Why Yemen, a shaky US ally against Al Qaeda, is cracking apart

The rivalry between Shiite Houthis and Sunni militants, including Al Qaeda's affiliate, has intensified since a power-sharing deal was reached in September. The US is considering a full evacuation of its embassy in Yemen's capital.  

Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
Students demonstrate against the deployment of armed militia of the Shi'ite Houthi movement at the Sanaa University campus in Sanaa, Yemen, November 12, 2014. The Houthis established themselves as power brokers in Yemen two months ago by capturing Sanaa with scant resistance from the administration of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and began advancing into central and western Yemen this month.

Nearly three years after Yemen ousted a decades-old dictatorship and began a political transition aimed at preventing civil war, the fragile nation is once again on the brink of disaster.

Fighting between Iran-backed Houthi rebels who control the capital, Sanaa, and Al-Qaeda-linked militants appears to be intensifying. In recent days, bombings and gun battles between the two groups and their allies have reportedly killed dozens in central Yemen. And the country’s political leadership is in tatters.  

Under President Obama, the US has strengthened security ties to Yemen in order to go after Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is seen as posing a threat to the US homeland. This includes US drone strikes, which have been stepped up since Houthi rebels stormed the capital in September and asserted control.  

On Sunday a new largely technocratic coalition government was sworn in, bringing on board Houthis as well as representatives of the southern separatist Herak group. However, both the ruling party and the Houthi leadership object to the representation allocated to the opposition Al-Islah party, one of the main losers in the latest political upheaval.

One man widely blamed for the current crisis former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, who stepped down in November 2011 under a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council. The US accuses Mr Saleh of undermining the central government. On Monday, the US government blacklisted him, along with two Houthi rebel commanders, for threatening the country’s peace and stability.

In 2013, after keeping a relatively low profile, Saleh reached out to his arch nemesis the Houthis, a powerful clan in the north that, like Saleh, belongs to the Zaidi sect. Thanks in part to the former president's tribal allies and military connections, the Houthis were able to march from their heartland into the capital, overcoming pockets of resistance from Salafist and Al Qaeda linked fighters.

Today the banner "God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel” adorns Houthi-manned checkpoints in Sanaa and the houses of their supporters. Analysts say the US drone campaign against AQAP has fed anti-US sentiment and indirectly bolstered the Houthis. AQAP claimed last weekend to have planted two explosive devises targeting the US ambassador to Yemen, although these never went off, according to SITE Intelligence Group. Washington is now mulling a full evacuation of its embassy.

Houthi leaders say their main goal is not direct rule in the capital but to influence government decision-making. “The Houthis possess two mandates: to put pressure on politicians to reach political agreements and compromise, and to preserve security in the areas we control,” Hamza al-Houthi, a member of the movement’s political office, told the Yemen Times. 

President's position in peril

It is unclear if the 11th-hour coalition cabinet can steer the nation towards greater stability. In a decision that bodes badly, the ruling General People’s Congress (GNC) party this weekend pulled its support from President Abed Rabbo Mansour, a member of Saleh’s party. The move came in retaliation for the UN and US sanctions slapped on Saleh. 

Violence, meanwhile, continues to grip the country. Analysts warn that AQAP will seek to position itself as the protector of Sunnis, and that Saudi Arabia will back anti-Houthi tribes and Sunni insurgents to counter the influence of Shiite Iran, which is accused of arming and supplying the Houthis.

Most analysts argue that Obama’s strategy failed to degrade Al-Qaeda in Yemen at a time when the US is stepping up its campaign to stop the self-declared Islamic State that is ascendant in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria.   

The only success in the Obama strategy is the lack of any new attempt by Yemen’s Al-Qaeda branch to attack the US homeland, but this comes at the cost of contributing to the destruction of Yemen,” wrote analyst Charles Schmitz in a Nov. 4 article for The Middle East Institute. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why Yemen, a shaky US ally against Al Qaeda, is cracking apart
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today