Among the world’s many trouble spots, Yemen has been experiencing political turmoil, which carries significant implications for the people of Yemen and for US national security interests. To help us think critically about this fast developing situation, I asked leading Yemen analyst Adam Baron the following set of questions:
The AP recently noted that, while Yemen has been no stranger to turmoil, it “had largely been spared Shiite-Sunni hatreds like those that tore apart Syria and Iraq” – and that this may be changing given current events. How should the community of US national security experts, inside and outside the US government, best understand the current turmoil in Yemen, viewed in light of its implications for US security interests? What would you identify as potential myths or mistakes that US decision-makers should avoid in reacting to the unfolding situation in Yemen?
Baron graciously provided the following response:
For years now, the concept of a so-called “Yemen model” has been repeated as virtual dogma in beltway circles. The frequent protestations of many of those familiar with the country—myself included—seemed subsumed into a general steamroller of a narrative casting the United States’ intervention in the country as a multifaceted success. Yemen’s internationally-brokered transition, we were told, was a model for a region in post-Arab Spring upheaval; the Obama administrations cooperation with the Yemeni government, Obama trumpeted roughly two weeks ago, had lead unparalleled progress in the battle against the Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Both narratives have come to a head with an increasingly disparate reality as of late, as rebel fighters belonging to the Zaidi Shi’a lead Houthi movement managed to seize virtual control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, with little resistance from the Yemeni military, raising immediate questions regarding the utility of hundreds of millions of dollars in US military aid and a US-sponsored program of military restructuring, to say nothing of the viability of Yemen’s already fraught transition.
When it comes to understanding what’s just occurred in Sanaa, then, its key stress that much of mainstream consensus is flawed at best, and, key among that, is the idea that recent events in Sanaa amount to a Sunni-Shia battle.
The Houthis have their roots in the far northern province of Saada, but they’ve been able to transcend their origins in Zaidism, a nearly exclusively Yemeni branch of Shi’a Islam and that—rather than their sectarian identity—has proven the key to their success; their most recent demands—the reversal of a decision to remove fuel subsidies and the replacement of Yemen’s prime minister and his cabinet—have wide-ranging support from all Yemenis. And, regardless of the group’s alleged ties to Iran—the United States and Yemeni governments alike have claimed that the Houthis are armed and funded by the Islamic Republic—the Houthis’ success is rooted in their ability to understand—and capitalize on—the local political situation and the concerns of the average Yemeni.
That being said, the rise of a group whose members emphatically shout a slogan including the phrase “death to America” and whose leaders refuse to meet with American diplomats on ideological grounds could certainly create tensions in the United States government’s until now cordial relationship with the country’s post Arab Spring government. It’s unclear how much power close American ally Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi truly has at the moment: those on the ground speak of the Houthis as defacto rulers of Sanaa but, notably, the president has retained the right to name the heads of the ministries of the Interior, Defense, Finance and Foreign Affairs in the new government according to the new agreement, though it remains to be seen whether Houthi fighters—who currently maintain checkpoints throughout the city—will withdraw from Sanaa’s streets any time soon.
Ultimately, the past week only underlines the folly of a Sanaa-centric Yemen policy. Indeed the past weekend’s events only underline the key importance of events outside the capital; after all, not so long ago, the clashes between the Houthis and their rivals seemed like a distant echo. And, regardless of the ultimate fallout—which remains unclear—the fact remains that such issues as the battle against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) cannot be dealt with as separate issues from the larger challenge facing Yemen at the moment: the establishment of inclusive, accountable governance and the shoring up of state authority—which, at the moment, verges on nonexistent—across the country. As the US-supplied military equipment currently being paraded in the streets of Sanaa by jubilant Houthi militants demonstrates, a counter-terrorism centered policy risks missing the forests for the trees.