Yemen: The Five(ish) Way War

There is a relatively straightforward story about Yemen.  It goes like this:

Saleh, dictator in all but name, resigned in 2012 under considerable political pressure after surviving decades as the leader of the poor and terror-wracked nation.  His vice-president, Hadi, took the helm and (encouraged by Western support) promised elections – before being overthrown by Iran backed religious extremists.  The country is now sliding into a full-scale civil war.

In this article, I plan to add some context and depth to this story.

Yemen was, until 1990, divided along Cold War lines.  Saleh ran the North, an autocratic regime primarily supported by the US as a counterweight to the Soviet-backed South Yemen.  The South Yemen port of Aden was the USSR’s key port in the Gulf region.  Saleh, who was nothing if not a good political operator, was able to marginalize South Yemen during the unification, extending his control, nominally, to the entire country.  The side effect of this power-grab was the still on-going Separatist movement.

So far: Saleh’s Government versus Southern Separatists.

Yemen is a tribal country.  The Ottoman’s rule was mostly fictitious, and even the Cold War failed to imprint any particular nationalist ideas in the country.  The tribes do have affiliations, confederacies of varying degrees of organization and authority.  The two strongest and most centralized are the Hashid (the most organized, based around the capitol, and with whom Saleh is affiliated) and the Bakil (the largest confederation, based north of the capitol and the other major player in Saleh’s government).  However, there are quite a few more, and each is made up of a large number of tribes, also varying in power, size, wealth, and organization.

Other than the Hashid and Bakil, none of the confederations are unified enough to push for anything, but all the tribes are old, proud, and armed.  Even the less-centralized confederations at least have internal agreement that having other people tell them what to do is bad.  The mentality is: “Yes, running things would be nice, but it’s far more important that nobody else runs us.”  The key to Saleh’s 35 year’s of herding well-armed cats was his ability to play the groups off each other, getting things done without upsetting the status quo or having to exert too much federal power over individual tribes.

The lack of a strong national identity means that any tribe not directly competing for resources, land, or influence is a potential ally.  Skirmishes are common, and some very funny alliances form.  The tribes are also perfectly happy to see the central government continue to fail to beat the Separatists.  After all, if the government ever fully beat the separatists, the national army might be directed at them.

Status Update: Hadi’s Central Government v. Tribes v. Southern Separatists.

What’s missing so far is the United State’s interest in the country – terrorists.  Yemen, the lawless haven for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (and, as of a very violent pair of explosions, the Islamic State).  The problem is, AQ is a Sunni group, and Northern Yemen (and 53% of the population) is not only Shia, but an offshoot Zaidi Shia.  Furthermore, even the Sunnis have significant tribal or local political goals, and have little time for Al Qaeda’s transnational philosophy.  As best as I can tell, Al Qaeda is reasonably powerful in one South Yemen governorate, but is mostly a contact of opportunity that some tribes will intermittently use to gain access to money and weapons.  As for ISIL, the tribes are unlikely to look favorably on its expansive claims of political and religious authority.

Status Update: Hadi’s Central Government v. Tribes v. Separatists v. AQAP & ISIL.

Finally, there are the Houthis.  A modern (1990s) splinter group of the Zaidi’s, the Houthis religious claims bypassed the tribal divisions, leading to the formation of a group whose unity and size threatened Saleh’s grip on power.  They are based in the far north of the country, and their forays across the border have very much disturbed Saudi Arabia.  The Houthis are also quite anti-imperialist and anti-Western (Saleh’s acquiescence to the U.S. drone strike campaign is deeply, deeply unpopular in a country that considers the civilian deaths a major affront, and already dislikes any non-local authority).  Between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, Saleh was probably under considerable pressure when he tried to arrest al-Houthi and marginalize the Houthi movement in 2004.  The Houthi insurgency continued until a 2010 ceasefire, but the Arab Spring destabilized the government, thereby giving the Houthis a golden opportunity.

Final Status: Hadi’s Central Government (now declaring it’s authority from Aden) v. Tribes v. Separatists v. AQAP & ISIL v. Houthis.

Oh, and Saleh’s still around and might be trying to return to power in the midst of all the chaos.  The problems of Hadi’s “rule” is certainly making him look good.  Hadi blamed Saleh’s forces for an air attack on his compound in Aden.

Yemen is not a country, it is a collection of feudal territories with warlords and constantly shifting alliances.  The West might back Hadi, and Iran/Russia might back the Houthis, but those are only two players in the complex politics.  The foreign influences should be well aware that they are being used to domestic groups’ own ends, and Yemen has so far successfully prevented any single group, no matter how well-financed by foreign powers, to exert true control.  Alliances with foreign powers are as temporary and selfish as any inside Yemen.

Yemen might be sliding into real chaos, but that slide is built on a political situation that can not be reasonably reduced to ‘government v. reporters’, as much as that simple view might appeal to distant diplomats and reporters.

UPDATE 2015-March-25: Reports suggest that the Saudis are massing forces on the Yemeni border.  The Saudis have fought the Houthis before, towards the end of the 04-10 insurgency, but it’s not clear it worked out too well for them – the Yemeni mountains are quite a different playing field than the open deserts of Saudi Arabia.  Despite the quantity and quality of forces the Saudis deployed (as well as additional U.S. airstrikes), the Houthis continued to operate in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia.  The casualty figures (Wikipedia) suggest the Houthis did better than 1 to 1 during the insurrection, and neither Saudi Arabia’s initial cease-fire agreement nor Saleh’s later one inflicted any of the onerous conditions that are usually put upon the losing party.  If the troop movement is more than a political statement, then Saudi Arabia is apparently feeling very confident that it’s figured out how to fight a mountain insurgency since the last time they invaded.  I’m pessimistic, especially since the Houthis have re-equipped themselves from stores the U.S. supplied to Saleh and Hadi.  Besides guns, ammunition, and vehicles, such military depots might have held man-portable missiles that would give any guerrilla warrior the means to take out modern tanks and airplanes.

UPDATE 2 20150March-26: When I first published this, I didn’t realize how quickly things were going to move.  As of today, it looks like Saudi Arabia and Egypt are indeed planning to intervene in a big way.  I predict this doesn’t end well for them – if the United States couldn’t tame Afghanistan, I would not bet on these two taming Yemen.  Egypt is probably helping because of Saudi support in the coup against Morsi and the instability that followed.  In response, Iran is likely to increase support for the Houthis.  Unfortunately, this bipolarization is the best way to turn the Houthi rebellion from one of a string of skirmishes and struggles and power grabs into a rather more total war.


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