As impoverished Yemen finds itself embroiled in widespread sectarian violence, U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region faces worrying disruption.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, is becoming more politically divided as a civil war looms, and the chaos is threatening U.S. counterterrorism policy. Yemen’s problems include political uncertainty stemming from the Arab Spring when President Ali Abdullah Saleh was deposed, socioeconomic concerns, a secessionist movement in the south, and the presence of the radical jihadist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The gravest threat of all, however, may be the Houthis, a Shiite group that has targeted Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and recently caused the resignation of the Yemeni president. The Houthi rebellion threatens the existence of the ongoing U.S. drone campaign against AQAP and the future of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the region.
The sectarian divisions within Yemen are mostly rooted in the Shiite-Sunni schism of Islam. Yemen is a country with a Sunni majority that has a history of conflict, but one that “has been spared the Shiite-Sunni rivalry that has torn apart Syria and Iraq.” Until now. Its sectarian tendencies pit the Shiite Houthis against the rest of the Sunni population. Yemeni sectarianism is rooted in fierce tribal loyalties, having more to do with political grievances than religious ideology; the Houthis have fought the central government for better treatment, more equal representation, and more access to resources, especially oil. Much of the sectarian strife plaguing Yemen comes from external sources such as spillover from the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both supporting their corresponding ideological brands of Islam (Sunni and Shiite, respectively).
It is feared that Yemen will become a proxy battleground for both Saudi and Iranian interests, and a new recruiting ground for ISIS, which has already taken advantage of sectarian conflict in Syria and those displaced as a result of the civil war. There is a possibility that the Yemeni civil war could prove to be more menacing than the one raging in Syria. AQAP is “using the Houthis’ insurgency” to attract more Sunnis and to fight the now Shiite-dominated government. The sectarianism is, thus, not just based in tribal loyalties or the Sunni-Shiite divide, but also in the political grievances of the minority.
The Houthis are vocal critics of U.S. counterterrorism policy in Yemen, especially drone strikes. Further complicating the already precarious situation is the hatred between Sunni AQAP and the Shiite Houthis, each of which considers the other to be an enemy. Many Sunni nations in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, fear the rise of the Houthis because they conclude they are a “proxy” for Shiite power in Iran. While the Houthis deny this accusation, there is an indisputable connection between the rebel group and Iran. The Houthis pledge they only seek to root out corruption and wanted former President Hadi to honor the power-sharing agreements signed in September that would give the rebel group more representation in the Yemeni government. Now, instead, the Houthis forced President Hadi to resign and the United States and the Sunni countries in the region will be forced to work with the recognized government of Yemen.
The recent political turmoil is a situation the Obama administration should be monitoring closely. The first reason is that Yemen is a key ally for the United States, and has helped with its robust counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East. President Hadi was central because he allowed U.S. drone strikes.
A second reason is the threat of sectarian civil war within Yemen becoming much like the chaos occurring in Syria and Iraq. A government collapse could exacerbate internal strife, and possible civil war would pit Sunnis and Shiites against one another. Yemen runs the risk of becoming another “sectarian battleground in the Middle East between Sunni-led al Qaeda and Shiite rebels.”
Finally, the rise and prospective strengthening of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula poses a formidable challenge for the United States. AQAP is considered the most lethal and capable branch of al Qaeda, and sought refuge within the porous and desolate Yemeni landscape. More unrest within the central government and the resignation of Mr. Hadi could “offer breathing room for AQAP.” Thus, the United States should be revamping current policies and crafting new ones to address the uncertainty in Yemen.
The events in Yemen affect U.S. policy profoundly. The prospects of the Houthis actually forming a functioning government—one equipped to handle AQAP, a failing economy, and the other issues facing Yemen—are grim. This situation poses some security concerns for the United States: should the United States proceed with its pre-existing policies of counterterrorism and drone strikes? President Hadi’s resignation left these policies uncertain, but Pentagon officials have guaranteed their commitment to the drone program. In turn, the United States’ major concern is AQAP and it must develop a good working relationship with whoever comes to power in Sanaa. The success of its policies, both counterterrorism and the drone program, are contingent on that relationship. Overall, the United States will likely make nominal changes to its policies toward Yemen and will continue its drone strikes and counterterrorism measures no matter what group is in power.
Kathleen Taylor is a staff writer for Charged Affairs with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. She is based in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area.