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. 

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