Analysis |

As Yemen Erupts in Violence, U.S, Saudis Face Dilemma

Islamic State, Al-Qaida, Shi’ite rebels, Sunni militia and an ex-president who refuses to concede defeat – welcome to the complex war zone called Yemen.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A militant loyal to Yemen's President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi mans an anti-aircraft machine gun seized from the army in Yemen's southern province, March 22, 2015.
A militant loyal to Yemen's President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi mans an anti-aircraft machine gun seized from the army in Yemen's southern province, March 22, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The slopes around the city of Taiz in southern Yemen are home to one of the best strains of coffee in the world and some of the country’s finest khat. More than half a million people live in Taiz, which was once home to a large Jewish community of some 10,000. The city was also known for its fine gold and silver repoussé work and, until the revolution of 2011, was a popular tourist destination.

On Sunday, the city fell to Houthi rebels, members of the Zaidi Shi’ite religious minority that constitutes some 40 percent of the country’s population. Taiz is located on a strategic crossroad, one branch of which leads to the Indian Ocean port of Aden. The Houthis intend to reach Aden, and thus to complete their conquest of Yemen.

Yemen joins Syria and Libya – which are ruled by religious or civilian militias – and Iraq, where the central government is only in partial control of the country. Like Syria and Iraq, in Yemen, too, the war is not only between the Houthis and the regime, which moved its seat to Aden after President Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi managed to escape house arrest last month and flee there from the capital, Sana’a.

The forces operating in Yemen are just as complex as those in Syria. In the south, large groups of Al-Qaida operatives fight alongside regime forces, supported by some of the Sunni tribes. In the same area, Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) militants are active, some of them former Al-Qaida operatives who have now pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

There are also Sunni militias operating in the south, demanding that Yemen be redivided into northern and southern states, as well as armed tribesmen demanding a just distribution of the country’s oil resources, most of which are located in the south.

The Houthis, whose center is in the Sa’ada district in the north, have been fighting against the regime for the past decade, demanding equal rights. They have been joined by battalions of the Yemeni army who are loyal to the country’s former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was deposed in the revolution.

The revolution in Yemen, which developed as a continuation of the Arab Spring revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, actually led to some positive developments, including efforts at national reconciliation and formulation of a constitution. But Saleh, despite a serious injury and removal from the center of power, has never given up the desire to crush the new government and return to rule.

In the years before the revolution, Saleh led some of the most severe battles against the Houthis in the north. Now, though, he has hitched a ride with them.

Al-Qaida has turned Yemen into its strongest base in the Arabian Peninsula, after it was wiped out in Saudi Arabia. It turned the governments of Yemen – both Saleh’s and the revolutionary regime – into allies of the United Sates and Saudi Arabia, an alliance that supplied military and economic aid to one of the most hostile areas in the world.

This cooperation, which allowed the U.S. Army to operate freely in Yemen, is now on the verge of collapse. Over the past few days, the United States has evacuated its troops from the airbase at al-Anad, closed its embassy in Sana’a, and is now making assaults on Al-Qaida strongholds from naval positions, because the Yemeni regime no longer has the strength to coordinate military action against Al-Qaida.

The Houthi outbreak has become a tool of political leverage for Iran, which, as in Lebanon and Iraq and Palestine before the Syrian crisis, picked its allies among the various organizations, such as Hamas, or built itself an organization, like Hezbollah, on which to base its influence.

The Zaidi sect, while close to Shi’ite Islam, is not the Shia of Iran and is even considered deviant. But Iran, which does not usually check too closely the religious bona fides of its loyalists, turned the Houthis into its protégés. A group of 600 Houthi fighters are now in Iran receiving advanced military training.

Facing off against Iran is Saudi Arabia, which is fighting a pitched battle against Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. During Saleh’s term, the Saudis helped the Yemeni army against the Houthis; its air force even conducted sorties in the Sa’ada district, which borders Saudi Arabia. The Saudis also pledged assistance to Yemen’s revolutionary government to the tune of more than half a billion dollars. But after the Houthis took over the capital, the Saudis froze the aid and the Iranians stepped in to support the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia now faces a serious dilemma. To fight the Houthis and stop Iran, it must support the Sunni forces – but which ones? Al-Qaida, ISIS, some of the army supporting the ousted president and some of the tribes supporting Al-Qaida are all Sunnis.

The Saudi dilemma is also an American one, because the United States cannot make do with fighting only Al-Qaida in Yemen, and bring Saudi Arabia over to its side, when it is negotiating with Iran over a nuclear deal – thus further empowering Iran in the region.

The Saudis fear that an Iranian-backed Houthi victory would export rebellion to the kingdom – where an activist Shi’ite minority lives – as well as to its neighbor Bahrain, where there is a Shi’ite majority.

“Yemen’s security is the Persian Gulf’s security,” was the slogan at an emergency conference in Riyadh on Saturday, attended by senior officials from all the Gulf states. But how to achieve this security? Theoretically, the Gulf states, and possibly Egypt, could send troops to Yemen to wipe out the Houthis. But Arab military intervention could lead to direct Iranian involvement in Yemen and make it an international battlefield, which nobody wants.

The diplomatic route is the only reasonable way to quell the conflict right now, but even the UN emissary to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, has given up and left.

Embattled President Hadi is adamant that before any talks begin, the Houthis must leave Sana’a and return the heavy weaponry they looted from army camps. The Houthis, of course, reject these conditions. At most they are willing to go back to a previous proposal they made that a temporary government be appointed by local councils, whose members be appointed by Houthis.

Another possibility is that the United States and the UN recognize the Houthi regime in Yemen, thus ensuring that at least one country would have a central government that would be an ally against Al-Qaida and ISIS. But that would legitimize Iranian influence in Yemen and push the Saudis out of yet another country in the region.

The third possibility is to wait until a nuclear agreement is signed with Iran and then bring Tehran into an international alliance that would try to solve the crisis in Syria, Iraq and, now, Yemen. At the moment that seems an apocalyptic vision, but the tectonic movements in the region could turn even the wildest visions into reality.

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