Is Yemen Becoming the Next Syria?

A deepening proxy war threatens to tear the country apart.

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Battle lines are being drawn in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country and the Middle East’s latest candidate for state failure. If, as looks increasingly probable, open warfare breaks out soon, it will only be made worse by the contest for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both powers have proven eager to arm groups they believe they can control, despite the legacy this destructive rivalry has already wrought in Syria and Iraq. And if the story is repeated in Yemen, what began as a manageable power struggle between rival factions could descend into a brutal and increasingly sectarian civil war that would tear the country apart.

A debilitating conflict has been increasingly likely since the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia militia, seized control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, last September with the help of other northern tribes and — it is becoming increasingly apparent — Iran. After fleeing the capital in February, Yemen’s beleaguered president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, withdrew a letter of resignation he had issued under duress. He is now planning a new cabinet in Aden, a once-bustling southern port city, in effect forming a government-in-exile inside Yemen itself. (In the photo, a man stands guard during a rally celebrating the Houthis’ seizure of key government sites in Sanaa in September 2014.)

The ascendance of the Houthis has not gone unnoticed in Riyadh. The Saudis failed to defeat them in a series of 2009 skirmishes and see them as a dangerous Iranian proxy vying for control of a vulnerable neighboring country. On Feb. 26, a Hadi aide told Reuters that, in a sign of support for the president, the Saudi ambassador to Yemen had arrived in Aden to resume his duties. The next day the UAE announced that it would also send its ambassador to Aden. Rumors are rife that Yemen’s neighbors are preparing to underwrite Hadi’s new government. The Gulf states have little faith in Hadi, who surrendered the capital to the Houthis without much of a fight. But if he is now willing to go on the offensive, his neighbors will back him with cash and arms. He and his emerging coalition of tribesmen, separatists, and, more than likely, Islamic militants, will be the Gulf states’ counter against the Houthis.

The Houthis know what is coming and seem to be ready for it. In a Feb. 26 speech, Abdel-Malek al-Houthi, the group’s leader, launched a blistering attack on Hadi, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., accusing them of collaborating to turn Yemen into a puppet regime. It’s ironic that the Houthis, long accused of being backed by Iran, denounce their rivals as foreign puppets; especially because, if war does break out, their only hope of defeating a Saudi-backed coalition will be to lean even more heavily on Iranian support. On March 2, the government of Iran announced a deal with the Houthis to begin twice-daily flights to Sanaa, providing a vital lifeline for the group, and undoubtedly riling the Saudis even further.

It won’t be the first time that the Riyadh — and Washington — have inadvertently strengthened Houthi-Iranian ties. The Saudis and, to a lesser extent, the United States, backed the violent campaign led by Yemen’s previous president Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Houthis, turning them, in the crucible of war, from a religious revivalist movement into a powerful militia. The U.S. continued providing Saleh with weapons and training to fight al Qaeda despite evidence that he was throwing these resources into his war with the Houthis.

Nor is meddling by the Gulf states and Washington in Yemen a recent development. Saudi Arabia has a long history of intermittently backing different factions in Yemen, and Washington’s prioritization of its security interests over such trifles as democratization or rule of law helped secure Saleh’s last decade in power before he was undone by his own autocratic tendencies in a 2011 uprising. “[The Americans and the Gulf states] can hardly claim that the Iranians are undoing the stability they have fostered in Yemen, or blame the Houthis for looking elsewhere for support, can they?” a local analyst in Sanaa grumbled to me recently.

There’s a frightening possibility that the lessons of the past — of Iraq, Libya, and Syria — have not been learned. Iran and the Gulf states are more than happy to treat Yemen as a proxy battleground regardless of the outcome, and it’s entirely possible that the U.S. and other Western powers will back the Gulf states once they have gone to war. If a war breaks out along sectarian lines, it will not be because that is where historical divisions have lain in Yemen; it will be because the war’s foreign funders are inflaming previously unimportant divisions. This would not be the inevitable outcome of longstanding rivalries, but a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s all too easy to see a country like Yemen as inherently divided along lines of ideology, be it Sunni versus Shiite, separatist versus unionist, or democrat versus authoritarian. It’s also tempting to fall into the misleading trap of seeing the country’s various factions as out-and-out proxies for the regional superpowers, malleable to the will of Riyadh or Tehran. But these are misleading oversimplifications. In fact — as I wrote recently in a Chatham House paper — the conflict in Yemen is driven by local issues and competition for resources rather than regional or ideological rivalries. Outside influence has historically been limited to attempts at exploiting — and exacerbating — these tensions.

Yemenis, who are pragmatists rather than ideologues at heart, usually exploit outsiders’ agendas to serve their own interests, rather than the reverse. Before the Houthi takeover of Sanaa, Hadi had done little to stem the tide of their advance — but this did not stop him from exploiting Saudi fears to secure several billion dollars of financing. The Houthis probably came to rely on Iran only because no one else was willing to come to their aid. Saleh was a master of the art of manipulating U.S. and Saudi fears over al Qaeda and the Houthis to bolster his own position. But again and again they have stopped short of devastating all-out war.

Thus far Yemen has — to its great fortune — ranked low on the order of priorities for regional powers. External support has been enough only to sustain smaller internal conflicts, not to create lasting war. But now, as the region’s two major powers goad each other into action, the amount of resources poured into Yemen will grow, as will the rhetoric, and the stakes, involved. Pragmatism will take a back seat to an increasingly existential struggle, one which Iran and the Gulf states will be no more capable of controlling than in Iraq, Syria and Libya. As we have seen elsewhere in the region, once this cycle has begun it is very hard to bring it to an end. Putting the lid back on Pandora’s box is easier.

Yemenis are proud of their longstanding culture of charmingly chaotic coexistence. My driver in Sanaa, a gentle man in his early fifties, has told me many times of how, until the early years of the new millennium, he rarely gave thought to where he went to pray, or who he spoke to on the street. A mosque was a mosque, Islam was Islam, and Yemenis were Yemenis. If the country goes to war in earnest, such memories will fade fast. What did not work in Iraq, in Libya, and in Syria will not work in Yemen. Sadly, that is unlikely to stop the usual suspects — Saudi Arabia, its Gulf neighbors, Iran, Russia and, yes, the United States — from giving one last whirl.


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