Yemen is in a civil war. But where is it headed?

Many see the violence in Yemen as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. That's true to an extent, but risks oversimplification. 

Armed militants loyal to Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi ride a patrol truck in the country's southern port city of Aden March 25, 2015.

That Yemen is in the midst of a civil war is now clear, contrary to the opinion of UN envoy Jamal Benomar. Last week witnessed bloody fighting around the airport in the capital, proclamations and threats from deposed President Abdu Mansur Hadi, and the horrific suicide bombing by Sunni jihadis of two Shiite mosques that claimed more than 140 lives.

The real questions now: Where is the civil war headed, and how violent might it become? The US- and Saudi-backed President Hadi is either huddling in the southern city of Aden, which is under assault by the Houthi rebels who seized full control of the capital, Sanaa, in February, or has fled. The ambassadors from most Arab states, who had relocated from Sanaa to Aden, have all departed that city.

Today the Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite revivalist movement that is backed by Iran, overran the country's largest airbase. Just weeks ago it hosted 100 American military advisers, largely focused on fighting Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen branch of the Sunni terrorist movement that has organized a series of foiled plots against Western targets.

The airbase is on the outskirts of Aden, prompting speculation that the city – capital of South Yemen between 1967 and 1990, when the country was reunified – might fall. Mr. Hadi appealed for a UN-led no-fly zone, and his foreign minister appealed for an intervention force of Arab states, something the Arab League is scheduled to take up tomorrow in Egypt.

A major expeditionary force seems unlikely, given the capabilities of the two armies most likely to be involved – Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Neither has strong expeditionary capabilities nor much in the way of the combat experience to take on hardened Yemeni fighters in the mountainous terrain of Yemen.

The last intervention from Egypt

In 1962, in a far different context, Egypt intervened in a Yemeni civil war. At the height of its fight there, Egypt had as many as 70,000 troops in the country. An estimated 25,000 Egyptians died fighting in a war that weakened Egypt's Army ahead of its disastrous 1967 confrontation with Israel and ended then-Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab nationalist dreams.

That was a very different time – the Saudis and Egyptians were on opposite sides of a war that ended with Yemen split in two. Today, they're on the same side, with Egypt heavily reliant on Saudi economic aid. But it's hard to see new additions to the battlefield ending in a happy result.   

Meanwhile, AQAP is benefiting from the chaos, as is the rival Sunni Jihadi group Islamic State, which claims growing numbers of supporters in the country. Both groups are hoping to foment a truly sectarian civil war, something that Yemen has managed to dodge over decades of conflict that have revolved more around regional and tribal rivalries than religion. 

The Houthis are based in the north, and overall, Yemen's Shiites are around 35 percent of the population. But they are not fighting alone. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in a deal brokered by the Gulf monarchies in 2011, but powerful Yemeni military units loyal to him have taken up arms with the Houthis. President Hadi, with backing from Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf monarchies, is barely hanging on.

The war in Yemen is being presented in many venues as a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. That's true to an extent, but carries a risk of oversimplification. The roots of the current conflict lie in Houthi anger over a proposed new constitution that, they said, would unfairly distribute most of the country's resources to the south, leaving their areas in the northwest even more impoverished.

The interests driving this battle can't be tied into a neat bow. Yes there is Saudi-Iran confrontation, but that's a result of Yemen's real divisions, not the cause of them.

The Sunni jihadis are hoping for a sectarian war, much like the one they got after Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – the forerunner of the self-styled Islamic State –bombed the Askariya shrine in the Iraqi city of Samara in 2006. That attack ushered in the bloodiest chapter of that country's sectarian civil war, with tens of thousands of lives lost in revenge and counter-revenge attacks in its aftermath. 

But unlike in non-Kurdish Iraq, where Shiite Arabs are the majority, Sunnis are the majority in Yemen. That could bring a different outcome, something that the jihadis are counting on.

The warlord factor

The good news is that there are anti-jihadi forces on both sides of the fight. The bad news is the strain of warlordism and opportunism that's running through Yemen's overlapping conflicts. Consider Hamza Hendawi's profile of a pro-Hadi militia leader who's one of his most important battlefield supporters.

At 34, Abdul-Lateef al-Sayed al-Bafqeeh is already a battle-hardened figure and a local hero in southern Abyan province. He has survived multiple attempts by Al Qaeda to assassinate him, including a suicide bombing that cost him an eye and nearly one of his hands.

Al-Bafqeeh has thrown his weight behind Hadi for a number of reasons — the president also hails from Abyan province and his government is paying the militia a monthly wage. And to al-Bafqeeh, the joint campaign by Houthis and Saleh looks like yet another attempt by the north to impose its will on his province, this time with the added friction between Shiites and the area's Sunni population.

... During the last years of the rule of Saleh — the autocrat who led Yemen for nearly 40 years until his ouster in 2011 — al-Bafqeeh led a band of fighters who ambushed army convoys, looting their weapons, money and equipment, according to two longtime associates. That's not uncommon in Yemen, where frictions have gone on for years between the Sanaa government and local tribes who accuse authorities of neglecting them.

The two associates said that when al-Qaida fighters first moved into Abyan in early 2011, al-Bafqeeh joined them — out of anti-government sentiment rather than any adherence to militant ideology. He soon broke with the group when local al-Qaida leaders refused to share with him money looted from the local branch of the Central Bank, they said. The two spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals by al-Bafqeeh's men.

Looting, banditry, alliances of convenience with Al Qaeda – and he's among Hadi's best hopes for survival. Though battles can be won with the help of such groups, they are rarely the way to long-term stability and prosperity.

As recently as last June, President Barack Obama was touting US efforts in Yemen, which included a small number of US troops working with the local government almost exclusively on counterterrorism, as a "model" for how the US should approach Iraq and Syria.

It's clear now that the model isn't even a way to approach Yemen, let alone anywhere else.

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