Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen (3/3)
Daniel Martin Varisco: What went wrong in Yemen is what usually goes wrong when you have a history of colonialism, ongoing interference from outside forces, sectarian blindness, and massive wealth at the service of mischief
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the Real News Network. We’re continuing our series of interviews with a short history of Yemen. I’m going to quote one more time from the article Proxy Morons: The Demolition of Yemen. It’s actually a piece I already quoted in the previous segment, but it’s worth saying again. It’s going to pick up where we left off in the story.
“What went wrong is what usually goes wrong, no matter the context, when you have a history of colonialism, ongoing interference from outside forces, sectarian blindness, and massive wealth at the service of mischief.” Now to give us a history of that mischief, joining us is Daniel Martin Varisco. Thanks for joining us again.
DANIEL VARISCO, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN INSTITUTE FOR YEMENI STUDIES: I’m glad to be here.
JAY: So let’s pick up. You were saying when you were there, I guess you were saying, in the early ’70s, Yemen seemed filled with promise. So what went wrong?
VARISCO: Well, several things. One of them was that it was a very poor country, as we all know. There was development aid coming in from everywhere. The Americans were there, but so were the Chinese, and I mean Communist China was there. The Russians were there. But it was also a country where there was no strong central government. There was a series of military dictators.
I had mentioned earlier, or you read about [al-Houthi]. He was a very popular leader, but he was assassinated, some say the Saudis had a hand in that, in 1977. I arrived in 1978, and about a month or two after I was there, the fellow who had taken over, a Col. al-Hashmi, was actually blown up by a suitcase bomb that was sent from the president of South Yemen. Whether or not the president sent a suitcase bomb or it was switched, we don’t know.
I remember, I actually walked by the Giada, or the military headquarters, the day that happened. And then I was talking to the people on the street, and they said, well, we’ll see who takes over. Which military guy takes over. And a couple units sort of faced each other, and the guy that came on top was Ali Abdullah Saleh. And at the time, people said, yeah, give him a week, two weeks. This guy’s not going to last. He was sort of a nobody. 33 years later, he showed that he was pretty adept at surviving in North Yemen.
What went wrong. Well, you’ve always had some external power on the outside trying to dictate what was going on. The Saudis were very involved there. The Americans also were very interested. It’s a strategic location on the horn of Africa. And so all kinds of shipping that comes down to the Red Sea goes through that narrow bottleneck, which is the Bab el-Mandab. And it’s right across from Ethiopia and Eritrea, which are not exactly in Somalia. Not exactly the most peaceful places on earth.
So it’s had a lot of foreign interests, shall we say. But we can move forward. You had the first Gulf war, which brought, as I said before, brought many Yemenis back home. And that’s when things really started to go sour. Yemen is not producing much oil today, even though they have had it since the 1980s.
But I think it’s very important to remember that there were Yemenis who went to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets. And when they returned, they were radicalized. And many of them were radicalized against the government, and against the United States. We had the bombing of the USS Cole. Ali Abdullah Saleh basically allowed the Americans to come in, and to investigate.
And Saleh at that point was very eager to have American arms. And so he said, well, I will fight al-Qaeda for you. And actually, for a couple of years, he rounded up many of them. Several were put into prison. Most of those escaped later on. Whether he had a hand in that or not, we don’t know. But it was to Saleh’s advantage not to really go after all of al-Qaeda, because as long as al-Qaeda was there, then he could get military weapons and support.
JAY: I think $140 million just in 2010.
VARISCO: Oh, absolutely. And he was, you know, he was using that to build up his Republican Guard. You know, what would protect him, more than going after al-Qaeda. He sort of had a deal with them. You guys don’t come and attack me, and you know, I’ll sort of lay off and pretend I can’t find you.
All of that, of course, changed during the Arab Spring. Saleh was on the ropes, certainly, and that allowed al-Qaeda, particularly after he was removed from power, to take advantage of the insecurity and gain quite a bit of ground in the South, in the Abyan area. Or at least sympathy from people.
So you know, when you’re talking about what went wrong in Yemen, you have to consider that it’s not independent from what had been going on in the Gulf wars, in the war in Afghanistan. There was a growing resentment of the American military involvement in the area. And then the Houthis come on the scene, they are very much influenced by Iranian rhetoric, you know, death to America, death to Israel, and all of this is happening at a time when Yemen is economically very depressed. The oil that they had was not sufficient to really keep them going.
And Yemen has one of the largest military budgets in the region. It’s extraordinary. And at one point they had over 400,000 individuals in their army, so it’s, there was a lot of emphasis on the military.
JAY: And there’s also this weird, you know, dual kind of relationship with al-Qaeda, where the Saudis would also, if I understand it correctly, ally with al-Qaeda against the Shia, against the Houthis.
VARISCO: Well … okay. Well, the reason that you have al-Qaeda in Yemen is that they were basically forced out of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis got very good at driving these people out, and a number of the leaders of al-Qaeda, it’s called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, were actually coming down from Saudi Arabia.
I’m not sure they were supporting al-Qaeda in any direct way. And the Saudis basically want to be able to control whoever is in power in Yemen. It’s on their border. They certainly don’t want – the Zaydis are fine. They have no problem with the Zaydis. They don’t want to find an Iranian proxy. From the Saudi point of view, Iran has messed up things in Iraq, they’re into Syria, certainly Hezbollah, which has a strong relationship, is in Lebanon. That’s bad enough.
But to have on their Southern border a state that at least in terms of its rhetoric, even if there was no direct military support, was pro-Iranian, that simply was not in the cards.
JAY: The Houthis are rhetorically, ideologically, have connections, sympathy with Iran. But how much are they actual Iranian proxies, versus they have their own agenda?
VARISCO: Well, I think that if you go back to the founder of the movement, who’s saying he was really enthralled with Khomeini, he basically became Ithna-Ashari, or a Twelver Shia.
His brother who is in power now, Abdul-Malik, isn’t quite, at least in public, isn’t quite as pro-Iran. The thing is that Iran has given them moral support. And where else were they going to turn? You know, the Saudis were not really, they had a real problem with the Saudis. The West, you know, Europe, the United States? They were not very interested in what the Houthis were doing. They were supporting Hadi. And the Gulf states, as well. So really, there was no one else the Houthis could turn to for any kind of help or support but Iran.
I do think, however, that Iran did not expect the Houthis to gain what they did, and again, they only gained it because they joined up with Ali Abdullah Saleh. I think Iran was taken by surprise on this. I don’t think it was a calculated move to come to the border of Saudi Arabia and somehow come over the border. I think they sort of got caught up by events.
JAY: So is this a case of the Saudis interfering in what is essentially a civil war?
VARISCO: Well, I guess so. Well, it’s –
JAY: The Arab, the pan-Arab alliance, this military alliance they’ve created, you know, this is all positive in this language of Iran is gobbling up country — you can quote Netanyahu on this, because this is another interesting twist in all this, the convergence of Saudi-Israeli interest. But this language that this is Iran gobbling up country after country, and Yemen is an example of Iran gobbling up a country. Or is it you’ve got an indigenous movement that’s fighting for power, it gets moral, maybe some material support from Iran, but it’s fundamentally a civil war and this pan-Arab military alliance is interfering in it?
VARISCO: Yeah. It’s primarily a civil strife. I mean, the real issues there are who is going to control Yemen? And there are some rather strong disagreements on that.
I firmly believe that if Ali Abdullah Saleh had not been allowed to stay in Yemen with immunity, basically, from any prosecution, and given that most of the army even though Hadi tried to reassemble it was carefully put together by Ali Abdullah Saleh. They were supporting him. That was a recipe for disaster from the beginning. Was a huge mistake to leave Ali Abdullah Saleh over there.
He is for himself. And at one point, it made sense to be with the Americans. At one point it made sense to be with the Saudis. But now he’s trying to angle to get his son Ahmed into power, and he’ll ally with the devil in order to achieve that. But the insecurity that came with the fall of Ali Abdullah Saleh has allowed these, this strife to sort of spill over into other areas. The [Hadi amount] is basically on its own now. The South has a lot of activity by al-Qaeda. Yemen is being torn apart. It’s imploding, if you will.
JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us, Daniel.
VARISCO: I’m very glad to have been here.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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