Expert Commentary

Al Qaeda, ISIS are ‘Biggest Winners’ in Saudi Campaign

Nasser Arrabyee
Yemeni Journalist and Documentary Producer

As war in Yemen drags on, the people of Yemen are facing severe humanitarian circumstances, with many starving, succumbing to disease, or unable to receive necessary medical supplies. According to Nasser Arrabyee, a Yemeni journalist based in the country’s capital of Sana’a, many Yemenis feel blame their misfortunes on the Saudi-led coalition that continues to conduct regular air strikes in support of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with Arrabyee about the daily difficulties facing the Yemeni population as well as how the U.S. can help bring an end to the country’s three-year-old civil war. 

The Cipher Brief: What is the current status of the battle between Houthi forces and government forces loyal to Yemeni president Adbrabbuh Mansur Hadi?

Nasser Arrabyee: Invading forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are still at war with the Houthis aligned with former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in more than 40 battlefronts in Yemen and inside southern Saudi Arabia in cities such as Najran, Jaizan, and Asir.

The Saudi puppet [Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour] Hadi has no army or tribesmen fighting with him. Nominally, he has two factions that fight on the ground but they are not under his control. The first one is under Saudi Arabia control, and the second is under the UAE. Those under Saudi Arabia are Muslim brotherhood, and al Qaeda and ISIS fighters with their leaders mainly based in Riyadh. And those under UAE are Salafies. The Shiite Houthis are the common enemy of all these Sunni groups from the sectarian point of view.

These Saudi and UAE forces have not made any concrete progress despite the devastating aerial campaign that has taken place over the last three years now as well as the huge military difference between them and the Yemeni side that is fighting with old weapons and is facing a tight blockade.

TCB: How much territory do each of these sides control? 

Arrabyee: Saudi Arabia and UAE forces control most of Yemen’s south and far east, while the Houthis-Saleh control all of the north in addition to the three historically strategic crossing areas between the south and the north: Lawdar (Baidha-Abyan), Baihan (Mareb-Shabwah), and Karesh (Taiz-Aden).

Simply, Hadi says he controls 85 percent of the territory and that the Houthis-Saleh control 15 percent. If you turn it the other way around, you would find the truth.

The territory controlled by the Houthis-Saleh, especially the capital Sana’a, is safe and free from vandalism, chaos, or assassinations for both northerners and southerners. This means that thousands of displaced southerners have chosen to move to Sana’a to be safe.

But the territory under Saudi-UAE occupation, especially Aden, the capital of the south, is not safe, with vandalism and assassinations taking place almost daily.

Throughout this conflict, Hadi could not find even a place to sleep in the Republican Palace of Al Masheek of Aden or in any place in the south including his home village Wade’e in Abyan. So he had been sitting in a luxurious hotel in Riyadh until now.

To add insult to injury, the UAE no longer recognizes Hadi’ legitimacy as a president, although Saudi and its main partner in the aggression on Yemen, the UAE, publicly say that they are fighting in Yemen only to reinstate Hadi as president.

UAE forces have prevented Hadi’s airplane from landing in Aden airport twice this year. And UAE also forced the governor of Aden Abdul Azeez Al Maflahi ( muslim brotherhood, appointed by Hadi) to leave for Riyadh and replaced him with someone loyal to the UAE.

Although Hadi says that UAE acts in Yemen as an occupier, he can’t do anything from his hotel to stop them.

TCB: Is Iran providing weapons to the Houthis? Are Iranian soldiers fighting directly alongside the Houthis?

Arrabyee: Iranian involvement in Yemen is a big Saudi lie, and it is an extortionate American exaggeration.

Yes, Iran has been winning over the last three years. Iran is the second biggest winner from U.S.-backed Saudi aggression on Yemen after al Qaeda and ISIS. No Iranian weapons at all are entering into Yemen and no single Iranian soldier is fighting here.

But of course Iran is profiting from the situation, benefiting from the Saudi stupidity and exploiting all the situation for its favor, which has fueled rising anti-American sentiment in Yemen and whole region. However, Iran media and political support to Yemenis cannot be denied.

With more Yemeni ballistic missiles being fired into Saudi Arabia, a recent one to Yanbu oil facility west of Al Madina, the Saudis accuse Iran of being behind such missiles. Last month, Houthi top leader threatened to launch a long-range ballistic missile to Abu Dhabi, capital of UAE, the main partner of Saudi coalition of aggression on Yemen.

TCB: How would you describe the humanitarian crisis on the ground? 

Arrabyee: It’s a catastrophe that nobody has ever seen before. Ironically, it’s the Saudi-made catastrophe that has cost, and is still costing, hundreds of billions of dollars in the poorest country in the world.

Yemen is plagued by a Saudi-made famine and Saudi-made cholera. By destroying food and clean water facilities, the Saudis have made the worst cholera outbreak in the world. The epidemic killed about 3,000 from last April and infected 700,000, with 7,000 new people being sickened everyday, especially children. More than two million children are malnourished with one child dying every five minutes.

About 20 million Yemenis are being starved by the U.S.-backed Saudi blockade. It’s not only about cluster bombs that kill as many as possible at homes, schools, hospitals, markets, weddings, and funerals, but also about using food, medicine, and fuel as weapons to kill more Yemen humans.

For three years now, the U.S.-backed Saudis have been using all dirty means of blockade to starve Yemenis to death or to submission. But they failed and they will never ever succeed.

TCB: Are people receiving the food and supplies that they need? 

Arrabyee: The people of Yemen, now including the middle class, receive 90 percent less than the amount of food that they need. There is no money and no salaries are being paid.

Saudi Arabia has stolen the salaries of all (about one million) public servants, which means about 10 million Yemenis have been unable to buy any food, water, or medicine or any life-saving supply for one year now – only internal external charities have helped them survive.

With U.S. and UK encouragement, Saudi Arabia deliberately dismantled the central bank in Sana’a, which resulted in no liquidity and no salaries.

Over five million students might not go to school because their teachers have not received their salaries for one year. Many students will likely go fight and defend their country against U.S.-backed Saudi invaders if their schools are kept closed.

The step of cutting salaries was intended to strangle the Yemenis and force them to surrender, but it did not work as some Western officials expected. It was counterproductive. Yemenis have resisted Saudi arrogance and injustice and see that death is better than life without dignity.

TCB: Has al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula taken advantage of the war to gain territory and become more prominent in Yemen?

Arrabyee: Al Qaeda and ISIS are the biggest winner of U.S.-backed Saudi aggression on Yemen.

Everyone who fights with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen is either al Qaeda, ISIS, Salafi or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Arabia calls these groups “resistance or national army” to fool Americans.

The Saudis give them salaries, weapons, and everything they need to fight the Houthi-Saleh alliance.

TCB: What can the U.S. and the international community do to help resolve the crisis in Yemen?

Arrabyee: The war here in Yemen is seen as an American war more than anything else. The U.S. is the only country who can end Saudi aggression in Yemen in minutes, if U.S. President Donald Trump so desires. Ending the war is not done by stopping arms sales to the Saudis, stopping the refueling of war planes, or stopping intelligence sharing, but by clearly saying to the Saudis: “Stop the war. We are not a blank check.” The Saudis know that they kill and destroy Yemen in the name of U.S., and Yemenis feel that they are being killed by Americans but with Saudi hands.

It’s in the United Sates’ interest to end the war in Yemen and support a united, independent, modern, and democratic state.

But Saudi Arabia has no interest in a stable state, the interest of Saudi Arabia is in a stateless Yemen, but under Saudi control, despite the fact that a lawless Yemen costs the neighboring Saudis much more than a stabled one.

Therefore, the U.S. needs temporarily to put aside its interests while helping Yemen stand up. Helping Saudi Arabia in killing and destroying Yemen will only result in strengthening al Qaeda and ISIS, which is the enemy of U.S. and the world.  

TCB: Do you see the potential for a peace deal in the near future?

Arrabyee: No, there will be no peace deal in the near or distant future without the will of the U.S. administration to reach such a deal. I said this about two years ago, here in The Cipher Brief, and nothing has changed.

Saudi Arabia wants to destroy Iran by destroying Yemen, this is a big mistake. Iran is happy to see the Saudis fight while Iran loses nothing.

If U.S., UK, and French leaders think that a peace deal will come about by supporting their beloved oil-rich, Wahabi Saudi regime in starving Yemenis to death or submission, then they are completely wrong.

The Author is Nasser Arrabyee

Nasser Arrabyee is a Yemeni journalist based in Sanaa and operator of the Yemen Alaan media company. He has written for several international publications, including the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Majalla, Bloomberg News Agency, IRIN, Ahram Weekly, Gulf News, and the Yemen Observer. He is also the producer of four international documentaries about the wars in Yemen, and is currently authoring a book about conflict in Yemen from 2000 to 2015.

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