Yemen Civil War Becoming Regional
With everything going on in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the last thing that the world needed was for unrest and war to spread to yet another country in the Middle East. Yemen, the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula and a historic site of unrest, is the latest to be engulfed in the sectarian conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In recent days, the northern Iran-backed Shiite forces (Houthi) seized the capital of Sana’a, forcing President Hadi, himself a Sunni and backed by Saudi Arabia and the United States, to flee to the southern port of Aden and then to Riyadh. In return, Saudi Arabia, backed by the rest of the Gulf Cooperative Council, began a bombing campaign to stem the Houthi advance.
Reuters (“Yemeni leader Hadi leaves country as Saudi Arabia keeps up air strikes on Houthi rebels“):
Yemen’s President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi left his refuge in Aden for Saudi Arabia on Thursday as Houthi rebels battled with his forces on the outskirts of the southern port city.
Throughout the day, warplanes from Saudi Arabia and Arab allies struck at the Shi’ite Houthis and allied army units, who have taken over much of the country and seek to oust Hadi.
The Saudi-led military intervention marked a major escalation of the Yemen crisis, in which Iran supports the Shi’ite Muslim Houthis, and Sunni Muslim monarchies in the Gulf back Hadi and his fellow Sunnis in Yemen’s south.
Iran denounced the surprise assault on the Houthis and demanded an immediate halt to Saudi-led military operations.
Tehran also made clear Saudi Arabia’s deployment of a coalition of Sunni states against its Shi’ite enemies would inflame the sectarian hatreds already fuelling wars around the Middle East.
Of course, it is far too simplistic to view this new conflict as just a proxy struggle between two regional powers. Yemen in particular has a complex mix of tribes and religions and a history of changing allegiances. In fact, Ali Abdullah Saleh, Hadi’s Shiite predecessor who was deposed in the Arab Spring uprisings, is said to have allied himself with his co-religionists, the Houthis, in an attempt to regain power. His support of the rebels has fractured elements of the Yemeni military along tribal and sectarian lines and adds a personal element of revenge to the mix.
NYT (“Egypt Says It May Send Troops to Yemen to Fight Houthis“)
The Saudi Arabian-led military intervention immediately raised the threat that Iran might retaliate by increasing its own support for the Houthis with money and weapons — as Tehran has in the past — or with a more active military role, escalating the violence. But the struggle for Yemen is more than merely a sectarian conflict or a regional proxy war, in part because of the singular role of Ali Abudullah Saleh, the country’s former strongman.
Mr. Saleh left power under pressure from an Arab Spring uprising under a transitional plan brokered by Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf states. As president, he fought wars against the Houthis and at times appeared to ally with Saudis against Iran.
But he is a member of the same Shiite sect as the Houthis, and he has now struck an alliance with them in an apparent bid to restore himself and his family to power. He has helped lead units of the Yemeni military and security services to swing to the side of the Houthis against his successor, Mr. Hadi, and analysts say Mr. Saleh has played a much more critical role than Iran has in enabling the Houthi advance.
Some of the Houthi allies have even begun calling for the election of the former president’s eldest son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh, as Yemen’s next leader. An ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and a former commander of Yemen’s elite Republican Guard, the face of the younger Mr. Saleh now appears on billboards around Houthi-controlled Sana urging his selection as the country’s next president.
Lest we forget, in the midst of this chaos, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is waiting in the wings and may take up the banner of the Sunni cause in a similar way that ISIS has in Syria and Iraq.
WSJ (“As Yemen Fractures, al Qaeda Looks to Gain“):
With Yemen’s president out of the country and its army fractured, al Qaeda is trying to define itself as the most capable force to protect the Sunni majority and gain support in what it calls a holy war against a Shiite rebel movement backed by Iran.
Western diplomats have warned that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen, could take advantage of the power vacuum to expand.
“We’re watching very carefully at the moment, with all the security failures in Yemen, that the opportunity AQAP has right now may allow them to expand and will enable their activities,” said a senior State Department official.
In the absence of an effective national military, powerful Sunni tribes have mobilized to counter the advancing Houthis forces, who represent a branch of Shiite Islam.
Some have long been a source of support for the AQAP, actively fighting alongside the extremists or turning a blind eye to their activities.
AQAP’s new media liaison claimed the latest fighting would bring new recruits.
The ultimate danger is that Yemen, which has never had a strong history as a centralized state, may degenerate irreparably along sectarian lines or even into a failed state with regional warlords and strongmen in control. It is difficult to see how intervention by the Saudis or the US would help matters in the long run. The situation on the ground is messy, with multiple players and shifting alliances, and as the WSJ article mentioned, foreign intervention may instead lead to lasting resentment among the locals.
Many Yemenis oppose outside intervention to restore Mr. Hadi’s unpopular government. Yemenis also have a history of mistrusting Egypt and Saudi Arabia, leaders of the emerging anti-Houthi coalition, since both countries invaded Yemen during its 1960s civil war.
Indeed, in this part of the world, memories are long and grudges slow to resolve. The long-term consequences of an intervention are unpredictable, and as we saw in Syria, upsetting the balance too much in favor of one party may lead to the rise of extremists. In the end, the best thing for the west to do may be to observe from afar.