Demystifying Yemen’s Conflict

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at  a Houthi demonstration in 2014

Yemeni brandishing a jambiya traditional dagger at a Houthi demonstration in 2014

The conflict in Yemen today is incredibly complex and multifaceted, even by the regional standards of the Middle East. The poorest country in the Middle East with a population of 26 million, Yemen has unfortunately found itself at the crossroads of key local and international threats. Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the oldest and most dangerous franchise of Al Qaida is alive and well while in many other countries the organization has relatively declined. Furthermore, the Houthi capture and consolidation of power in the capital Sanaa pushing out Hadi loyalists and the growing southern secessionist movement are both pulling the country in separate directions. Add to that external actors including, but not limited to, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United States, and you get the basics of current situation in Yemen.

Map of control, late January 2014

Map of control, late January 2015

Yemen as we know it today was formed by the unification of two separate states in 1990, though internal friction has persisted intermittently since the merger. Ali Abdullah Saleh, the President of North Yemen from 1978 until 1990, continued as President of Yemen after being accepted via agreement with the South. Nonetheless, South Yemen attempted to secede in 1994, causing a brief civil war that was quashed by the north. Saleh retained power until he was overthrown in 2012 and replaced by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Grievances continued until renewed demonstrations for independence began in 2007 led by the Southern Movement. The southern secessionists have intermittently clashed with security forces and recently have gained more traction due in part to instability in the rest of the country and the success of the Houthis.

The Houthi movement, a Zaidi Shia opposition group stemming from the northern areas of Yemen took control of the capital city from government forces in late 2014. On January 22nd, 2015, President Hadi yielded to Houthi demands and resigned. Composing 35%-40% of the country, the Houthis are if nothing else pragmatic, vowing to work with rival groups and international actors including the United States. Important to note, the Houthis have a unique connection with their Shia counterparts in Iran, receiving significant media backing and alleged arms support. It is also worth pointing out that the Zaidi Shiites, also known as Fivers, differ in belief from the majority of Shiites (Twelvers) in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Both Shia branches are distinct from Sunni Islam, from which AQAP ascribes to a bastardized version of known as Salafi Jihadism.

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Current de facto leader of Yemen, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

AQAP, also known as Ansar al Sharia within Yemen, has been linked to a number of high profile international terrorist incidents including the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in which 17 Americans were killed, the failed “Underwear Bomber” attack in 2009, and the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper shooting of 2015 in which 12 were killed. The group has been the target of one of the longest and most intensive US drone campaigns, behind the drone strike campaign in the AfPak tribal regions. Though both the Houthi and Hadi factions oppose the terrorist group, they’ve been able to launch frequent attacks on Yemeni security forces, notably seizing military bases. It is evident that AQAP has thrived in the unstable environment of Yemen and will continue to persist.

The manner in which the Houthis assumed power has prompted the Gulf Cooperation Council to declare their action as a coup, further underscoring regional obstacles in the road ahead. Soon after, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the takeover in a resolution and called for the Houthis to immediately relinquish control, but the Houthis thus far have remained defiant. If military action is undertaken by GCC or outside forces, the situation will almost certainly devolve into even further chaos. Right now, the future of Yemen rests primarily on the new Houthi leadership in Sanaa and de facto President Mohammed Ali al-Houthi. The Hadi political leadership and their supporters still maintain a significant amount of influence, though any and all negotiations with the new Houthi group in charge are guaranteed to come with tensions and the threat of further violence. AQAP will continue to be a threat regardless of who is in power, and secessionist sentiments will multiply if southerners are excluded or marginalized from the political process.  Ideally, any ruling authority would represent the interests of Hadi and Houthi elements, though the balance within any shared agreement will undoubtedly be questioned. Attempting to facilitate a peaceful political transition to a new government is in the best interests of the region, international community, and Yemeni people, yet to say it is a difficult objective would be an understatement.

 

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