Breakdown in Yemen

Breakdown in Yemen

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US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 11/06/14
By Michael Shank and Casey Harrity

Yemen is teetering on the verge of an all-out sectarian civil war. Recent peace deals may prove to be fleeting. The Houthis, a Zaydi-Shiite group based in northern Yemen, stormed the capital, Sanaa, over one month ago, resulting in the seizure of key government buildings and the resignation of then Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa. The ensuing peace deal, signed on Sept. 21 between the Houthis’ leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, and President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was backed by the international community through U.N. Special Envoy Jamal Benomar’s endorsement of the terms.

Despite agreeing to terms that include the most recent appointment of a new prime minister, the Houthis have continued their push for territorial control. While tensions in Sanaa are easing, violence continues across the country. Yemen is becoming increasingly ungovernable. Repercussions of the breakdown in Yemen are reverberating not only within their borders, but also across the region and across the globe.

Within Yemen, the Houthis are pushing farther south, creeping ever closer to territories under the control of Ansar Al Sharia, the movement better known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That group, a Sunni extremist organization that is categorized by the U.S. government as one of the most active al-Qaida affiliates, has been calling on Sunnis across Yemen to support a campaign against the Houthis. Increased attacks by the group in recent weeks have killed hundreds of civilians in cities across Yemen.

Along with the lightning-fast takeover of Sanaa by the Houthis in September and the increased attacks by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in the weeks since, Yemen’s Southern Movement, Al-Hirak Al Janoubi, is witnessing a resurgence of power. The political upheaval has enabled Al-Hirak to rejuvenate its push for succession with increased protests and calls for independence across major southern cities. Illustrative of their power, on Oct.14, Al-Hirak held its largest protest ever with more than 100,000 people attending a rally in the port city of Aden.

As violence, conflict and protests rage across the country, the basic needs of the population continue to go unmet. Yemen’s central government is unable to provide even the most basic services and U.N. and NGO partners are increasingly restricted in their efforts to access communities most in need. An estimated 14.7 million Yemeni people are in need of humanitarian aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Thirteen million people lack access to safe water, 8 million lack access to health care and 10 million lack sufficient food.

At the regional level, alliances are shifting. The political deck in Yemen is undergoing a significant reshuffle, as is the balance of power regionally. The Houthis have long been adversaries of Saudi Arabia. Six successive rounds of war were waged from 2004 to 2010 between the Houthis and Yemeni government forces. Saudi Arabia, which saw the Houthis movement as a potential source of turmoil and conflict with Saudi Arabia itself, supported the Yemeni government in its fight against the Houthis beginning in 2009. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab States also assert that the Houthis are backed by Iran and may have ties to Hezbollah. Neither Iran nor Hezbollah has confirmed these claims, but the rhetoric and campaign style of the Houthis mirrors that of both. With the Houthi rise to power, Iran’s interest in the country could also grow.

Globally, the potential ties between extremist groups are increasingly worrisome. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula is calling for a fight against the Houthis within Yemen, and is simultaneously calling for support for the Islamic State group. Yemen now reportedly hosts a group calling itself the Islamic State Supporters in the Arabian Peninsula and, in addition, a former al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula commander has personally pledged allegiance to Islamic State group leader Abubaker al-Baghdadi.

Going forward, with international attention focused on the Islamic State group, Yemen must not be forgotten or neglected. A shift in the balance of power nationally and regionally will, in turn, have global repercussions as alliances shift and new threats emerge. The primary concern of western governments has been the threat of violent extremism in the Middle East. But as history has repeatedly shown, the “whack-a-mole” approach to terrorism is doomed to fail.

Drone strikes in Yemen have failed to contain al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, quite the opposite appears to be happening as the political reshuffle expands the ungoverned and ungovernable spaces in which violent extremism can thrive. Similarly, the air strikes in Syria and Iraq are also doomed to fail without learning the lessons from the so-called “Yemen Model.” Keeping eyes on Yemen and paying close attention to the politics and problems in this complex country is critical, as lessons from Yemen can inform successful policy across the region.

A sustainable peace in Yemen is possible but only if the international community addresses the basic needs of the population, supports an inclusive government and builds a longer-term strategy for support that goes beyond drone strikes. The time is now.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation and adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Casey Harrity is a Washington, D.C.-based independent consultant specializing in conflict, stabilization and humanitarian assistance policies and programs.