Mohammed Abdulmalik al-Mutawakil, one of the secular party leaders in Yemen, a scholar and a gentle soul who was admired and loved by many, was assassinated this week as he walked home in Sanaa. Regardless of who perpetrated this senseless crime, it is an ominous sign of the chaos that has already descended on this hapless country and the chaos that is yet to come. There was a time when diplomacy could have prevented the disintegration of Yemen, that time has come and gone.
The Houthi rebels (and the term rebels may not apply for much longer), having gone way past Sanaa in their military expansion, have given Yemeni President, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, 10 days to form a cabinet or face a direct takeover of power by their committee of elders. As the Houthis battle a motley collection of Al Qaeda forces, tribal militias, and remnants of the Yemeni army in southern towns and governorates, the US continues to bombard members of the Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in roughly the same locations, leading to widespread speculation in Yemen and the region that a secret alliance has taken hold between the US and Iran, leading to actual collaboration on the ground between US and the Iran-supported Houthi forces.
In northern Syria and Iraq, US planes have been firing relentlessly at ISIS fighters, particularly in the town of Kobani, where the embattled Syrian Kurds have been valiantly trying to fend off an ISIS invasion. Given that ISIS has turned on the Syrian government and has invited at least the Islamist members of the Syrian opposition to join them, this again puts the US on the side of Iran and Bashar Al-Assad in confronting Sunni extremist factions. The Turks, who could with the proper inducements field ground troops to help defeat ISIS, have insisted that the US turn its fire on the Syrian regime as well, to get at the root of the chaos and mayhem going on in Syria and Iraq. The Obama administration has thus far refused to do so.
I have had a hard time in recent days, in interviews with Al Jazeera (Arabic) and the BBC Arabic service, convincing my interviewers and their Yemeni guests that the US has actually blundered into this seeming alliance and that it is in no way an actual conspiracy between the US and Iran against all Sunnis in the Middle East. Conspiracy theories are indeed commonplace in the Middle East, and suspicions are always rife that the US sees all, knows all, and is behind every nefarious development in the region. I try to convince my interlocutors that the US government is simply not that smart and not that capable to be behind all these developments and that there is in fact no American plan to dismantle the Sykes-Picot agreement (the WWI French-British agreement that drew all the currently challenged borders in the Levant) and divide up the region along sectarian and ethnic lines. The Obama administration’s actions are, nevertheless, at least partially to blame for these wild impressions and accusations. Indeed, despite an army of public affairs specialists and strategic communication experts, the US image in the region is at an all-time low, from Iran itself, to Turkey, Israel, and the entire Arab world.
From a Beleaguered Northern Tribe to a Dominant Force
When the Houthi rebellion started in 2004, the Houthis were simply the largest Zaidi tribe in northern Yemen, leading a protest at the time against the Saudi supported attempt by the central government to spread Salafi/Sunni Islam in their region. Additionally, the northern region felt neglected and left out of development funds and projects given to Yemen by foreign donors. Former president Saleh attempted to subdue the Houthis by summoning Houthi elder, Badreddine al-Houthi, to Sanaa and by stationing troops in Saadah, the capital of the northern governorate. Defiance turned into resistance and led to seven years of war between the Houthis and the central government in Sanaa. After the 2011 uprising, and taking advantage of the political chaos and power vacuum in Sanaa, the Houthis fought off the Yemeni army and defeated and expelled the armed members of a major Salafi school, the Damaj institute, from their midst. Having faced Salafi militias from Sanaa (from the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Islah party) and occasional forays by AQAP, the Houthis, under the guise of fighting off these “invading” forces, continued their war into the governorates of Amran and Shabwa, reaching in the spring and summer of 2014 the outskirts of Sanaa.
Steps Toward Dominance
Despite signing agreements with the National Dialogue Committee, brokered by UN envoy Jamal Benomar, and with the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the Houthi’s appetite had been whetted by successes on the battlefield and by growing assistance from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, into threatening Sanaa under the pretext of seeking economic and political reforms. After establishing street presence via civilian demonstrations, the Houthis eventually sent troops into Sanaa and took the capital with only token resistance from the army. It was widely speculated that troops still loyal to former president Saleh were ordered by the latter not to resist. Saleh, long angered by leading General Ali Mohsen, and the leading Islahi family, the al-Ahmars, struck an alliance with the Houthis and gave orders to military leaders still loyal to him to stand down and allow the Houthis to advance unopposed.
Where Things Stand
After establishing dominance in Sanaa, Houthi forces continued south, taking Hodeida, the important commercial port city, and going East to the Hadramout region, taking Marib, the oil producing region, in the process. Currently, local tribes, army units still loyal to president Hadi, as well as AQAP elements, are putting up a stiff resistance to the advancing Houthi fighters. From Hodeida, the strategic waterway of Bab el Mandeb, is within striking distance, as is Aden, the capital city of the south. If their current string of military successes continues, the Houthis will soon have all of Yemen under their control. Not wanting a war with the southern coalition known as Hirak, the Houthis are attempting to strike an alliance with the southern parties by promising them a large share of any new government formed in Sanaa. As a sign of their growing confidence, the Houthis have declined to name their own prime minister, or indeed to say how many seats in the new government they would like to have. Houthi leader, Abdul-Malik, has instead given president Hadi an ultimatum: form a new government within 10 days or we will establish a council of elders to rule Yemen. Houthi’s militiamen already control the main ministries and government buildings in Sanaa and are ensuring that government officials do not make any decisions counter to their wishes.
The US has, since 2011, given some economic assistance to president Hadi’s transitional government and lip service to the democratic process underway in Yemen since 2011. The highest investment of attention and money, however, has been given to pursuing AQAP elements with drone and airstrikes. The confluence of US airstrikes, and ground strikes by the Houthis against AQAP, give the impression of connivance. In fact, the USG to date has not had any direct contact with the Houthis, and rhetoric on both sides has been hostile.
While the US has been busy (ineffectively) pounding AQAP members across southern Yemen, Iran’s influence has grown in leaps and bounds over the past few months. Iran has friends and allies all over Yemen, but Iranian funds and weapons have been particularly instrumental in the Houthis’ military successes. When the Obama administration wakes up to the impending domination of the country by a group who’s slogan is: “Death to America, Curse be upon the Jews and Victory to Islam,” it will have become too costly to try to reverse the facts on the ground. Further, should Iran’s guns, via the Houthi militia, reach Bab el Mandeb, they would pose a threat to the entrance to the Red Sea, hence directly impacting the American national interest.
The image problem is no less serious: For three years, the US despite saying “Assad must go,” has refused to do anything to advance that goal. This year, with the sudden takeover of northwestern Iraq by the Islamic State organization (ISIS, ISIL, or simply IS), the US dispatched its air force, striking ISIS forces near the Kurdish regions of Iraq and in an attempt to break the siege in northern Syria of the Kurdish city of Kobani. There has been tacit admission by US officials that Iran, which has troops on the ground in northern Iraq and military advisors to the Assad regime in Syria, has been given advance notice of US/allied airstrikes. While such actions have been individually explained, and possibly justified, little attention has been given to the overall picture that Iran’s influence in the region is being aided and abetted by the US, and that it looks to allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, let alone the rank and file Sunni Muslims of the area, that there is actual collusion between Iran and the US. The rationale, as explained to me by Yemeni friends, is that the regular armed forces of Yemen have failed at containing AQAP. The US, according to this narrative, now trusts the Houthis to do the job. Similarly in northern Iraq and Syria, Syrian oppositionists to Assad are saying, perhaps the US has now given the signal to Iran that it no longer cares about Assad’s continuance in power as long as the Sunni extremists in the region are fought and minorities (read, the Yazidis and Kurds) are protected.
It would be one thing if all this were part of a deliberate strategy by the US—via an upfront agreement with Iran that establishes an understanding on stopping the rivalry and proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, and that terrorist plots by Iran and Hezbollah are put in check. Quite another matter, however, when Iran and its allied militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, are gradually acquiring the upper hand in the regional struggle for power, and the US is seen as at best looking the other way and at worst aiding and abetting such takeover. Iran remains to date an enemy of the US. By assisting one’s enemy and causing friends and allies to lose faith, the US is setting itself up for almost universal enmity in the region. After full withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops will no longer be in harm’s way in the region, but our diplomats and friends had better tread very carefully.