Dr. W. Andrew Terrill
The large and strategically located country of Yemen is again in crisis. The moderate government of President Abed Rabbu Hadi has been driven from several key cities, including the capital of Sanaa, by the military offensives of Shi’ite Houthi rebels and their allies from the former regime of ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi has been forced to flee Yemen to Saudi Arabia, while his remaining stronghold of Aden has been under Houthi siege. To help the beleaguered president, a Saudi Arabian-led military coalition initiated a bombing campaign on March 26, 2015. The intervention has been aimed at supporting Hadi, a fundamentally decent and pro-American politician, who has nevertheless been a weak leader, often outmaneuvered by his many domestic enemies.
The near anarchy in Yemen is a serious problem for the United States, which has been working with Yemeni military and security agencies to contain and weaken al-Qaeda’s strongest regional affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP has used the crisis to seize and control significant amounts of Yemeni territory including the port of Mukallah, Yemen’s fifth largest city. There is also a limited but expanding role by Yemeni associates of the Islamic State (IS) organization. On March 20, 2015, IS conducted its first major operation in Yemen, using suicide bombers to attack a number of Shi’ite mosques killing 142 people and wounding more than 350. Currently, the United States (like most other countries) is no longer even able to maintain an embassy in Yemen, and its military personnel have been withdrawn due to the security situation, thereby crippling the struggle against Yemen’s terrorist groups.1 Additionally, Washington is also concerned about Houthi ties to the Iranians, which, while sometimes exaggerated, are nevertheless significant.2
The roots of the current crisis began when Houthi rebels from the northern province of Saada seized the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2014. They did so virtually unopposed since many in the military remained loyal to anti-Hadi former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and were consequently not prepared to fight for the current president. After a brief, unsuccessful attempt to work with the Houthis, Hadi fled house arrest in Sanaa in February 2015 and established himself in the southern city of Aden. He clearly hoped to set up a rival center of power there and prove that his presidency was still viable. While Hadi’s ability to do this was always uncertain, he was able to shore up considerable foreign support, with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab powers moving their embassies to Aden. When the Houthis moved to seize Aden and sweep Hadi from his last power base, they triggered Saudi-led military intervention. Riyadh assembled a 10-nation coalition to participate in this effort and has now been bombing hostile targets for over a month, while paying special attention to the protection of Aden. Sunni militia forces in Aden have fiercely resisted the Houthis, who they view as enemies, but not all of these groups support Hadi. Some have instead fought for anti-Houthi reasons or simply because they do not wish any group representing northern Yemen to have authority in the south. Many would like to see the south restored to its previous status as an independent country. Some reports also indicate that Saudi Arabia has also used its embassy in Aden to help organize and fund anti-Houthi tribal fighters, who can often be more effective than the Yemeni regular army.3
Almost immediately after the operation began, Washington offered logistical and intelligence support to Saudi Arabia and its regional partners. The United States established a joint coordination and planning cell in the Saudi operations center, and weapons deliveries were also expedited. The Pentagon also announced in April that the United States was providing aerial refueling for some coalition aircraft.4 Secretary of State John Kerry also warned Iran against efforts to intensify its aid to the Houthis during the fighting.5 He cited flights coming in from Iran, which he seemed to imply were carrying weapons and war supplies. To underscore the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia, Washington sent the aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt and a variety of support ships to the waters off Yemen. The carrier was a reassuring presence to Saudi and Egyptian naval vessels enforcing a newly established UN ban on weapons supplies to the Houthis.6 Washington may have been especially motived to demonstrate support for Saudi regional concerns following the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iranian nuclear issues. The Saudis had reluctantly endorsed this agreement but also had been extremely concerned about such a development for years.
Since April 23, the Saudi-led coalition appears to be moving away from the use of military force and looking toward obtaining their remaining goals through a political solution, having improved the prospects for a favorable outcome through military action. Airstrikes have reportedly destroyed most Houthi heavy weapons and a great deal of ammunition. More importantly, many large military commands are now renouncing their loyalty to former president Saleh and declaring for Hadi.7 The leaders of these forces may doubt there is much future funding for their troops from the Houthis, and they may also calculate that declaring for Hadi will prevent them from being bombed in future military operations by the coalition. Loyalty in Yemen is often based on a cost-benefit approach, and Hadi is now looking more politically viable, with Saleh and Houthis less so. Saleh’s probable plan to use the Houthis to help install his son, Ahmed, as Yemen’s next president now appears in shambles.
While Saudi Arabia-led military intervention has maintained President Hadi as an important figure in future negotiations over Yemen’s political future, there is still a great deal of work to be done in Yemen. The upcoming political talks need to do more than simply use the prospect of Gulf economic aid to attempt to re-establish the status quo prior to September 2014. Many of the traditional Houthi demands for their home province of Saada are reasonable and solvable and should be considered. In recent years, the rebels have consistently maintained that they only seek to protect their traditional autonomy and to claim a fair share of government resources. The Houthis have also strongly objected to what they consider the Yemeni government’s previous coddling of Saudi-supported clerics who have engaged in missionary activity in Saada, where they challenged the legitimacy of the Houthis’ Zaydi version of Islam.8 Zaydism is a form of Shi’ism, although it is much less militant than the politicized Twelver Shi’ism found in Iran. Houthis felt a natural resentment over the Saudi-supported expansion of missionary activities in northern Yemen and the assertions of Salafi clerics that Zaydism is at best a deeply distorted form of Islam. To many northern Zaydis, such clerics, with lavish funding from Riyadh, were a serious threat to the future of their religious sect and way of life. Virtually all of these missionaries have now fled Saada, and the Houthis never want to see them return.
Houthi control of Yemen’s government for any extended period was always a longshot and an unstable way of defending Houthi rights. Their group is too small to do this by themselves, and Saleh might well have betrayed them once it appeared to be in his interests to do so. A political settlement that addresses traditional Houthi economic and religious concerns may therefore be a useful way of supporting Yemeni stability and reducing the perceived Houthi need to seek support from Iran. Additionally, there may be some need to grapple with the issue of southern independence or at least autonomy. Unfortunately, serious progress toward this settlement has to occur quickly, since every day that Yemen does not have even a marginally effective government is a good day for AQAP and IS forces in Yemen, which are taking tremendous advantage of the power vacuum. These are much deadlier enemies than the Houthis, and moving against them is a task that cannot wait.
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