Yemen: The unreported Collapse

by Sam Wyatt.

The collapse of Yemen, though significant, has widely been unacknowledged in mainstream media. With the crisis in Ukraine, the Syrian civil war and more recently the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the instability in the south of the Arabian Peninsula has been almost ignored by the major news networks as apparently the collapse of this ‘relatively small and insignificant’ middle-eastern state isn’t regarded as newsworthy. However, this idea that Yemen is of little importance, is fallacious. Instead of being inconsequential, the collapse of the Yemeni government provides serious damage to Western (and especially American) counter-terrorism measures as it confirms that this policy of counter terrorism-lite isn’t working.

In order to understand the ramifications of the collapse of Yemen it is important to be aware of the pivotal role it has played for the US and her allies in the fight against Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups since 9/11. The intelligence relationship between the CIA and Yemeni officials was seen to be one of the most open in the world, despite the sympathy for the goals of Al-Qaeda amongst many of the Yemeni population, and there were substantial agreements in place that allowed measures for the US to train up the local Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU). Indeed, as late as September 2014, President Obama used Yemen as an example of the US’ effective counter-terrorism measures – “This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us while supporting partners on the front lines is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years,”

Just a short two weeks after this hopeful message by the POTUS, the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, who have been slowly making ground across Northern Yemen since the Arab spring, dislodged government officials from San’a, the capital imposing their own beliefs on the people, that included the claim that the local Sunni population were praying the wrong way (The Sunni’s in the region tend to pray by raising their arms – something frowned upon in Zaidi culture). In the last week, this situation has worsened as the Houthi forces have stormed the presidential palace and occupied the headquarters of the presidential guard, taking hostages and acquiring artillery and tanks that can only strengthen their position. The US backed president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to resign his position on Tuesday and this has left the state of Yemen divided and without a clear leader.

There have been calls by some that the rise of the Houthi rebels is actually beneficial for the fight against terror. This is based on the assumption that the Houthis, due to their Shia nature, are at war with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active of Al-Qaeda branches, and their radical Sunni affiliates in the south of Yemen. Sarah Palin for example, showed her lack of understanding of the nuances of the situation by arguing that we should ‘let Allah sort it out’, showing no regard for the complexity of these situations that are fought on the premise of religion but also encompass tribal and socio-economic differences. She also fails to realise that this conflict will in all probability be a stalemate, the funding brought in by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups will almost immediately be countered by Iranian funding for the Houthi’s and the de-facto partition of the country into two radical groups could potentially provide safe-havens for terrorist activity (neither the Houthi’s or AQAP are particularly fond of the west) while simultaneously providing next to no security or assurance to the Yemeni population. As the map to the side shows the current trifecta split between land controlled by the Houthi’s (in Yellow), Hadi loyalists (in red) and AQAP in Grey shows how complex and how drawn out this conflict will be as each has a vast amount of resources at their disposal due to the funding that all can draw from their allies (Iran, the USA and Sunni terrorist cells respectively)

In understanding how the situation has got to such extremes, the history of the country of Yemen must be understood. The north and south of Yemen were only unified in 1990 – until then the South Yemen was a separate nation and this unification is something that many on both sides have come to regret. Indeed, the area under Houthi control makes up the vast majority of what was once North Yemen suggesting that secession may be the way forward to create a more lasting peace. Furthermore, the ‘sprawling protest encampment in Change Square’ during the period of Arab spring led to a drunken optimism amongst Yemeni’s that, unfortunately would be undermined by the simultaneous rise of the Houthi rebels

Though I do not, and cannot provide a solution to the mess that has emerged, I believe it is vital that the first world does not turn its back on countries such as Yemen. Humanitarian Aid must be given to the Yemeni peoples so that they know that the world has not cast them aside to fend for themselves with the threats of radicalisation on both sides being great. Furthermore, some argue we (the west) should provide arms to the Hadi loyalists in order to stop the progress of the Houthi’s but measures aimed at hampering opposition of the Hadi government are already being taken in the south, creating little progress (the US are already deploying air strikes in the region, targeting the Al-Qaeda strongholds), and actually provides a platform for militants to suggest that the West have little interest in the lives of middle eastern civilians. This is a fundamental problem which needs to be dealt with, but we cannot provide stability to the region and end this brutal war, without showing the Yemeni people that we care.

For anyone who is interested, here are a few facts about the Houthis:

  • Originally established as the Believing Youth in 1992 in the Saada Governorate, the group takes its current name from Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, their former leader who was shot dead by Yemeni forces in 2004.
  • Though often described as a tribe or a sect it a better definition is that they are a radical Zaidi-Shiite political movement whose aims are very similar to Hezbollah.
  • Their motto – ‘God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam’ provides a serious threat to western interests.
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