Can Yemen Be Saved?…

Can Yemen Be Saved?
by: Barack Barfi, from the new american foundation.

SANA’A – Yemen is no stranger to crisis. Exposed to a
regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia,
plagued by an entrenched Al Qaeda affiliate, and
divided by tribal disputes and a secession movement,
the country has become a poster child for everything
that can go wrong in the Arab world.
Yemen has demonstrated remarkable resiliency in the
past. To ensure that the recent overthrow of its
government by the Shia Houthi rebel movement does
not deal Yemen the lethal blow that it has avoided so
far, the international community must not abandon the
country in what may be its hour of greatest need.
The origins of the Houthi movement date to 1991, when
it was created to protect Zaydism, a moderate form of
Shi’ism, from the encroachment of Sunni Islamists.
After the attacks on New York and Washington, DC, on
September 11, 2001, the group’s battle took on a
geopolitical dimension, as its fighters objected to
Yemen’s decision to collaborate with the United States
and enhance bilateral intelligence cooperation.
From 2004 to 2010, the group fought six wars against
the Yemeni government and even skirmished with
Saudi Arabia. Yet it never managed to expand its reach
beyond its stronghold in the north of the country. That
changed in 2011, when the popular protests and
political chaos stemming from the Arab Spring led to
widespread institutional paralysis, allowing the Houthis
to march past a military that largely refused to fight it.
The group’s power grab has frightened its adversaries,
leading them to seek new alliances that could imperil
the state’s security. In the central region of Marib,
home to the oil and gas facilities that Yemen relies on
for foreign currency, several tribes have vowed to fight
the Houthis. The region was once a stronghold of Al
Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an affiliate of
the global terrorist organization. If the military refuses
to assist the tribes – as is likely – they may be tempted
to turn to AQAP.
The situation is no less precarious in the southern
provinces, where a secession movement has been active
since 2007. Southerners are up in arms because the
Houthi rebellion halted plans for the adoption of a
federal system, which would have given the region
greater autonomy. In response, armed groups seized
checkpoints and closed the port of Aden. The risk of
secession is very real.
Southern Sunnis have been marginalized since a 1994
civil war that left northerners in control of most of the
country’s political institutions. Many in the region
worry that the Houthis will discriminate against them
further. AQAP is firmly rooted in this region as well,
implying the possibility that local residents will seek its
help in defending against an expected Houthi
Meanwhile, Yemen continues to serve as a battleground
in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iran
has armed and trained the Houthis, and, though the
rebels’ brand of Shi’ism shares little with that practiced
in Tehran, they have praised the Islamic Republic’s
founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and held up
Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, as a model to be
When the Houthis took over Sana’a, the capital, in
September, Saudi Arabia cut off aid to the country. To
make matters worse, falling oil prices and attacks on
pipelines imperil a hydrocarbon industry that provides
63% of government revenues . Decreased earnings led
Yemen to forecast a $3.2 billion budget deficit last year.
If the turmoil is not curtailed and the Saudis do not
resume the payments that have long ensured the
country’s ability to function, Yemen may not be able to
cover its expenditures.
The US has followed Saudi Arabia’s lead, shuttering its
embassy and freezing intelligence cooperation and
counterterrorism operations. This is a mistake.
Yemen’s military is largely intact, having remained in
its barracks as the Houthis marched to the capital, and
there is little evidence that the units that work with the
Americans are loyal to the new rebel government.
Suspending cooperation risks giving AQAP free rein in a
country where it was able to wreak havoc even when
Yemen is mired in crises that it cannot solve alone.
Unless its international allies throw it a lifeline, it risks
being swallowed by a sea of disorder that could imperil
the entire region.

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