Yemen is a shattered state and putting it back together will be a challenge for decades to come. The best we can hope for in the near term is to contain the instability radiating from the country so that it does not flow northward and destabilize Saudi Arabia. However, Saudi’s policies indicate that the kingdom is unwilling to – and/or incapable of – de-escalating matters. Its current policy has created a massive humanitarian crisis. Furthermore, contrary to Saudi and U.S. intent, the current military offensive is exacerbating regional insecurity. The United States should move beyond supporting Riyadh’s stance and actually help reconfigure the kingdom’s policy toward Yemen to ensure that Iran and/or jihadist forces are not able to expand their influence on the Arabian Peninsula.
A senior commander of the forces of the internationally-backed Yemeni government told Sky News on Feb. 5 that his side – with the support of the Saudi-led coalition — is winning the civil war. Gen. Nasser al-Dhaybani claimed troops loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi are moving closer to the capital Sanaa “every day” and would retake it “as soon as the conditions are right.” These remarks come within days of another schism: Forces loyal to the United Arab Emirates-backed secessionist entity called the Southern Transitional Council (STC) in Aden rebelled against Hadi’s forces after accusing Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr’s administration of corruption. The administration in turn called the STC’s armed uprising a coup.
Contrary to the way in which the current Yemeni conflict (raging since March 19, 2015) has been portrayed generally, this is not simply a proxy geosectarian struggle between Hadi’s pro-Saudi camp and its principal rivals, the pro-Iranian Houthi movement. It is that and much more. Neither of the two main belligerents are monoliths. They are loose coalitions of tribal and regional factions pursuing their respective agendas.
Perhaps the clearest example of this was the Dec. 4, 2017, assassination of Yemen’s longest serving president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, at the hands of his Houthi allies. After more than three decades in power, Saleh was forced to step down on Feb. 27, 2012, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising, via a Saudi-brokered deal. Hadi then succeeded him. Three years later, in a bid to stage a political comeback, the former president switched sides and aligned his faction with the Houthi-led opposition force, which seized control of Sanaa as well as large parts of the country. Two months ago, as part of a deal with the Saudis, Saleh’s faction did another flip-flop and turned its guns against the Houthis – but not before the Houthi militiamen killed Saleh and some of his close associates.
At the time, it appeared as though the pendulum might be shifting toward the pro-Saudi camp, especially when Saleh’s forces vowed vengeance against the Houthis. Indeed, the Houthis have been on the defensive, but largely the conflict has remained a stalemate. In late January the STC uprising made it clear that the Houthi opposition was not the only one with internal problems. Given that the Hadi government is based in the southern port city of Aden, the STC mutiny was a major blow to the pro-Saudi side.
The country’s south has had a separatist tendency since the founding of the modern Yemeni republic in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as a side effect of the Cold War there were two sovereign Yemeni states. One part was the pro-Western Yemen Arab Republic in the north, whose capital was Sanaa, and the other part was the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south based in Aden. The two Yemens moved toward unification in 1990 around the time of the collapse of Soviet Union – a process that was completed in 1994 but not until after a civil war in which the north was able to subdue the south.
Formal unification, however, did not change the fragmented nature of Yemen, which pre-dates the rise of Islam in the 7th century and has only been further reinforced since then. The northern part of the country is culturally dissimilar from the southern half – a product of geography and history. Yet Yemen’s divisions run much deeper than the north-south analytical framework allows. This would explain why very different forces are competing for power in both parts of the country.
In the north, the two main factions are the Houthis and the remnants of the former regime that fractured in 2011. The main dividing factor here is a sectarian one that pits the Houthis, who belong to a Shia Zaydi sect, against the vast majority of the population, who are Sunnis (many of the Salafist persuasion). Overlaying that is a dizzying array of tribal rivalries. Meanwhile in the south, there are secessionists pursuing a non-religious agenda – but large parts of the south are dominated by jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Internal and External Pressures
Since the fall of the Saleh regime, Yemen appears to be returning to its pre-modern roots, with multiple stakeholders competing over more or less the same piece of geopolitical real estate. Many of the contemporary divisions are the result of Saudi efforts since the 1960s to play various factions off one another as a way to deal with the country. However, the kingdom’s ability to manage Yemen is fading as Riyadh makes massive changes to its own political economy – in large part forced by depressed oil prices and an increasingly perilous strategic environment. Not only is the kingdom being challenged by Iran and its Arab Shia allies, but also its problems with the Gulf Cooperation Council are on the rise.
Saudi Arabia’s spat with Qatar continues, and now there is word that differences have cropped up with Kuwait as well. In the context of Yemen, though, it is noteworthy that the STC – a group backed by the United Arab Emirates – has turned against the pro-Saudi Hadi government. This has raised questions about differences between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi regarding Yemen, though the picture remains opaque. At the very least, a key component of the anti-Houthi coalition has fallen out of formation (to say the least).
It would appear that the secessionist STC feels that it does not have to accept a junior status in the coalition led by President Hadi. It needed to remain aligned in order to repel the Houthis back into the north, and now that this threat has subsided, the STC has returned to its separatist agenda. Buoying these southerners is the fact that Hadi’s government remains weak and, being based in Aden, depends on their goodwill. For now, it appears the secessionists are trying to angle for a greater share of the internationally recognized government, but they see the long-term trend of a de facto fractured Yemen and are slowly positioning themselves to pursue their separatist goal.
The Houthis and their Iranian patrons are looking at this emerging dynamic with delight and hope to exploit these divisions among their opponents. Likewise, al Qaeda and even Daesh, which also has a presence in the country, want to take advantage of this complex civil war to expand their footprint in the country with the ultimate aim of taking advantage of the unprecedented transition under way in Saudi Arabia. The longer Yemen’s various wars go on, the more likely it is that instability will spill over into the Saudi kingdom. The Saudi imperative to negotiate with the Houthis from a position of relative strength conflicts with its capability to force the Houthi hand.
Our government should realize that supporting Saudi policy towards Yemen is aggravating a major humanitarian crisis of our time – the biggest cholera outbreak in human history. By continuing to supply Riyadh with weapons, Washington is directly contributing to this catastrophe. Saudi efforts to crush their opponents regardless of the costs in terms of human life itself should be enough to trigger a rethink on the part of the Trump administration. But if the human cost of this war is not enough to recalibrate, then we should think of the long-term consequences of this conflict, i.e., more space for Iran, Daesh, and al-Qaeda to operate. Yemen represents a case where our current policy is not just morally wrong but it will lead to the empowerment of our enemies and those of our Saudi allies. Therefore, it is critical that Washington not just adjust course itself but also use its influence with Riyadh to get the kingdom to engage in a course correction. If we don’t, then we and the Saudis would actually facilitate the very outcome that we are seeking to avoid.
The Trump administration must recognize the risks of supporting the current Saudi effort. We need to get our Saudi allies to pursue a settlement before the cost of one goes up dramatically. As time passes, the situation in Yemen looks increasingly bleak. If Washington does not use its influence with Riyadh to get meaningful negotiations underway soon, then the kingdom itself is at risk and the situation could spiral beyond United States ability to influence. Washington and Riyadh must act before the growing number of self-interested Yemeni factions undermine the diplomatic process and in turn empower Iran and the jihadists.
Kamran Bokhari is the Director of Strategy and Programs at the Center for Global Policy. He also is a senior analyst with the intelligence firm Geopolitical Futures, and a Fellow with the Program on Extremism at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.
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