Yemen has lately become a hot topic of rampant strategic pontification, as pundits rush to make bold sweeping statements that seek to explain the turbulence in this conflict-wracked nation as simply another front in a region-wide strategic context. But reality — as most who follow Yemen would attest — is far more complicated.
Last September, the Houthis — a Zaidi Shia rebel group — took effective control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, riding on a wave of popular discontent over the transitional government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. That government had been installed under a U.N.-backed deal mediated by the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council to end the Arab Spring–inspired uprising against the country’s longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis quickly inked a deal with Hadi and other political factions, but tensions soon emerged. By the start of March, the government had resigned, while Hadi — after escaping house arrest by the Houthis in Sanaa — fled to Aden and declared it Yemen’s temporary capital. U.N.-mediated talks continued in search of a political settlement, while the Houthis moved to consolidate power. The power vacuum resulting from the steady collapse of Yemen’s political order had already proved a boon to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and deepened an economic and humanitarian crisis that had already left half of the country’s population food-insecure.
Any hope of an early resolution to the crisis among Yemen’s rival factions has been quashed by the Saudi-led anti-Houthi military offensive — euphemistically named Decisive Storm. Five nights into the air barrage, a return to calm seems as far away as ever, while the outcome of the Saudi-led intervention remains uncertain.
That’s because while the Arab League countries waging the air campaign portray the Houthi rebellion as a product of Iranian meddling, Yemen’s conflict remains in essence a local struggle for political power. It was spurred by the deterioration of central government control before Saleh’s exit and then exacerbated by his successor’s inability to consolidate power — all of which created a perfect opening for the Houthis, whose complaints about corruption and widespread pernicious foreign influence seemed to resonate with more Yemenis than ever. The Houthi campaign, until the middle of last year, was largely a turf war against tribal opponents in the highlands of northern Yemen — a conflict in which Hadi and the central government alternately played mediator and disinterested observer. More recently, however, as the Houthis grew stronger, they began directly challenging Hadi and his backers — with the support of their ally of convenience, former President Saleh. Houthis forged the partnership with Saleh more than a year ago, fueled by their mutual distaste for the Islah party, a Yemeni faction that includes the bulk of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood.
It's worth noting that Saleh’s support has put swaths of Sunni Yemeni soldiers and tribal fighters into the field on the side of the Shia Houthis, underscoring the fact that the roots of this conflict are not purely sectarian. Still, the conflict certainly has a sectarian tinge. The Houthi movement is rooted in the revival of Zaidism, a heterodox Shia sect found almost exclusively in the Yemeni highlands. And many of the Houthis’ Sunni opponents have framed their conflicts in religious terms.
The Saudi-led intervention has exacerbated the sectarian dimension. Politicians in the region have painted Yemen as a battleground between Sunni and Shia powers. Western observers have cast it as a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Regardless of their veracity, such framings risk becoming self-fulfilling prophesies: Since the start of military action, the profusion of charged language — most obviously the application to the Houthis of a laundry list of sectarian derogative terms for Shia — has been nearly impossible to ignore.
The likely trajectory of the conflict in coming days remains unclear. Thus far, the military action has been limited to airstrikes. In addition to inflicting civilian casualties, terrifying Sanaa residents, and effectively cutting off Yemen off from the outside world, the airstrikes have annihilated much of the combat capability of Yemeni military. A number of key branches in the Yemeni Armed Forces, including the air force, had fallen under the control of the Houthis and their allies, and have become targets.
The cost of their air campaign to the coalition is low, but so is the probability of it dislodging the Houthis. While some coalition partners have raised the prospect of a ground incursion, an invading force facing battle-hardened Houthi fighters on their own rugged turf would likely find the going tough.
The conflict is already escalating Yemen’s preexisting humanitarian crisis. The war had effectively shut down the impoverished nation’s economy, while many fear that a naval blockade could prevent food and medical supplies reaching those in need.
All sides ostensibly agree that the conflict will be ended through a negotiated settlement. But it's uncertain whether the coalition’s campaign will accelerate a process to that conclusion. Political sources in Sanaa say that a deal had been in the making as Decisive Storm was launched. The airstrikes appear to have softened Saleh’s stance. On Saturday the former president called for an end to the strikes and offered an agreement in which his relatives would refrain from running in coming elections. But the Houthis have dug in — defiantly rejecting the idea that they will be bombed into submission — while Hadi, empowered by the groundswell of foreign support, has expressed unprecedented confidence. In a combative speech at Saturday’s Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, he condemned the Houthis as “stooges of Iran” and demanded their surrender. Tough talk, but on the ground, Hadi’s supporters have yet to make progress even in securing the southern port of Aden, and he seems set to stay in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, for some time.
The alternative to an agreement, most Yemenis fear, is an extended civil war. The power vacuum could very well accelerate the country’s fragmentation, while further enhancing the prospects for groups such as AQAP. A prolonged conflict would be a disaster, not just for Yemen, but for the region as a whole. It would be an overly pessimistic assessment to say the situation has reached the point of no return. But even if it hasn’t now, if the current trends hold Yemen will very soon fall into the abyss of a protracted conflict that threatens its survival as a state.