Who benefits from Yemen’s Houthi crisis?

Yemeni walks past an army’s vehicle which was damaged during recent fighting between government army troops and Shiite Houthi rebels, in the capital Sanaa on September 23, 2014. (AFP)

It was reported Sunday that the Yemeni government and Houthi Shiite rebels signed an agreement calling for the formation of a new government in an attempt to end fierce clashes in the embattled capital Sanaa. However, analysts are already saying the transition to an inclusive government may not go smoothly.

“There’s little question that despite the signing of a peace agreement, tensions will continue,” said Adam Baron, a freelance journalist and Yemen observer. The Houthis have refused to agree to cede areas they captured, and even made stunning gains in Sana’a on Monday.

Any government that emerges from the crisis will have to tackle the myriad problems facing the poorest country in the Arab world, and one with an ever-present terrorist threat. In his June 2014 letter to Congress, U.S. President Barack Obama called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula the “most active and dangerous affiliate” of the global terror network.

Last month, Reuters reported that AQAP had been gaining strength in Yemen’s lawless southeast provinces, particularly Hadramout. However, the 2013 U.S. Department of State Country Report on Yemen said the government in Sanaa is hardly capable of policing its interior and securing its borders.

Researchers such as Katherine Zimmerman have said the government will need to find a way to surmount the political obstacles represented by both the Houthi rebellion and the southern secessionist movement Al-Hirak al-Janoubi to effectively counter the growing AQAP threat.

The northern Houthi rebels have challenged the government for a decade. Danya Greenfield of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East said the faction became stronger in January, when it emerged from the Gulf Cooperation Council-brokered National Dialogue Conference as a legitimate political player. Greenfield said the Houthis have demonstrated their ability to galvanize thousands, and may be poised to play a significant role in the next government.

Sectarianism

Although the GCC welcomed Sunday’s deal, Saudi writer Abdulmajeed al-Buluwi said regional Sunni actors fear that Yemen could be headed toward failure. They are particularly concerned about the prospect of Houthi ascendance, with a government in Sana’a supported by Iran, coupled with a resurgence of AQAP terrorism.

“The [Houthi] rebellion has given Iran the upper hand in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula,” said Ibrahim Sharqieh of the Brookings Doha Center. He referred to previous Saudi statements describing the Houthis as a full-fledged Iranian proxy, part of a strategy by Tehran of challenging Saudi regional interests.

Signs of Iranian support for the Houthis abound, including a ship seized off the coast of Yemen in Jan. 2013 containing a weapons cache bearing the markings of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio of The Long War Journal said al-Qaeda has exploited political unrest in the past, including in Yemen. In 2011, when Yemeni troops were recalled to Sana’a due to massive anti-government protests, AQAP took advantage of the security vacuum to seize vast areas of the south. The group announced in 2011 the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Abyan province (a short-lived initiative).

Joscelyn and Roggio said AQAP will again capitalize on chaos. In March 2014, it announced the formation of an armed group called Ansar al-Shariah fi al-Manateq al-Wusta (Partisans of Islamic Law in the Central Regions), whose primary goal is combating the Houthi rebels, deemed “apostates” by AQAP. The group uses the Houthi insurrection in its sectarian propaganda to fuel criticism of the government for conspiring with Shiites against Sunni interests.

Despite this changing threat environment, the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the country appears largely unchanged. Drone strikes are ongoing, with little beyond that. The Yemenis, for their part, launched an offensive against AQAP in late April that was largely a re-enactment of their 2012 campaign that failed to clear the terrorist group’s networks.

Observers seem united in the view that, no matter the outcome of the current Houthi crisis, AQAP will be a major beneficiary. “Terrorists love power vacuums – they gain traction there,” said Max Abrahms, terrorism researcher at Northeastern University.

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Oren Adaki is an Arabic-language specialist and research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. His personal areas of interest include Islamic extremism in Yemen and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Oren is a frequent contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal, where he reports on the activities of AQAP in Yemen. Oren received his bachelor’s degree in international relations, specializing in the Middle East and Africa from Boston University (2009), and his master’s degree in Islamic law from Columbia University (2011).

 

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