Foreign Relations & International Law

Middle East Ticker: Yemen’s War Grows Worse, Lebanon Agrees on a President, and Protests Erupt in Morocco

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, November 1, 2016, 9:30 AM

The Yemen War is a Disaster, But Why Would the Houthis Attack Mecca?

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The Yemen War is a Disaster, But Why Would the Houthis Attack Mecca?

The disastrous civil war in Yemen escalated again over the past week. After a planned ceasefire expired on October 22 without ever really taking hold, U.N. Yemen envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed attempted to restore momentum to the peace process with a new proposal. Under the terms of the arrangement, members of the internationally-recognized Yemeni government would step down or accept diminished roles in exchange for a Houthi withdrawal from major cities. Despite support for the plan from the United Arab Emirates, Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi reportedly wouldn’t even look at the proposal at a meeting with Ahmed and dismissed it as “a door towards more suffering and war.”

Hadi’s assessment aside, the past week saw the severity of the war grow more dire. Airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led intervention force on Saturday killed 17 civilians when they struck a residential district in Taiz and, later that day, targeted a prison near Hodeida in three successive strikes, killing 60 people, including inmates being held by Houthi forces. Juan Cole writes that, despite Saudi officials’ claims that the site was a command and control center for the Houthis and that “targeting protocols and procedures were followed fully,” the attack could be a war crime because it knowingly targeted civilians held in captivity. Saudi Arabia is still dealing with the fallout from its deadly attack on a funeral in Sanaa on October 8 that killed on 140 people. Saudi officials said the attack was a mistake based on faulty intelligence, but Human Rights Watch called it “unlawfully disproportionate” and Ryan Goodman wrote last week for Just Security that “[if] the targeting of civilians at the funeral were done intentionally or recklessly, then it would constitute a war crime under international law.”

The recent strikes have drawn a strong rebuke from the United States. At the United Nations yesterday, Amb. Samantha Power called on Saudi Arabia to stop escalating the conflict. “Airstrikes that hit schools, hospitals and other civilian objects have to stop. In many cases these strikes have damaged key infrastructure that is essential to delivering humanitarian aid in Yemen,” she said. The U.S. military is still providing logistical assistance to the Saudi intervention, though, and it is unclear whether the administration is conducting a review of it support that was announced after the October 8 strike.

Perhaps the most significant indication of the direction of the conflict, though, was a strike that didn’t reach its target. The Saudi coalition accused Houthi forces in Yemen of firing a new missile, the Burkan-1, toward Mecca. The missile, which the Saudis said was intercepted by its air-defense system, appears to have been an extended-range variation of a Scud missile, according to Jeffrey Lewis, who discussed the Burkan-1 with the Atlantic Council’s Aaron Stein on the most recent episode of his Arms Control Wonk podcast. But more significant is the supposed target—specifically, that the Saudis would accuse the Houthis of attacking the symbolic center of the Muslim world. That’s a huge claim—as Lewis notes, it is almost impossible to determine the intended target of an intercepted missile—and it doesn’t make much sense. The Houthis are a Zaydi Shia religious revivalist movement. They are zealots, and Mecca is sacred to them for all the same reasons it is sacred to Sunnis. Threatening to destroy their most holy city is anathema to their beliefs.

The Houthis, for their part, deny the accusation. Houthi media reported that the intended target was the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah. That would still clearly be a civilian target, making the attempted strike a war crime. So what advantage does Saudi Arabia gain by upping the ante and suggesting the target was Mecca? Hisham al-Omeisy, a political analyst based in Sanaa, astutely noted that the move is a sectarian provocation and an invitation for jihadists to join the war against the Houthis. “Keep an eye on ISIS fanatics escaped Mosul & showing up on Saudi border to ‘defend Mecca against Shiite Houthis,’” he tweeted on Friday. “Cannot stress enough how dangerous Saudi playing Mecca card is. Despicable religious & sectarian ploy prompting an ISIS on steroids.”

The humanitarian toll of the conflict is already staggering and getting worse. Half of Yemen’s population is suffering from food shortages, and 1.5 million children are clinically malnourished, the United Nations said Friday. Photos of a starving young woman, Saida Ahmad Baghili, that went viral last week were a shocking reminder of what those statistics mean. Baghili, an 18-year-old from a village near Hodaida, was photographed on being admitted to a hospital after being forced to subsist on juice, milk, and tea. Over the past month, the country has also been struck by a growing cholera epidemic. The World Health Organization first reported the outbreak toward the beginning of October, noting that they were tracking 24 suspected cases in Sanaa. That number has skyrocketed in the past three weeks to more than 1,400 suspected cases spread across 10 governorates.

Lebanon Finally Gets a President

After a political stalemate that lasted nearly two-and-a-half years, the Lebanese parliament voted yesterday to elect Michel Aoun as the country’s president. The office has been vacant since the previous president, Michel Suleiman, completed his six-year term in May 2014. Under Lebanon’s confessional power-sharing arrangement, the president must be a Maronite Christian (the prime minister is allocated to the Sunnis and the speaker of the parliament to the Shia), but for the past 29 months the parliament had been unable to reach the necessary majority in deciding who that Christian should be. Early on, Lebanon’s Sunni-led and Saudi-backed March 14 Alliance, which includes Saad Hariri’s Future Movement party, supported the election of Samir Geagea, a staunch critic of Hezbollah and the Assad regime, but couldn’t pull enough votes. (Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro joked at the time that the opposition to Geagea would sooner elect a stapler.) The rival March 8 Alliance, which includes Hezbollah, leaned toward Aoun, who hung back in the initial rounds of sparring for the presidency. The long stalemate withstood failed efforts by the March 14 Alliance to flip Aoun’s allegiance to their coalition, as well as attempts to find a consensus candidate pulled from the military.

A new round of political maneuvering over the last several months finally broke the deadlock. Reuters reports that an arrangement was reached in which Hariri would throw his support behind Aoun in exchange for a return to the office of prime minister (which he previously held from 2009 to 2011). Hariri, whose family business empire has been stung by Saudi Arabia’s economic crisis and who has been facing an insurgency within his party, is in need of a win and “saw the deal as necessary to guarantee his own political survival,” Maha Yahya wrote last week for Diwan. Despite the promise of the prime minister spot, many will see the deal as a concession to Hezbollah, the organization responsible for assassinating Hariri’s father. “While each party in Lebanon is offering their spin on the Presidential bargain, there is no question that it is Hariri who pivoted 180 degrees and blinked by nominating Michel Aoun,” Joyce Karam wrote in a column for Al Arabiya. Still, it’s unclear how much Hezbollah gains by Aoun’s election. Yahya writes, “Hezbollah has held Aoun up as its only candidate, even though it is the view of many people that the party only did so to perpetuate the presidential vacuum, believing Aoun would never become a consensus candidate. To others, Aoun is an instrument through which the party hopes to continue controlling Lebanon.” What this means in practice is hard to say, but Yahya predicts that Aoun’s election heralds the end of the March 8 and March 14 blocs and a transition to a new political equilibrium.

Aoun was briefly the head of his own government in the late 1980s during the late stages of the Lebanese Civil War; at the time, he was fighting against both Syrian and rival Christian forces. “In 1990-91 General Michel ‘Aoun was the sworn enemy of Syria; when he returned after years in exile he was Syria's friend, and is now Hizbullah's favorite Maronite,” the Middle East Institute’s Michael Collins Dunn wrote last week on his blog, charting Aoun’s “chameleon-like shifts.” His goal throughout has been the presidency, which was "overriding any other concern," Amb. Jeffrey Feltman wrote in a 2006 U.S. diplomatic cable. Now he has it at age 81, nearly three decades after being forced out of the country, thanks to a set of bedfellows that is strange even by Lebanese standards.

Morocco Has an Arab Spring Moment

Protests erupted across Morocco over the weekend in anger and solidarity over the death of Mouhcine Fikri, a fish merchant in the city of Hoceima. Fikri had an expensive supply of swordfish confiscated by authorities on Friday due to seasonal fishing regulations and was killed when, as he tried to recover his merchandise from a garbage truck, the truck’s trash compactor was activated. The anger the incident has generated has drawn comparisons between Fikri’s death and the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street merchant who immolated himself after his fruit cart was confiscated by authorities and whose death provoked the first protests of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The weekend demonstrations were organized by the February 20 Movement, a Moroccan activist group that emerged from Morocco’s 2011 protests. Those protests were mild compared to those in other Arab Spring countries, largely because the monarchy headed them off early with the promise of sweeping constitutional reforms. Those reforms have largely been implemented and were on display in the country’s parliamentary elections earlier this month, but this has done little to devolve power from the monarchy, and some critics of the government have complained recently about the level of censorship and intimidation from authorities. If measured by “the achievement of campaign objectives,” Adria Lawrence, a professor at Yale University, wrote earlier this year, the February 20 Movement “has been an abject failure.” The Moroccan government has again tried to deflect the public outrage: King Mohammed VI called for “a careful and thorough investigation” of the incident and Interior Minister Mohamed Hassad issued a strong condemnation of the police’s actions. "No one had the right to treat him like this," he told AFP. "We cannot accept officials acting in haste, anger or in conditions that do not respect people's rights." This morning, authorities arrested 11 men connected to Fikri’s death on charges of involuntary manslaughter and forgery of public documents.

But it is unclear whether these actions will be enough to tamp down the anger that Fikri’s death has tapped. “People are really pissed off, and can’t keep being silent anymore,” a union leader told the Associated Press while protesting this weekend in Rabat. Another protester in Rabat told the Associated Press that “what happened in Al Hoceima should not happen in 2016. This way of killing people by the police, our grandfathers are used to it, but we should not be used to this. We cannot accept this kind of treatment any more.”

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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