Yemen's almost coup a sign of more trouble to come

A Houthi rebel leader stopped short of deposing his rival after his forces sacked the presidential palace today in Yemen's capital.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Houthi Shiite Yemeni gather while guarding a street leading to the presidential palace in Sanaa, Yemen, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. Yemen's US-backed leadership came under serious threat Monday as government troops clashed with Shiite rebels near the presidential palace and a key military base in what one official called 'a step toward a coup.'
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

The long-deteriorating situation in Yemen reached a climax of sorts Tuesday after rebel forces defeated a political rival and took to the airwaves. 

Last September, the Zaydi-Shiite Houthi movement seized control of most of the capital, but under a power-sharing deal left in place the country's president, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, and his government. President Hadi had been elevated to the post as part of a deal brokered by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies following a popular uprising in 2011 that eventually forced out dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh. Both Hadi and Mr. Saleh have collaborated closely with US attacks on Sunni militants in Yemen. 

Today Houthi forces seized the presidential palace in Sanaa, routed soldiers loyal to Hadi, and shelled Hadi's personal home for good measure. Houthi leader Abd al-Malik al-Houthi went on television this evening and accused Hadi of violating last year's power-sharing agreement.

Mr. Houthi, who is 32 years old, also accused Hadi's son of stealing "billions," described the president as a tool of foreign powers like the US, and alleged Hadi was aiding Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to attack Shiites. He said the motivation for seizing the presidential palace was his opposition to a draft of a new constitution and that his movements's actions were intended to enforce the September power-sharing deal. 

His rambling speech, filled with warnings of foreign conspiracies and assurances that the "revolution" will be safe-guarded, was short on details of what his movement plans to do. But the reality is that a rebel movement that draws almost all its support from Yemen's Shiite minority, and is believed to be Iranian-backed, now holds the capital. For the country's Sunni majority, that's bad news. 

What's also clear is that the gun isn't just a tool of Yemen statecraft at the moment – it's the only tool.

In his speech, Houthi also appeared to obliquely threaten the Sunni tribes in Marib province, just east of Sanaa, who he claims have been fighting alongside AQAP, with the Hadi government's help. If he makes good on that threat, the country's already unstable situation could get a lot uglier. Yemen has suffered years of war and turmoil, but not tipped into an all-out sectarian civil war. That now seems a possibility. 

Drone campaign vs AQAP

The US interest in Yemen has been extremely narrow for over a decade. AQAP has emerged as the wing of Al Qaeda most interested in attacks on the West, and a drone assassination campaign by the US has killed dozens of alleged Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen, most recently 9 people in Shabwa province at the start of December.

And though the Obama administration has praised developments in Yemen since Saleh's government collapsed, that is at best a consequence of rose-colored glasses.

In July, Obama spoke of how the US had a "committed" counterterrorism partner in Hadi and described the country as a "model" for America's emerging strategy of fighting Sunni militants in Iraq and Syria without putting many soldiers on the ground. Obama spoke of "a wide-ranging national dialogue [in Yemen that] helped to give people a sense that there is a legitimate political outlet for grievances." That didn't exactly map onto what Yemen watchers saw at the time as a country tottering from crisis to crisis, with warlordism increasingly displacing traditional politics.

The country's Zaydi Shiites, sometimes called "fivers," are dominant in the north near the Saudi border and make up about 30 percent of the national population. Saudi Arabia and many Yemeni Sunnis now view them as tools of Shiite Iran, while the Shiites view Al Qaeda's presence in Yemen a result of Saudi sponsorship. The 2011 agreement is viewed by the Houthis, a movement founded in the early 1990s by Hussein Bader al-Houthi, as a result of Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council meddling. 

The events of the past few days have also increased the chances that Yemen could, once again, cleave into two. Between 1967 and 1990 Yemen was de facto two countries, with a Soviet-proxy in the south with its capital at Aden. 

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