Yemen after the announcement of Shia Houthi rebels taking over the country is facing uncertainty and fear of full-scale civil war. The development also pushes the country further into chaos and threatens to turn the political power struggle into a full-blown civil and sectarian conflict, pitting Houthi Shiites against the country’s majority Sunnis, including powerful tribesmen and secessionists in the south. The impoverished Arabian Peninsula country has teetered on the brink of fragmentation for the past year but the crisis took a turn for the worse in September, when the Houthis took control of capital Sanaa after descending from their northern stronghold and fighting their way into central Yemen, seizing several other cities and towns along the way. Their rising dominance which included a raid of the presidential palace and a siege of President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi’s residence forced the president and all Cabinet members to submit their resignations in January. Since then, Hadi and the ministers have been under house arrest. The rebels issued a deadline for Yemen’s political parties to negotiate what they called a way forward, warning that if there was no resolution, they would act unilaterally. After this deadline they have effectively taken over all the country administration into their hands.
The apparent power grab by the Houthis threatens to further destabilize a country whose previous government had been a significant American ally in the fight against Al Qaeda, which has a major presence in the impoverished country. It may also worsen Yemen’s relationship with its wealthy northern neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which already has cut off badly needed aid to Yemen because of the growing power of the Houthis, who are believed to be financed by Iran. There was no immediate major reaction from Saudi Arabia, which shares a long border with Yemen. The kingdom is unlikely to welcome the Shiite rebels’ takeover of a country at its doorstep. The toppling of the Yemeni government by Iranian backed Shi’ite Houthis has upped the ante in the regional sectarian Sunni-Shi’ite struggle which is currently going on in many regional countries. Yemen is perfectly set to become a sectarian war that will see millions more in foreign funds transferred to various proxy forces in the country, as in the case of the ongoing civil war in Syria. Sunni states are likely to dramatically increase support for their brothers in the country, not holding back funds from jihadists and other Islamists, just as has been done in Syria. Iran and its allies in the region are not going to sit by either.
Then there is the question of the world superpowers, which we can expect will intervene as they have in Syria, with the US increasingly favoring the Shi’ite axis, led by Iran, as it does not want to ruin ongoing nuclear negotiations with the country. It also seeks to use Iran to counter Sunni jihadists such as Islamic State and al-Qaida. Recent reports reveal that the US is cooperating with the Houthis to target al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The United States administration in recent weeks has softened its anti-Houthi rhetoric. Many inside and outside the administration are tempted to see the Houthis as allies because they are fighting AQAP. This is a big mistake. The Houthis are, like Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored militia whose slogan is “God is great; death to America; death to Israel.” They are hardly potential allies for Washington. Any attempt to align American policy with them will only drive Sunnis further into the camp of al-Qaeda exactly the same phenomenon we have recently witnessed in Syria and Iraq where a perceived American tilt toward Iran and its murderous proxies has driven many Sunnis to side for protection with ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. Equations in Yemen is very sensitive and are moving in the direction of major civil war. Sunni al-Qaida Islamists are active and based in the south; Zaidi Houthis from the north have moved into Sanaa; there are a number of armed private citizens; and then there is an assortment of tribes, with each contemplating where its interests lie.
Threat of civil war in Yemen is growing as military forces from at least three factions are amassing on Yemen eastern front. The fighters includes Houthis and fighters from the conservative Islamist forces loyal to military general Ali Mohsen Al Ahmar of the Islah Party backed by the Saudis. Joining too in the fight are tribal forces that populate the east. Recently Al Qaeda captured the headquarters of a Yemeni Army brigade Qaeda fighters had completely captured the Yemeni National Army’s 19th Brigade after heavy fighting at its headquarters in the Baihan district of Shabwa Province, an important oil-producing area in southeastern Yemen. It’s a major setback for Houthi militia. Houthi militia has been trying to extend its power in the oil-rich east and south of the country where Al-Qaida is strong. So a deadly and bloody conflict is evident in the country which will tore apart the social fabric and will definitely divide the country on the basis of sects. If civil war starts nobody knows for how long it will go on and how many innocents will be killed. In that conflict regional powers will choose their sides on the sectarian lines which will flare up the situation. Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East will need a long time to recover may be decades to come of that sectarian conflict which may even destroy the whole generation.
Yemen being the most populous and poorest country of the Arab world has direct stakes in regional stability. That is why it is of utmost importance to restore stability and a popular government in Yemen, so that the sliding trend could be checked. It would be more appropriate if the Gulf States, Iran and the Western stakeholders broker a dialogue and rein in their horses in the larger interests of peace, stability and their plummeting clout. It’s time to go back to the spirit of consensus that was attained with the world body, through which the government had agreed to introduce reforms, draft a new constitution and reset talks for autonomy. One possible reconciliation effort could be a Houthi-brokered Expanded National Congress, to include different factions under one umbrella to form a national government.
(The author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of news agency Views Around News and its geo-political division Views Around can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)