can now put a definite end to the war. In April 2019, after months of mounting opprobrium following the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, both the American Congress and Senate passed a bill to enact the War Powers resolution, demanding an end of American support to the Saudi-led war. Although Trump vetoed it, even the New York Times has acknowledged that especially since the Houthi strikes on the oil facilities the Saudis have followed the Emiratis’ precedent and started talks with the Houthis, engaged in prisoner swaps and generally scaled down their bombing campaign out of fear of diminishing Western support for their foreign policy. Yet, as we could have expected, the American "paper of record" has somehow managed to obscure this bigger picture in its latest piece on the "war within a war" that is threatening to engulf the Saudi-led coalition. "Prince Mohammed’s appetite for the war in Yemen appears to have waned in the past year amid a global condemnation of Saudi military tactics that killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes," Declan Walsh correctly writes. But although only one soldiers died in recent skirmishes, the author finds it more important that "the southern schism plays into the hands of the Iran-supported Houthis" and that the Saudi-UAE "turn away from the fight threatens fresh chaos in the war-torn country."

As this article has made clear, the truth is the reverse. Strong Western condemnations of the inhumane blockade, the halting of arms sales to Gulf countries, a general departure from the Western-Gulf alliance and opening diplomatic relations with the Houthi regime are some of the steps that could embolden the strained negotiations and speed up the pressure on the Saudi-led coalition to admit defeat and come to terms with a settlement. Then, it would become painstakingly clear that, as Trita Parsi has argued in Foreign Policy in the wake of the Soleimani assassination, "the Middle East is more stable when the United States stays away."

Bas Spliet is a master student History and Arabic Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium, where he researches the anti-nuclear weapons movement in Europe of the early 1980s. He is proficient in Arabic, travelled to Syria in 2018 and lived in Cairo in 2019. He aspires to become an investigative journalist after graduation.