Yemen unrest: What it could mean for US ally against Al Qaeda

Over the past year, Houthi rebels have expanded their sphere of territory, seizing Yemen's capital last September and clashing with government forces today. The upheaval has thrown the already fragile country – and key US ally against Al Qaeda – into chaos.

AP/Hani Mohammed
Houthi Shiite Yemenis guard a street near the presidential palace during clashes in Sanaa, Yemen, Monday, Jan. 19, 2015. Rebel Shiite Houthis battled soldiers near Yemen's presidential palace and elsewhere across the capital Monday, despite a claim of a cease-fire being reached to halt the violence, witnesses and officials said.

Houthi rebels clashed Monday with government forces in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, throwing the already precarious country and the key US ally against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), into further chaos.

Residents of the city told Reuters that there were gunfire and explosions around the presidential palace and the home of the national security chief, though it was not clear whether either official was home. Witnesses also reported fighting around a Houthi base in the city, as well as in the capital's diplomatic quarter. One witness told The Washington Post:

“My house is shaking because of the heavy explosions, and I am unable to leave the house,” Ahmed Al-Yaabori, 32, who lives near the presidential palace said by telephone. The shooting started at 7 a.m. and intensified, he said, adding that he was staying away from the windows in his house because of the raging clashes.

“The street outside my house is empty and it is not safe at all,” he said.

For years, Yemen has been locked in a power struggle between the government and various tribal leaders, including the Houthi clan, a powerful tribe based in the country's north. The Houthis are members of the Zaidi religious sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and are frequently accused of being backed by Iran. The Houthis deny the claim, and say they have been persecuted by the government and are seeking a greater say in Yemen's governance.

Over the past year, the Houthis have been expanding their sphere of territory, beating back Sunni tribes and Al Qaeda militants. They seized Sanaa in September 2014, and have since been pressing the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi for constitutional reform. As The Christian Science Monitor reported around the time of Sanaa's capture:

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.

Today's fighting comes after particularly high tensions between the Houthis and government forces. The rebels on Saturday kidnapped one of President Hadi's advisers, "apparently to use as leverage in negotiations over a draft constitution," The New York Times writes. "Critics of the Houthis called the kidnapping part of a pattern of forceful tactics by the militia and accused them of trying to seize power rather than fulfill promises they made after entering the capital in September."

The Houthis say that they are acting to stop the enactment of a constitutional reform that would devolve powers to six federal states in the country. “We stressed that we will not allow a constitution that divides Yemen into six states. Hadi knows this is a red line,” a top Houthi official told the Wall Street Journal.

The Wall Street Journal notes that the upheaval in Yemen will likely have consequences for the US in its campaign against AQAP, an Al Qaeda offshoot based in Yemen and widely believed to have the greatest global reach. AQAP claimed responsibility for the attacks in Paris against satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo earlier this month, though that connection has yet to be proven.

Hadi has been a key US ally against AQAP. But the WSJ writes that "If Mr. Hadi is ousted, it could put the U.S. counterterrorism program in Yemen influx. Mr. Hadi personally approves U.S. strikes against the AQAP militants, according to top aides. The Houthis oppose the U.S. program."

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