Granted this is a shot in the dark, but I’m going to guess that the worst job in the White House, and maybe in all of Washington, DC, on this fine day is Person in Charge of Writing the State of the Union Language on Yemen. It’s virtually certain that Yemen will be included in the State of the Union address tonight, as it’s rapidly becoming the next place where America will have to Do Something or else risk Serious Consequences, and yet not only is the situation in Yemen seemingly changing by the minute, it’s not clear that anybody, anywhere (even in Yemen itself) has any idea what’s actually happening or what it all means. UPDATE: Well, that’s the first and last time I try to predict what’s going to go into the SOTU address. Anyway, the rest of this still works!
The most recent news is that the presidential palace in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been captured by Houthi rebels, a major escalation in their months long campaign to take over the country. The renewed Houthi offensive came hot upon the collapse of peace talks between the rebels and the Sanaa government to try and settle the civil war that’s been rocking the country for months now. The commander of the presidential guard has called what’s happening a “coup,” and while he’s probably right the fact is that this has been one of the slowest moving coups in history, rolling forward inexorably since September. First let’s talk a little history.
The Houthis belong to a branch of Shiʿism, called Zaydiyah or the Zaydis, that really only exists in Yemen today (although, as astute readers will have already seen, it’s previously been active elsewhere). The Zaydi are one of the oldest Shiʿa branches, having split from the rest of the Shiʿa really around the turn of the 8th century over disagreements about who was and wasn’t eligible to be imam. Zaydis believe that any descendent of Ali is eligible (most other Shiʿa contend that only descendents of Ali’s son Husayn are/were eligible) and that there can be more than one imam on Earth at a time, or no imam at all. Two things distinguish a true imam for the Zaydis: knowledge and a willingness to fight their oppressors. Thus there are a few imams in the other Shiʿa traditions that have been considered “lesser” imams by the Zaydis, because they demonstrated the knowledge but didn’t take up arms against the oppressive political establishment in their time.
The one place where the Zaydiyah took long-lasting political root was in the northwestern part of modern Yemen, where various Zaydiyah imams have been prominent since the 9th century, though generally as either subordinate or rival to the larger regional powers that have controlled that region over the centuries. After the collapse of the Ottomans post-WWI, a Zaydi kingdom, called the Mutawakkilite Kingdom, arose there and survived until a republican coup in 1962 plunged the country into civil war. The Republican side was backed by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s secular nationalist Egypt, while the Zaydi monarchical side was backed by the Sunni Saudi and Jordanian monarchies. If you need proof that the real modern Middle East geopolitical divide is monarchy vs. republic (or monarchy vs. military dictatorship, as the case may be), not Sunni vs. Shiʿa, witness the Saudis happily aiding a neighboring Shiʿa monarchy so as to stifle the ambitions of an anti-monarchist like Nasser. The Republican side won in 1970, forming the Yemen Arab Republic, or “North Yemen,” but it barely had time to address the bad blood left by the war before it was talking about unification with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or “South Yemen,” which had been the “Federation of South Arabia” and the “Protectorate of South Arabia” before both gained independence from Britain in 1967.
Here’s the thing about The Republic of Yemen, wherein all this drama is currently taking place: it shouldn’t exist. Yemen was the first part of the Arabian peninsula to really develop civilization, thanks to its geographic importance at the entrance to the Red Sea and its close proximity to Ethiopia, but it’s also been incredibly resistant to unification. Even in the periods when Yemen has been controlled by larger empires, usually centered in Egypt, those larger empires have never had great control of anything apart from a few key cities. The geography of the area, with port cities and oases surrounded by vast stretches of mountains and/or desert, has never lent itself to unification.
The “Federation of South Arabia” and the “Protectorate of South Arabia” were essentially colonial administrative units for the Brits, not united political entities. But very quickly in the 1960s, a lot of things started to compress. The Yemen Arab Republic shoved coastal Sunnis into a polity with highland Zaydis and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen mashed together a whole bunch of disparate city-states. The two new countries naturally started fighting each other, because the PDRY went Communist and, you know, Better Dead Than Red or whatever, but a scant two decades later (in 1990) they not only reached a peace deal but decided to unify, with the Yemen Arab Republic taking the dominant position in the new combined government and its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, becoming president of the new nation. Two countries that probably never should have existed combined to form one big country that had even less historical reason to exist than its two components. That the North and South fought a civil war only four years after unification was probably a sign that things weren’t going so well, but the North won and managed to sweep southern separatism back under the rug.
Anyway, back to the present pickle. The Houthis have been active in one form or another since the early 1990s, when a Zaydi spiritual leader named Badr al-Din al-Houthi and his sons (the political leadership) founded a group in the northern Saada Province called Al-Shabab al-Muʾminin, or “Believing Youth,” which was intended to spearhead a revival of Zaydi Shiʿism. The Zaydi tribes were still stinging from the civil war in the 60s, and surprisingly this new movement didn’t sit too well with the government in Sanaa, the heir to the Yemen Arab Republic. By 2004 things had deteriorated to the point where the Believing Youth, led by Badr al-Din’s son Hussein, declared war on the government. Hussein was killed in September of that year, but as often happens his death galvanized the movement and hardened the Houthis’ (as they were now known) resolve. They’ve been steadily on the move ever since, expanding their territory in the north starting in 2011 and finally, in September, entering Sanaa itself and effectively putting the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur al-Hadi, under “protection,” not unlike the kind of arrangement where you pay the mafia to protect your business from, well, the mafia.
Oh, right, the new president. Well, turns out that Saleh started to grate on people after ~25 years in office, go figure, so in 2011 the gains the Houthis were making in the north were only part of a more general Yemeni uprising (their Arab Spring) against Saleh. Protesters flooded Sanaa, upset that Saleh refused to hold fair elections, worried that he might be succeeded by his son in a quasi-monarchical style, and downright angry at Saleh’s little quirks, like letting America drone bomb pretty much whoever and whenever, and even maybe feeding the Americans some cooked intel to get those drones to fire on people who were maybe threats to Saleh, but not really to the United States (not to mention he was able to score some primo U.S. military aid for his army and guards). Saleh finally agreed to step aside in February 2012, and his VP, Hadi, took over. Lucky guy.
The drone campaign became A Thing because of the final player in this mess, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Formed in a merger of AQ’s Saudi and Yemeni branches in 2009, AQAP is believed by U.S. intelligence to be the most capable of AQ’s regional franchises, and it’s certainly the one that has attempted the most attacks on Western targets in recent years. The USS Cole bombing in 2000 was carried off by the Yemeni branch of the group, don’t forget, and the Fort Hood shooting and the thwarted underwear bombing plot, both from 2009, were traced back to AQAP’s most prominent figure, American-born preacher Anwar al-Awlaki. Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in 2011, raising all kinds of hairy questions about the legitimacy of the drone campaign and the legality of targeting a U.S. citizen without due process, but AQAP is still going strong. Its current leader, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was officially appointed “General Manager” of the whole AQ network in 2013 (making him Ayman al-Zawahiri’s second-in-command), which would be a hilarious title if we weren’t talking about a bunch of dangerous psychopaths. But you know, with a key free agent signing and a couple of decent drafts, he could have these guys right back in the playoff hunt in no time. Most recently, AQAP claimed credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack, though “credit” in this case may be due more to inspiring the attack than to any logistical or tactical assistance they provided.
AQAP has been the most successful AQ branch largely because it’s been the most effective at incorporating AQ’s dual role; whereas it was really just a terror network in the Bin Laden days, AQ branches nowadays have to be one part terror group and really two parts militia, engaging in direct fighting with rival groups and/or hostile governments in an effort to carve out territory for themselves (carving out territory wasn’t a concern for AQ back when the Taliban were hosting them in Afghanistan). AQAP has been engaged in open, albeit asymmetrical, warfare with the Houthis for months, which I guess would put them on Hadi’s side except that they’d like to kill Hadi just as much as they’d like to kill the Houthi leadership. They’ve obviously had no luck blunting the Houthis’ momentum, but neither have the Houthis been able to do much to ding AQAP, although they’ve clearly been devoting almost all of their attention to Sanaa, not AQAP.
All of this adds up to more misery for the people of Yemen, who haven’t known a sustained period of peace or good governance for decades and who are already living in one of the world’s poorest countries before you factor in the violence. Geopolitically, too, what’s happening in Yemen is incredibly important and has serious ramifications for U.S. interests in the region. AQAP is, as much as any of Al-Qaeda affiliate, a threat to attack targets in the West, and so finding a way to degrade its capabilities is a key counter-terrorism priority. A Houthi takeover will likely further destabilize the country and give AQAP more room to operate in Sunni areas. Also, the Houthis have also been operating with considerable Iranian help, and Tehran’s interference in a civil war on the Arabian Peninsula has not sat well with the Saudis. There was some hope that a unity government in Sanaa, proposed after the Houthis marched in, would bring the Saudis and Iranians together in common cause (say, against AQAP and/or against Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood faction), but recent events have trashed any hope of that unity government actually coming to fruition. If the U.S. is hoping to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran without alienating the Saudis, then figuring out how to ease tensions over Yemen would be a good place to focus some attention.
And all that stuff, important as it is, may actually be small potatoes compared to the important role Yemen plays, via the strategic Bab el-Mandeb Strait, in allowing shipping traffic to pass between the Red Sea, which connects to the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal, and the Gulf of Aden, and thence onward to the Arabian Sea and beyond. It’s vital that whoever winds up running Yemen not muck around with that sea lane.
Underlying the total breakdown of order and society in Yemen is the scary possibility that this conflict is a preview of the kind of conflicts we’re going to see more and more frequently as the planet starts to run short on clean water. Yemen is very water-poor, you see (and Yemenis tend to waste a lot of the water it does have), and part of the reason that AQAP has been able to establish itself securely in the countryside is that they, unlike the government in Sanaa, have actually made efforts to help people dig wells and get more water. If the War on Terror is in any part a battle for hearts and minds, AQAP has been winning by focusing on the most basic of human needs, while the government has been cutting its water infrastructure budget to shovel more money into an army that seems incapable of defeating anybody no matter how well-funded it is.