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In part two of our interview, Professor Sheila Carapico of the University of Richmond says that while the U.S.-backed Saudi-led war on Yemen has caused a humanitarian crisis for civilians, two beneficiaries include the U.S. weapons industry and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
Aaron Maté: It’s The Real News, I’m Aaron Mate. The US is considering deepening its involvement in the Saudi war on Yemen. The next phase of that war could be an attack on the Port of Hodeidah, which is a critical entry port for a country that relies on food imports to survive. Aid experts have warned that this could cause a famine. In part one of my interview with Dr. Sheila Carapico we discussed the implications and possible consequences of a US-backed assault on the port. Now in part two we’re going to get into the politics behind the US support for the Saudi Arabian-led war. Dr. Sheila Carapico is a Yemen specialist who teaches at the University of Richmond. Professor Carapico, welcome. Sheila Carapico: Thank you for having me. Aaron Maté: Let’s go to the various interests at play here. When the Saudis attacked, and since they’ve attacked they’ve often said that the Houthis are a proxy of Iran, and so to counter Iranian influence in the region they have to be confronted. Is it fair to say though that at least for the first half of this war Iran was not supplying the Houthis with weapons? If that’s the case then what is the actual reason for the Saudi attack? Sheila Carapico: Well I mean, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular and some of the other kingdoms of the Gulf Cooperation Counsel, but let’s say specifically the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, of course they had a brand new king at the time, but even before the time when they declared war, but even before then they were very panic-stricken by the so-called Arab spring, by the uprisings in Tunisia and in Egypt, and in Syria, and in Libya, but most especially in Yemen. Which is right at their doorstep, it’s more populous, there are more Yemeni citizens than there are citizens of the rest of the countries of the peninsula, both the monarchies put together. It was a very popular uprising with, among other things very strong leadership by women, and very strong kind of pro-democracy and human rights and social justice movement that lasted for months and months and months. It panicked the Saudis and the other monarchies of the peninsula. They got together and tried to cobble together a … Excuse me. They got together and tried to cobble together a solution which would put somebody basically favorable to the gulf monarchies’s interests in power and then he was deposed I think rather … It came as a surprise to me, frankly, and I’m a pretty close observer of the thing, but these Houthis just sort of marched into the capital and he fled. Then he fled to Aden, which is the southern port and more or less his home territory. The Houthis and Saleh’s forces kept marching and then he fled to Riyadh and said, “Help.” The Saudis started intervening and began, as your question suggests, very early on calling the Houthis proxies of Iran although there was no plausible evidence of that if you read up on the Houthis, there was never any mention before that of a relationship with Iran, it’s a very different denomination within Shia Islam so the Zaidis, in fact traditionally the Twelvers in Iran have considered them to be sort of not true Shia. Although now it may be that some weapons are getting through, I personally have yet to see a picture of Iranian weapons that’s taken in Yemen. There have certainly not been any pictures of Iranian soldiers or Iranian deaths or anything like that. The notion that it’s a proxy war is a bit strained also, it kind of strains credulity because the Saudis are directly involved, so we shouldn’t consider that they have proxies unless it’s the government. Their claim that they’re attacking Iranian proxies is also quite a stretch from the actual situation on the ground. Aaron Maté: In terms of the reasons for US support of the campaign, there’s been talk that it was sort of a payback to the Saudi regime because it was so upset with the Iran nuclear deal. Then the US-Saudi relationship goes back decades based heavily on ensuring US access to oil, but it’s also become very lucrative for the US when it comes to weapon sales. I believe, and correct me if I’m wrong, but President Obama sold more weapons to the Saudis for this conflict than in any other conflict in US history. Sheila Carapico: Yes, I believe that that’s true. President Obama also visited Saudi Arabia more than any other country except, I believe, Mexico and the United Kingdom. I also tend to agree with what you said, which is that although we used to think in terms of the United States maintaining its relationship with Saudi Arabia as being based on oil, and that comes from the oil embargo of 1973 during that Arab Israeli conflict. Nowadays the real basis of the relationship seems to be their incredible arms purchases, and they pay cash unlike many customers for American weapons, including Israel and Egypt, for example where basically it’s at the expense of the American tax payer. In the case of Saudi Arabia they pay for those weapons and it’s extremely lucrative export market for American arms manufacturers. Aaron Maté: Now, one force we haven’t mentioned yet is the Al-Qaeda franchise in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. They’ve gained a significant amount of territory since this conflict began two years ago, and just this week you had a leader of Al-Qaeda saying that they’re effectively allied with the forces that are fighting the Houthis. Can you talk about, well, first of all whether you think that’s true or not, whether what he said about them fighting side by side is correct, and more generally what the impact of this war has had on Al-Qaeda and their presence in Yemen. Sheila Carapico: Oh yes, Al-Qaeda has been a real beneficiary of this war, and Al-Qaeda and the Houthis are bitter enemies. Al-Qaeda representing kind of extreme Salafi, which is Sunni Islam, and the Houthis representing kind of the antithesis of that. They are very much at odds with one another, and one of the great ironies of the American position is that we’re kind of simultaneously supporting the Saudi effort to quash the Houthi movement, and at the same time we’re aiming at Al-Qaeda, so we’re actually fighting two different parties who are fighting one another. It’s a very kind of ironic position that the United States is in. Aaron Maté: Is it not also true that the Saudi coalition, despite the fact that it’s bombing the country heavily, has except for a few occasions pretty much ignored the Al-Qaeda forces inside Yemen? Sheila Carapico: They’ve hardly attacked anything having to do with Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has managed to take advantage of the situation, again as your question suggests. It’s been rumored, I mean, there have been plenty of people saying that Saudi Arabia backs Al-Qaeda, which I mean historically there’s obviously some truth of that. I think room to debate whether that’s currently the case but it didn’t come as a tremendous surprise to a lot of people when that claim was made by Al-Qaeda that we’re basically fighting alongside the Saudi-led coalition because we’re against the Houthis. Indeed, I mean, that’s true, again both Saudi Arabia and Al-Qaeda are fighting against the Houthi. Aaron Maté: Finally, with all these external actors in Yemen right now is there a chance that the indigenous combatants, the forces allied to Saleh on one side versus the forces allied with Hadi on the other, is there a chance that they can bypass all this foreign intervention and forge a peace deal of their own to stop the fighting? Sheila Carapico: There aren’t really forces on the ground who are allied with Hadi, although there definitely are forces on the ground who are opposed to Saleh and the Houthis. There’s the southern movement which basically wants to break off, reestablish the old South Yemen. There are of course various Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda, and then a more mainstream Muslim Brotherhood type of party called Al-Islah. It’s not, I don’t think, outside of the realm of possibility that various groups of Yemenis, if left to their own devices, might be able to find some common ground or find a way to negotiate a settlement. What’s not working at all is the US-supported so-called peace. I mean, again you see frequently or hear, read and hear, that the Saudis are trying to get the Houthis back to the bargaining table. That’s sort of nonsense too, because they don’t want the Houthis to bargain, they want them to surrender. The US participation and the UK in so-called peace talks has involved the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are major belligerents in the conflict, as if they were negotiators. You can’t be both a belligerent and a negotiator, so the existing international efforts are doomed to fail, and therefore if there’s to be any success it would have to come from inside the country. Aaron Maté: Sheila Carapico, a specialist on Yemen and professor at the University of Richmond. Professor Carapico thanks so much. Sheila Carapico: Thank you very much. Aaron Maté: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.