Author: Ashby Henningsen, UMBC _______________________________________________________________________________________
While much of the world has been gripped by images of airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, an equally lethal and equally worrisome conflict unfolds in the peninsular country of Yemen. There, sectarian division and civil unrest threaten to completely dismantle the existing government, which already struggles simply to hang on. At stake, however, is more than the prospect of complete state failure. The conflict holds problematic implications for the security and political stability of the surrounding region, including the Horn of Africa and Saudi Arabia.
For years, Yemen has been wracked by deep religious tensions that have adopted a violent facet and caused political and social upheaval. In the northern half of the country are the Houthis, a Shiite Islamic militant group. The government, which represents a Sunni-majority population in the country, has been hard-pressed simply to keep the Houthi from advancing upon the country’s southern region. Although clashes between the Houthi and the Yemeni government are no novel dilemma, the fighting–and the ensuing political tumult–has reached a new height in recent weeks, culminating in the capture of the capital city of Sanaa by Houthi forces in recent weeks . Not even a ceasefire intended to facilitate a more inclusive government, signed by Houthi and Yemeni government representatives , could offer more than an all-too brief respite from the bloodshed. Violence has resumed, and the possibility of permanently entrenched sectarian factionism and constant fighting threatens to dissipate all remaining traces of civil order. Recent suicide attacks against Houthi in Sanaa by Sunni fighters [3, 4] have been only the latest brutal reminders of how far things have deteriorated.
As with many divisive internal conflicts in the Middle East’s history, Yemen’s is a tale of firmly entrenched sectarian hostilities, social injustices, and political tribalism. The trail of political turmoil in Yemen’s case begins in the 1990s, when Houthis first began protesting what they regarded as Yemeni social and political marginalization of the Houthi. The Houthi, who adhere to a moderate form of Shiite Islam known as Zaiddiyah, felt increasingly isolated due to actions by Yemen’s growing Salafi population, whose doctrines were more aligned with those of Sunni Islam. Continued dismissal of the Houthis’ grievances fueled a trend of increasing radicalism among the Houthi, which then broke out into internal warfare. Speeding the process was the espoused ideology of Houssein al-Houthi, a Houthi leader who adopted more aggressive stances towards promoting his people’s interests following a period of study in Iran. Efforts by former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh to rein in growing Houthi militant sentiment resulted in six wars from 2004 to the present day. These conflicts failed to restore stability and religious-political reconciliation; in fact, the bloodshed resulted in greater sympathy for the Houthi, even from Sunni Yemeni . All the while, a humanitarian crisis has gradually budded, culminating in a severe shortage of fresh water that threatens to completely ravage the country today . Not even the promise of liberal reform through the Arab Spring could dampen the intense political and ethno-religious tensions: the overthrow of Saleh’s government in June 2011, rather than facilitating comprehensive and inclusive political and economic reforms, only resulted in prolonged institutional weakness, upon which the Houthi capitalized in order to expand their territory and influence in the north .
There is more at stake in Yemen, however, than internal struggle for control of the country. Exerting influence upon events are outside actors with considerable, conflicting interests in the conflict’s final outcome. The Houthis are allegedly receiving tacit support from Iran, who has a clear interest in propping up a fellow Shiite force in the region. The standing government, meanwhile, has been forced to rely upon support from Sunni militants from the south. These fighters are hardly promoters of peace and reform themselves, however: many of them in fact have ties to Al-Qaeda, which boasts a prominent branch in the region, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) . A full-blown civil war, which becomes increasingly more likely with each passing day, could not only mean further Al-Qaeda involvement; it could even allow for the emergence of the IS, which shares a vested interest with Al-Qaeda in matching the Shiite northerners blow for blow, into the country . The resulting savagery and discord could allow ISIS to spread beyond Yemeni borders, into northwestern Africa and Saudi Arabia.
At present, there is very little to suggest that the current government under President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi will be able to stem the current trend towards complete disarray, let alone calm the social and political divides throughout the country. As the outside world delays in assembling a focused response, the peninsular state could become an expansion of the battleground for large-scale extremism in the Middle East.