Recently, Tawakkol Karman — a member of the Islah party in Yemen, a women’s rights activist and a recipient of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize — warned that her country could be facing a civil war, unless the West begins taking financial and legal action against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is supposed to depart from office within the next three months following a resignation on paper negotiated by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Unfortunately, Karman’s view of the situation in Yemen is oversimplified. Indeed, Saleh’s own exercise of power and control is becoming increasingly marginal. Granted, he still has some loyal Republican Guard units that are fighting rebel army divisions — particularly in the capital of Sana’a — under the command of General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who sided with protesters against Saleh’s regime and has declared his support for the GCC-brokered deal. Yet this is hardly the only conflict currently playing out in Yemen.
In fact, arguably more important now is the sectarian battle in northern Yemen between the Zaydi Shia Houthi insurgents, and Salafist militants, many of whom have ties to al-Ahmar, known for his anti-Shia sentiments and links to Sunni Islamist militants across the country. Prior to the beginning of protests in Yemen in February of this year, Saleh’s government had been in conflict with the Houthis, with intermittent ceasefires mediated by Qatar.
As disclosures from Wikileaks cables have revealed, Saleh, in meetings with Western officials, repeatedly tried to equate the Houthis with the threat of al Qaeda, and U.S. officials were even aware of how Saleh had diverted military aid intended for cracking down on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to suppressing the Houthis instead, while being lenient with leading al Qaeda figures in Yemen like Jamal al-Badawi (whose whereabouts today are unknown, despite Saleh’s assurances that the man was under house arrest).
Today, the double game that Saleh has played with AQAP seems to be no more, as Yemeni soldiers are at war with AQAP militants for control of several towns in the south of the country.
In any event, now that Saleh’s attention has turned elsewhere, the Houthis have essentially been given free rein in the province of Saada that borders Saudi Arabia. It would appear that the Houthis are aiming to expand their area of control towards the Red Sea and elsewhere beyond the confines of Saada, probably seeking to establish at the minimum their own autonomous province.
Since the Houthis routinely accuse the Salafists of being backed by Saudi Arabia, pushing towards the Red Sea makes sense, as it would open up a naval route for trade links, arms supplies, and aid from outside sympathizers. While there have been occasional reports on alleged Iranian help for the Houthis, there has so far not been any good evidence to confirm those rumors.
After all, the Houthis do not have the advantage of geographical proximity (unlike the Shia “Special Groups” in Iraq) or an intermediary state (unlike Hezbollah, which has been able to function as an Iranian proxy in Lebanon largely because of Syria’s role as an Iranian ally) to receive support from Tehran.
Thus, Iranian involvement is a real possibility if the Houthis can consolidate any control over parts of the Red Sea coastline. But is Saudi Arabia backing the Salafists as the Houthis allege? That Saudi Arabia has previously come into conflict with the Houthis is undeniable. Once again, Wikileaks cables prove useful on Yemen, confirming that the Saudis conducted airstrikes, much to the delight of Saleh, against the Houthis in the Jebel al-Dukhan area that borders Saudi Arabia. These airstrikes were carried out in response to Houthi incursions into Saudi territory. Thus, Saudi Arabia is undoubtedly concerned that the Houthis are gaining too much power that could affect their border security, and so could well be backing the Salafists as a way to contain the Houthis.
One could point to the fact that AQAP, which is opposed to Saudi Arabia, has declared jihad (more than once) against the Houthis in support of their Salafist “brothers” as a factor against Saudi support for the Salafists, but I am inclined against such an argument on two counts.
First, Saudi Arabia has had no problem supporting Saleh’s regime over the years despite transparent leniency with AQAP, probably fearing the Houthis by virtue of their proximity to the border as a more immediate threat. Second, AQAP’s declarations of jihad against the Houthis and exhortations to send fighters to the town of Dammaj — where the Houthis have subjected Salafist centers to artillery shelling — have meant little more in practice than claiming responsibility for a suicide bombing on Houthi rebels back in August. All that said, if AQAP does become more actively involved in targeting the Houthis, Saudi Arabia might decide to pursue a “hands-off” policy and hope for a prolonged stalemate in fighting.
Amid all this chaos, the southern separatists have not hesitated to begin being more assertive about their desires to secede from Yemen. Recently, for example, the police were called in to disperse hundreds of pro-secession demonstrators in the southern town of Aden.
If the southern separatists gain sufficient momentum and secede, then the rest of Yemen will lose much of the already dwindling oil and gas reserves, likely hastening the already severe food crisis (including water shortages) that could lead to a famine similar to what has taken place in Somalia.
In short, Yemen already appears to be in a state of civil war, with a complex web of alliances and rivalries among various factions. To reduce the conflicts to an analysis along the lines of “Saleh vs. the people,” where the West’s involvement is the decisive factor, as Karman is implying, will do little to prevent the significant prospect of a full-blown collapse of the country over the next year.