The Yemeni Crisis: A look Inside
A recent series of events in Yemen, seems to be dragging the Middle Easts already chaotic dynamics further into disrepair, and has presented a new situation for America to confront diplomatically. A group of northern, Shia, Zaidi, rebels who call themselves the partisans of god; but are more widely known as the Houthis, have taken over the capital of Sanaa, resolving the parliament, and replacing it with their own revolutionary council. The president of the former government Abdrabbuh Mansour Sadi has fled to the city of Aden in the south; and is preparing to attempt to fight off Houthi forces with the loyalist military, militia, and police he still has at his disposal. These past months of relative instability, in the already poorly managed Yemen, due to the political and military power play between the government and the Houthis, has contributed to an increase in the prominence and strategic position of Al Qaeda In the Arabian Peninsula AQAP, as well as another radical group tied to the philosophies of ISIS. The actions of these two radical Sunni groups, the Houthis and the government in the last weeks seem to be pointing to the inevitable prospect of civil war.
The Houthi rebels, who are now the functional though non recognized leaders of Yemen, are not a revolutionary faction that has sprung up overnight. Though this may be most of us in the west’s first time hearing of them; this rebel faction has been a big player in the internal politics of Yemen for some time. The Houthi movement is made up primarily of the Zaidi Shia minority that resides mostly in the north of Yemen, and makes up approximately one third of the total population of that country. Until 1962, the area inhabited by the Houthis was autonomous; but the kings deposition in the sixties gave rise toa new government in the area. In 1990, there was another political transition in which southern Yemen, then under a communist regime, and the government in northern Yemen combined, and formed what we know as the modern state of Yemen. Several factors of this governments foreign and domestic policy, have contributed to the disenfranchisement and discontentment of the Zaniest Shia minority, prompting the emergence of the Houthi opposition movement in the mid 1990s.
The government in Yemen is supposedly a democracy but, in practice, has become an oligarchy dominated by Sunni Islam. A complex web of tribal, religious, and political factors have led to the power in the country being dominated by three men: President Abdullah Saleh, Commanding general Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and leader of the Islamist Islah party Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar. The later member of this oligarchy, receives and distributes patronage payments from Saudi Arabia, to various political players in Yemen. Through this medium, Saudi Arabia has acquired a foothold in Yemen, and has been a major influence in politics since the start of this new government. The domination of the government by the Sunni Islah party, the influence of Saudi Arabia on Yemeni politics, and the emergence of radical Sunni groups linked with AQAP and ISIS; coupled with the rampant corruption and generally poor governing, has led to the oppression of the northern Shia minority and little representation for them in the “democratic” parliament.
This has led to Houthi opposition; starting in the nineties with Shia revival camps, proceeding through the early 2000s in the form of an insurgency against the government, and culminating now with the Houthi overthrow of the government, weakened by events since the Arab Spring. The stated goal of the Houthis and the transitional government they have created is to: oppose radical Sunni Islamist Salafists, and supposedly to create a fairly represented democratically elected government. The United States and the west have adopted a stance against the Houthis, refusing to recognize them as the official governing body; while still supporting the remnants of the former government under president Abdullah Saleh. This policy is mainly due to the fact that Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, opposes the Houthis, and the former Saudi influenced government of Yemen was also allied with the United States. The fact that they are a Shia group has also spurred speculation of a possible Houthi connection to Iran, a diplomatic enemy to the US; an accusation which both Iran and the Houthis both flatly deny.
Despite the Islamophobia and paranoia of some in the United States that have pointed to the conclusion that the Houthis are a new anti American Islamist group, along the lines of AQAP and ISIS; the group seems to be more influenced by tribal political and ethnic factors than it is by religious leaders. Though it can’t be denied that the groups identity is based largely around Zaidi Shia Islam, and that it has expressed anti American/western sentiment, especially in the past. which, was largely due to American political and military intervention in the Middle East; which -was widely protested in the region, and US support of the Saudi and corrupt Yemeni governments, who were responsible for policies that discriminated against the Shia minority in Yemen. Furthermore, the groups actions differentiate them from ISIS and Al Qaeda, in that it hasn’t attacked any of its neighbors, and has not expressed any terrorist intentions. The Houthis are are not basing their actions off of religion; seeming to be more invested in gaining power and fighting enemies domestically, in Yemen, and do not appear to pose immediate physical danger to the United States or its allies. However, just because the Houthis are not a terrorist threat like ISIS or Al Qaeda, does not negate the importance of the conflict in Yemen to the United States diplomatically.
The United States will likely be forced to keep diplomatic relations with the Houthis off the table; and to support loyalist government forces, if relations with the Yemeni government and the Saudis are to be kept at their current level. Keeping these allies may draw America into indirect conflict with the Houthis; as the Saudis stand poised to intervene militarily, to protect their allies in the government forces under president Abdullah Saleh. However, a quasi war with the Houthis could be the least of Americas worries. In the power vacuum left by the disintegrating government, Sunni fears of subjugation by the minority shia houthis, could lead to increased support and recruitment for the radical Sunni terrorist groups AQAP and ISIS; who are already known to have a large foothold in the country. In a worst case scenario, these groups could come to control large swaths of territory in Yemen. If the inevitable civil war does break out, the implications for Yemen are exceptionally severe.
The country is highly sectarian in a political sense, this combined with the low infrastructure level and extreme poverty, could combine to make the implications of any war catastrophic. As with all the other chaotic situations that have sprung up in the Middle East since the Arab Spring, the United States must pick and choose its future diplomatic decisions about the Houthi situation carefully. It seems like our position in the Middle East could be exemplified by a clown juggling on a tight rope that keeps tearing strand by strand. On one hand it is essential we keep an ally in Saudi Arabia and, on the other, we do not want yet another proxy war in the middle east against yet another group. All the while, we must keep the larger war on terror focused against Al Qaeda and the forces of ISIS in perspective, and not allow those groups to gain too much strength in Yemen, as they have in Syria, Iraq, and Libya already.
But, new liabilities come with new opportunities; if we take every opportunity that presents itself, the handling of the crisis in Yemen could provide a model that could help the Middle East along to a better future. In our lives in Valdosta, and other communities across America, it is often easy and convenient to pretend that these things we see on the news are not actually happening; it seems so far off and distant from our relatively small, quiet community. But i assure you, those are real people you hear about and see when the news does a story on Yemen, or any other poor war torn area. it is our moral duty to take interest and listen to the plight of these people, not just the Yemeni government, not just the Houthis; but also the civilians and refugees involved in this great unfortunate occurrence. Yemen is a small and economically unimportant area for us; we are not losing out on gas or oil because of Yemen. Yet, it is in our political interest and our moral obligation to give humanitarian aid to all in this situation, and to help end this disruptive civil war in any way we can, before it affects many millions more.
It may seem like its unimportant now, but if bombs were dropped on your home tomorrow, and you had to endure the seemingly hopeless plight of a refugee, you would like some help and understanding, would you not?