What The Hell Is Happening In Yemen?

Houthis take control of al-Udayn district in Ibb, Yemen

It looks like the government may soon be overthrown, as US-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is reportedly being held “captive” in his home by Shiite Houthis rebels. Hakim Almasmari and Martin Chulov put the development in context:

The influence of the Houthis has expanded drastically since they stormed into Sana’a last September, rattling a nascent new order that was trying to find its feet three years after a revolt ousted veteran leader Ali Abdullah Saleh. In the five months since, Hadi had struggled to impose his government’s will. Besieged and unable to control key sections of Yemen’s military, he now seems to have few options and officials in Sana’a were on Tuesday speculating that military rule could soon be imposed across the country. The Houthi push was a death knell to a 2011 political transition backed by the Gulf states, which had removed Saleh from power after 40 years. A key selling point of the change had been to introduce broad social reforms that would transform the poorest state in the Arab world. Instead, Yemen remained beset by poverty and political torpor.

The chaos isn’t exactly new:

[T]he government and aligned tribes have been battling the Houthis in the north on-and-off for more than a decade; [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] is active in Yemen’s south, provoking regular US drone strikes; a southern secessionist movement has been gaining strength … According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), close to 16 million people in Yemen – more than half the population – will need humanitarian aid in 2015, of whom eight million are children. More than 330,000 Yemenis are already displaced within the country due to pockets of conflict in both the north and south.

Adam Taylor notes that US policy in the country, which Obama has heralded in the past, will now surely have to change. He points out that “if the broader U.S. policy goal in Yemen is stability, it doesn’t look like a success at all right now”:

It’s important to note that it’s not [AQAP] that is posing the threat to Hadi right now. Instead, it’s members of the Houthi rebel faction, who are believed to be backed by Shiite regional power Iran and who argue that they are oppressed by Yemen’s Sunni majority. It’s also unclear whether the Houthis want to actually force Hadi out, or just use their military success to pressure the government.

The fight against AQAP seems likely to take a hit, however: While the Houthis have battled against al-Qaeda forces before, wider chaos in the country could well help AQAP. The Houthis are also unlikely to be a willing partner for the United States, which they have accused of meddling in Yemen’s affairs in the past.

Mark Thompson reviews our track record:

Christopher Swift, a Yemen expert at Georgetown University, says U.S. efforts in Yemen have been lackluster. “Our relationships, whether they’re political or military, don’t extend beyond the capital,” he says. “The bad guys are out in the field, far away from the national capital, and to the extent we claim to have relationships out in the bush, they’re based on third-party sources or overhead surveillance.”

U.S. goals in Yemen have always been tempered. “We’ve been playing for very limited, very modest objectives in Yemen,” Swift says. “Yemen is still a place where people who want inspiration, or training, or a place to hide can go. AQAP isn’t going away. The Yemenis are not in a position to make it go away, and we’re not willing to help them defeat AQAP decisively.” Between 2011 and 2014, the U.S. pumped $343 million into Yemen, largely to fight AQAP. The U.S. is slated to provide Yemen with $125 million in arms and military training in 2015, in addition to $75 million in humanitarian aid, according to the nonprofit Security Assistance Monitor website.

Jamie Dettmer warns of a coming backlash from the Sunnis, who view the Houthis as an Iranian proxy:

At the weekend, Sunni leaders from southern provinces reacted angrily to the seizing by Houthis of the president’s chief of staff, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, giving them 24 hours to free him and warning they would turn off oil pumps unless he was released. Instead, the fighting escalated. Even before this de facto coup the sectarian power struggle was playing havoc with the government’s battle against AQAP, which is more in the spotlight than ever following the group’s claim of responsibility for the January 7 terror attack in Paris on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. On Tuesday, as the presidential palace was being stormed, al Qaeda fighters came close to assassinating a top Yemen Army commander in the south, killing five of his guards in the attack, military officials said.

The extremists are issuing new threats against the West as well, and Bruce Riedel adds that a Houthis victory will further strengthen AQAP’s hand by positioning it as the protector of Sunni rights:

Yemen doesn’t feature often in American foreign policy discussions so it’s no surprise that President Obama didn’t mention it in his State of the Union speech. This is all the more true when one realizes we have very little leverage to influence the outcome in Yemen. Hadi was our best bet. But it is indicative of the complex challenges America faces in the Islamic world and the urgent need for a smarter strategy to deal with it.

The president rightly said America needs a smarter strategy to fight terror that avoids drawing us into quagmires like Iraq. He is right to say we need local partners to fight extremism. He’s right to say sending lots of American boots into civil wars is a mistake. Yemen was supposed to be a role model for this smarter approach of building local capacity and getting our allies to do more. It’s a sobering reality that it’s not working.

(Photo: The militants of a Shiite Ansarullah group, known as Houthis, settle in al-Udayn district of Ibb governorate in Yemen after taking control of the city following clashes with Ansar al-Sharia, an alias for Al-Qaeda in Yemen, on November 07, 2014. By Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)