February 12, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Yemen: A Deepening Crisis
As Western officials stationed in Sana’a make for the exits, it is reasonable to ask why now, and under what circumstances might they return. This is the first time the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a has been closed completely; it has never previously done so despite all the threats it has faced since the bombing of the USS Cole in Aden harbor in October 2000, which marked the arrival of Yemen as a key counterterrorism concern. Since then, the main reason that the U.S. and other Western embassies have stayed open and have taken such an interest in the country, despite a multitude of difficulties, has been to help the government combat the threat from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a threat that the U.S. has often stated as being more serious for the homeland than that from the so-called Islamic State.
Yemen’s many other problems, including political instability and economic collapse, though important in themselves, have mainly been seen both in the West and neighboring countries through the optic of counterterrorism. But although the U.S. government cites security concerns as the reason for its withdrawal, it is not AQAP that has driven the Westerners out; in fact, Sana’a is a safer place for them today than it has been at many other times over the past 15 years. The withdrawal is a vote of no-confidence in the intentions and abilities of the newly dominant Houthis to conduct a constructive political dialogue that could lead to national stability. It is also an expression of despair that the situation can only get worse.
The fears for the future of Yemen are well founded, but this is not a good time for the West to turn its back. The political process in Yemen continues to evolve from the mass demonstrations of 2011 that led to the collapse of the dictatorial and divisive rule of the arch schemer, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The arrival of the Houthis and the resignation on January 22 of the government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi are just the most recent bumps in the road. They do not mark its end. The Houthis know that they cannot control the whole country and, like all other groups in this highly tribalized society, they seek just enough inclusiveness and centralization to hold the place together. Their dissolution of parliament is based more on their concern that it was packed with Saleh supporters than on any objection to pluralism. A light central government is also an objective that the UN envoy, Jamal Benomar, has pursued since April 2011; and although he has decided for the moment to stay in Yemen, his authority will be weaker if the UN Security Council is thought to have given up the effort that he represents.
The further danger of reduced international involvement, including the withdrawal of financial and technical assistance, is the assessment that Yemen is or may fast become a failed state will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If so, it is quite likely that Yemen will mark another front line in the sectarian battle that is currently dragging the whole region into existential crisis. Although it is a gross simplification to see the Houthi movement as an agent of Iran, the narrative that it is anti-Sunni is firmly established. However, although the Houthi movement started as a way to preserve the Shi’a-branch Zayidi traditions that had been under attack in the 30 years before Yemen’s unification in 1990, since then Zayidis have become well established throughout Yemeni society, working alongside their Sunni compatriots in all areas of government, including the army and security forces.
As with so many other groups in Yemen, the Houthis, despite their ‘death to America’ slogans, represent essentially local interests trying to preserve control over a share of Yemen’s fast diminishing resources. However, the regional powers appear to see it differently, noting that the Houthis are clearly anti-Salafist. But although this makes them no natural friends of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, it does not make them inevitable enemies, especially as the Houthis are viscerally opposed to al-Qaeda. In normal circumstances a common enemy represents a common purpose, but it is possible that the GCC will see Iran as a greater common enemy than AQAP.
The Saudi Deputy Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, knows Yemen well and has been focused on the threat from AQAP for many years. He above anyone will realize that if AQAP is empowered as a tool to use against the Houthis, it is not Iran that will be the first to suffer, but Saudi Arabia. AQAP is not like the Islamic State. Its global objectives are just as important as its local ones. Prince Mohammed held the first meeting under his chairmanship of Saudi Arabia’s new Political and Security Council on February 11, and has begun to travel in the region. Even if Syria still tops his agenda, it is certain that Yemen runs pretty close. Let us hope that he is able to persuade his colleagues and other states not to consider supporting extremism in Yemen as a way to attack Iran. If they do, the Western embassies will not reopen for many years to come.
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