March 23, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The Iraqification of Yemen

• The horrific suicide bombings at Sana’a mosques, which killed at least 137 people, are the worst such attacks in 20 years and an omen of sectarian conflict that the beleaguered country has so far avoided

• With worsening sectarian violence, terrible governance, terrorist groups on the rise, meddling regional powers, and a tribal population awash with weapons but little else, Yemen resembles post-2009 Iraq, with significant differences but troubling similarities

• The Iraqification of Yemen will be a disaster for that country and an international community that is already unable to deal with Syria, Iraq, Libya, and other failing states

• The Houthi advance into the central town of Taiz, after calling for a general mobilization against the supporters of deposed/exiled president Hadi, and the fighting in Aden show the situation is escalating and could easily follow the path of Iraq, as more sectarian violence and regional demands tear the country apart.

Add sectarian suicide bombings to the lengthening list of Yemeni woes. The March 20 attacks on the al-Hashoosh and Badr mosques in Sana’a, which were filled with Zaydis, a Shi'a branch of Islam, killed at least 137 people and might have killed any near-term hope for the country to avoid the one calamity it has succeeded in doing: sectarian killing.

Yemen today resembles post-2009 Iraq, with the poisonous combination of terrible governance, sectarian violence, the presence of serious terrorist organizations, tribal conflicts, an abundance of weapons, geographic splits, and meddling regional powers. In a way, Yemen might be in even worse shape, because the government has collapsed in a way Iraq’s never really did, and Yemen might have unlimited weapons but it is also running out of water. The timing is particularly tragic, since Yemen will fall to the back of the regional crisis queue, behind Syria, Iraq, and Libya, among others.

The situation, even by Yemeni-standards, is explosive, and like a wildfire it is jumping geographic and tribal firebreaks that traditionally might have served to contain the flames. Friday’s suicide bombing in Sana’a was preceded on Thursday by an apparent airstrike on the compound in the southern city of Aden that is being used by deposed president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi following his flight from the capital last month. Hadi supporters blame the Houthi for the attempt on the compound.

After a televised speech by Hadi the day after the Sana’a attacks, in which he vowed to raise Yemen’s flag over the Houthi northern base of support instead of “the Iranian flag,”—a serious escalation of sectarian rhetoric—the Houthi movement called for a “general mobilization” against the supporters of Hadi. Within a day of the call to arms, Houthi rebels took partial control of Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz, in the central part of the country. A late Sunday announcement by the Houthi movement to pursue extremists across the country or else risk a Libya-style chaos is a clear indication the Houthis are moving south.

The complicated internal politics of Yemen make it difficult to not only assess what will happen but to avoid the coming train wreck. The head of the Islah party, Hamid al-Ahmar, is marginalized by his association with the Muslim Brotherhood, cutting vital support from the Arab Gulf countries; while former president Ali Abdullah Saleh is trying to split the middle and present himself and his son Ahmad as the Yemeni version of Egypt’s Sisi, who can battle extremism and restore stability. There are no honest players in Yemen, which confounds outside efforts to help.

At the same time, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters took temporary control of the village of al-Houtha near al-Annad air base, prompting the evacuation of U.S. Special Operations Forces personnel and dealing another blow to counterterrorism efforts against AQAP—the most capable AQ affiliate—at a time when there should be more pressure and not less. AQAP, and to a lesser but equally dramatic extent, the Islamic State, will rush to fill the chaotic vacuum.

The Islamic State, which hasn’t been operational in Yemen but recently announced its presence, has claimed responsibility for the attacks, while AQAP made a point to distance itself from them. If the Islamic State manages to insert itself in any meaningful fashion into the burgeoning conflict, Yemen will resemble Iraq even more. The Islamic State—the offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq—will work to ignite the kind of sectarian nightmare it managed to do in Iraq in 2006, and which has never truly been extinguished. The Islamic State exists for sectarian war, and the Zaydi Shi’a sect that make up 30% of Yemen’s population are an irresistible target for the group. The Islamic State doesn’t have the tribal support of AQAP and it won’t become a major player but it can become a major disrupter.

Completing the Iraqification of Yemen is the machinations of the usual regional suspects, Iran and Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf countries who see every issue through a sectarian lens. Iran strongly supports the Houthis; there are reports of massive Iranian arms shipments to bolster the movement’s already swollen arms coffers—some of which is U.S. military equipment provided to the old regime of former president Salah. Iran has publicly called for Hadi, who is still the internationally recognized leader of Yemen, to leave the country, while Saudi Arabia has denounced the Houthi coup, and moved its embassy to Aden to better support Hadi.

With the international community unable to deal with the current roster of crises spreading throughout the region and regional powers seemingly intent on worsening them, Yemen is in serious trouble. If Yemen follows the Iraq-style spiral into a daily life of persistent government paralysis, sectarian violence, terrorist activities, and regional interference, it will suffer the same countless tragedies as Iraq but with fewer resources to recover.


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