There is a temptation among many commentators to paint the current Civil War in Yemen as a straight forward war between pro-Iranian Houthi Shi’as loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the forces loyal to deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who are supported by America, Britain and Saudi Arabia.
Of course there are also al-Qaeda and ISIS forces in the country fighting a kind of Saudi proxy war on top of the official Saudi war.
What is less mentioned than the sectarian elements of the conflict, are the regional and historically ideological elements of Yemeni history which are at play. I am speaking of al-Hira or The Southern Movement, founded in 2007 with the aim of re-establishing an independent state in South Yemen.
Officially formed in 1967 as People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, South Yemen was the only Soviet style communist country in the Middle East. A short but deadly power struggle in the Marxist-Leninist state for control of the ruling Socialist party in 1986 severely weakened the country, which eventually merged with the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) in 1990, to form the Republic of Yemen. The decline of the Soviet Union also played a part in the push for unity.
But southern grievances continued into the 1990s. In 1994, a resurgent south led a civil war in protest at Sana’a’s alleged ill-treatment and economic deprivation of the south of Yemen.
The civil war was odd for many reasons, not least because Soviet trained Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi sided with the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in the north. The fact that Saleh would become Hadi’s rival in the current civil war is a supreme irony of history.
Another odd fact of the 1994 civil war in Yemen is that Saudi Arabia sided with socialist southern forces whilst the US sided with the north. Saudi Arabia in this instance took a rare pragmatic decision to favour a divided neighbouring state rather than a potentially rivalrous united Yemen.
Currently, the Southern Movement have sided with the Hadi government. Hadi was himself born and raised in the south and when he was deposed by Iranian backed Houthi rebels, he fled to Aden, the former capital of the South.
So now one has a former supporter of a united Yemen fleeing to the Southern Movement stronghold of Aden where he is being supported by the US, Britain and Saudi Arabia. China incidentally gives tacit support to the Southern Movement, putting it strangely in league with the western coalition.
The complexities of the current civil war are a good reason why Russia, in spite of some vague Houthi sympathies, has decided to stay neutral in the conflict. Russia traditionally has supported whatever Yemeni government claims legitimacy since 1990.
Whilst no country’s foreign policy can claim the absolute moral high-ground, when it comes to a geopolitics Russia and the USSR have generally held a better moral position than the US, Britain or France.
In this sense, the Syrian crisis contrasts sharply with that in Yemen. In Syria the lines between ‘good and evil’ are crystal clear. On one side is the legal government of Bashar al-Assad, who is fighting for a secular state where all religious factions are treated as equals under Syrian law. Prior to the Gulf and western backed atrocities in the country, Syria was a place where Sunni, Shi’a and various denominations of Christians lived side by side in peace and prosperity. Syria was a place where men and women of all backgrounds could attain a world-class education in a society where music, modern social activities and the legal sale of alcohol was the norm. In regions of Syria controlled by the government, all of this remains true to this day. The fact that many Syrians communicate via social media with people around the globe, is demonstrative of the educated, tolerant society that is Ba’athist Syria. The terrorists trying to undermine President Assad and the Syrian constitution, seek to take the country into a dark age of religious extremism and sectarian violence.
Such things cannot be said of Yemen, where a power struggle is taking place on top of a sectarian struggle, which is all occurring through the prism of Yemen’s historical regional and ideological divides.
The best thing a country like Russia can do is stay well away from this violence, not least because it already seems the US and Saudi Arabia may be using the Yemeni Civil War as a pretext for a larger regional war against Iran.