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Yemen Falls Apart

Suicide-bombers killed at least 137 people and wounded more than 350 in Yemen at two Shia mosques in the capital city of Sanaa on Friday. The very next day, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula seized control of the city of al-Houta, and the day after that, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebel movement conquered parts of Taiz, the nation's third-largest city. Rival militias are battling for control of the international airport in the coastal city of Aden, and the US government just announced that American troops are evacuating Al Anad airbase.

ISIS is taking credit for the Sanaa attacks. “Infidel Houthis should know that the soldiers of the Islamic State will not rest,” it said, “until they eradicate them and cut off the arm of the Safavid (Iranian) plan in Yemen.” Al Qaeda has a much larger footprint in Yemen, so the ISIS claim is a little bit dubious, but ISIS is on the rise there and its attitude toward Shia Muslims is more bloodthirsty—more explicitly genocidal as the quote above shows—than Al Qaeda's.

Regardless of who committed the latest round of atrocities, everything in Yemen is about to become much, much worse. The region-wide storm of sectarian hatred has been gathering strength by the year for more than a decade, and it blew the roof off Yemen earlier this year when the Houthis, who are Shias, seized control of the capital and sent Sunni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi into semi-exile in Aden.

The Houthis see their takeover of the city and government institutions as a natural progression of the revolution in 2011 that toppled former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it isn't, not really. While they enjoy some backing beyond their Shia support base, the sectarian dimension is inescapable. Shias make up almost half the population, and the Sunni majority is keenly aware that minorities in the Middle East are capable of seizing power and lording it over everyone else—especially if they're sponsored by a regional mini superpower like Iran. Syria has been ruled by the Iranian-backed Alawite minority for decades, and Saddam Hussein used brute force to bring the Sunni minority to power in Iraq.

Still, the Houthis have virtually no chance of ruling the entire country. Their “territory,” so to speak, is restricted to the northwestern region surrounding the capital. Previous governments had a rough go of it too. South Yemen was a communist state—the so-called People's Democratic Republic of Yemen—until the Soviet Union finally ruptured, and four years after unification with North Yemen, the armed forces of each former half declared war on each other.

Far more likely than a comprehensive Houthi takeover is a new and more dangerous phase of Yemen's endless self-cannibalization—more dangerous because this otherwise parochial and irrelevant conflict has been internationalized, with ISIS, the Saudis, and Iran squaring off against each other in yet another regional proxy war.

The Houthi movement is named after Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, an insurrection leader killed by the former government in 2004. They are Shias, but unlike the “Twelver” Shia Muslims of Iran—who revere eleven imams and await the birth of the occluded twelfth—most of Yemen's Shias are “Fivers.” Iran doesn't mind. From its point of view, better the odd “Fiver” Shias than Sunnis, but all that really matters is that the Houthis are willing to say yes to Tehran, its weapon shipments, and its top-notch military advisors and trainers. 

The next-door Saudis, of course, are backing what's left of Hadi's former government down in Aden. They've been Yemen's primary patron since the 1930s and won't sit back and idly watch as Iran's Islamic Revolution is exported to their back yard any more than the United States would have allowed the Moscow to conquer Canada during the Cold War.

Yemen's conflict is tribal, sectarian, and political at the same time, and it's becoming increasingly internationalized even as the US is leaving. It's also a little bizarre. Last month, President Hadi declared Aden the new capital, though no one in the world, not even his allies, recognize it as such. A few days ago a Houthi-commanded military jet flew over the city from Sanaa and fired missiles at his residence.

The US has few friends and even less leverage, especially now that it's all falling apart, so Washington is washing its hands and bringing everyone home. All we can really hope for there is less instability, not so much because Yemen's local squabbling affects us—until now it hardly registered outside the country—but because dangerous adversaries that threaten the West are hoping to expand their base of operations and their ability to export malfeasance everywhere else. Let's not forget that Osama bin Laden's family is of Yemeni origin, as was Anwar Al-Awlaki, one of Al Qaeda's chief propagandists before the Pentagon vaporized him with a Hellfire missile in 2011. The deadliest bomb-maker in the world plies his trade with Yemen's branch of Al Qaeda and has planned at least three attacks against commercial airliners. And now that Iran is involved in the Saudi family's sphere of influence and the Sunni majority is backsliding, ISIS and Al Qaeda are gaining even more traction.

Consider the city of Radaa. Al Qaeda briefly seized power there in 2012, but local tribesmen and government troops drove them out. Now that the Houthis are in the saddle in Sanaa, however, the tribes in Radaa are siding with Al Qaeda again. Al Qaeda's takeover of al-Houta three days ago shows that Radaa is anything but an isolated case.

All this parallels events in Iraq. The Sunni tribes of Anbar Province forged an alliance with American soldiers and Marines against Al Qaeda in the mid-2000s, but after the US withdrew and President Nouri al-Maliki ruled the country as a heavy-handed Iranian proxy, many tribes in Anbar switched their allegiance to ISIS.

Yemen may well turn into the Iraq or Syria—take your pick—of the Arabian Peninsula. All the US can really do at this point is watch in horror as the Middle East continues to chew its own leg off and malefactors with global ambitions thrive in the chaos.

Postscript: My latest collection of dispatches, Tower of the Sun: Stories from the Middle East and North Africa, is now available in both trade paperback and electronic editions.

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