As the world focuses on the fighting in Iraq and Syria against ISIS and the current Ebola epidemic originating in West Africa, many crises around the world have gone completely under the radar. In recent weeks we here at Ramen IR have made an effort to bring some of these underreported issues to the attention of our readers. We’ve written about the proxy war between Middle Eastern neighbors that led to UAE and Egyptian strikes against Libya, an event that was hardly discussed in international mainstream media. We’ve also talked about how Pakistan is currently engaged in a brutal fight against Islamist militants in northwest Pakistan, which, due to a media blackout by the Pakistani military, has also been incredibly underreported. So along this vein, we are now turning our attention to Yemen, a state that has been in turmoil for years – turmoil the world has hardly seemed to notice.
On September 21st, a small Shiite rebel group, the Houthis, who commonly refer to themselves as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), defeated an army brigade, overran the Yemeni capital Sana, and forced the government to capitulate. The group took over key government buildings, ousted the prime minister, and brought the city to a standstill politically. Negotiations brokered by the United Nations led to a ceasefire that called for the creation of a new national unity government that will grant the Houthis more power, as well as reverse an unpopular decision to raise fuel prices. Most importantly, this deal allows the Houthis, previously barely represented politically, and southern separatists to name a new prime minister for the country.
The Houthis, members of the Zaydi minority, a Shiite sect that was in power until 1962, have been locked in a struggle with government forces for a decade. The group began as a Zaydi revivalist movement in the 1990s with its power base located in the northern part of the country along the Saudi Arabian border. In total, 6 wars have been waged against them between 2004 and 2010, which resulted in the death of tens of thousands and the displacement of more than 340,000 people. The movement’s founder, Hussein al-Houthi, was killed in the first of these wars in 2004. In spite of all the fighting, the movement endured.
When the Arab Spring began in 2011, the Houthis threw their support behind the popular movement, which saw the resignation of the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh who had been in power for 33 years. In the ensuing power vacuum, the group was able to solidify its military position and gain increased popularity among the masses by calling for fuel subsidies. The Houthis continued to extend their reach in 2014, eventually reaching the capital, where they initiated massive protests against Saleh’s successor Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and his policy on fuel subsidies. They then overran an army brigade allied with the rival moderate Islamist Islah Party in order to take control of the capital.
At first glance, the military and political successes of the Houthis may seem a bit surprising given the suddenness of their victories after a decade of struggle. However, the complexity of Yemeni politics also appears to be playing a major factor in the Houthis’ ascension. Iona Craig of Al-Jazeera America points out that President Hadi may see the group’s rise as an opportunity to get rid of his other political rivals, namely the Islah Party whose forces were defeated in the Houthis attack on the capital. Hadi’s tactics may backfire, though. While the UN-brokered agreement stipulates that the Houthis must relinquish control of the capital once a new administration is formed, there are doubts that they will do so. They rejected President Hadi’s choice for Prime Minister, and at the same time continue to conveniently assert that they have the right to remain within the city until a Prime Minister is selected.
In addition to the national repercussions of this takeover, the rise of the Houthis has regional implications as well. There are concerns that the group is backed by Iran and has been acting as its Shiite proxy in the country. The Houthis have acknowledged that they have a relationship with Iran, but the extent of that relationship is unclear.
Iran or no Iran, recent attacks in Sana that led to the deaths of almost 50 people by a suicide bomber have sparked concerns of Shiite-Sunni fighting within the country. According to the New York Times, many fear that Sunni militants will continue to engage in attacks to counter the recent gains by the Shiite Houthis.
The international community is fixated on the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. As a result, other crises have been largely put into the background both in terms of funding and priority. Yemen is well on its way to becoming a failed state and providing a whole new theater for armed groups to take advantage of. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is already taking advantage of this in the southern part of the country, where US and Yemeni military strikes have been unable to dislodge the group. While it is vital to counteract ISIS action in Syria and Iraq, the world cannot lose sight of the fact that the fight against ISIS will not solve terrorism in the Middle East as long as turmoil exists in other states within the region.
The second part of our feature on Yemen will detail the activities of AQAP in southern Yemen and the actions being undertaken to try and stop the terrorist group “most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States” according to the US National Counterterrorism Center.