Explaining the crisis in Yemen: Houthis, Shias, Sunnis and Saleh

Explaining the crisis in Yemen: Houthis, Shias, Sunnis and Saleh

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Despite the chaos, Yemen is veering toward a peace deal rather than civil war.

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 — President Obama has sent American warships to the coast of Yemen as a show of force and to support Saudi Arabian efforts against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in the country.

Obama ordered the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy to the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, joining seven other U.S. naval ships already operating off the coast in Yemen.

The move, according to Obama, was to discourage Iran from providing weapons to the Shia Houthi rebels who are fighting against the government in Yemen.

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On MSNBC, Obama said, “If there are weapons delivered to factions in Yemen that could threaten navigation, that’s a problem.” Obama was referring to the Bab al-Mandab straight, which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. It is an important strategic and commercial maritime corridor and could be threatened by Houthi rebels.

According to Obama, “We’re not sending them obscure messages, we send them very direct messages about it.”

Intelligence sources commented privately that the president likely took the action at the request of Saudi Arabia, which is launching air strikes in support of the government and against the Houthi rebels inside Yemen. Additionally, the United States almost certainly has intelligence suggesting that the nine Iranian cargo ships currently off the coast of Yemen contain weapons for the Houthis.

The same sources noted that “it is possible” this could also be part of an effort to help evacuate the 4,000 to 5,000 U.S. citizens currently trapped in Yemen.

Last year, observers hailed Yemen as what could go right with the Arab Spring. In January 2011, protesters began demanding that President Ali Abdullah Saleh step down and end his 33-year rule. After months of conflict, which killed between 200 and 2,000 people, Saleh signed an agreement ceding power to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. Hadi subsequently won an election, in which he ran unopposed, and Saleh was allowed to return to his home in the capital.

In early 2014, the country ended 10 months of a National Dialogue Conference, agreeing on a document that would be the basis of the new constitution. It also approved an agreement to make Yemen a federation of six regions as part of its political transition.

The country remains the poorest in the Middle East, but there was hope that with the transfer of power, it would start to develop and improve economically.

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Likewise, the country was working to end terrorism in its borders. Although one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda factions, al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), is headquartered in Yemen, the government was fully cooperating with the West in counter-terrorism efforts. The United States initiated drone attacks against AQAP targets and provided military and intelligence support to the government to fight the militants.

However, that calm veneer began cracking in August 2014. President Hadi was forced to fire his cabinet and overturn a controversial rise in fuel prices after weeks of demonstrations. In September 2014, Houthi rebels took over the capital. The United Nations brokered a peace deal between the Houthis and the government, in which the Houthis agreed to withdraw from the areas they took over as soon as the government formed a unity government.

The conflict escalated in January 2015, leading to the current crisis. Houthis rejected the constitution proposed by the government and moved back into the capital. President Hadi resigned, but then rescinded his resignation, as Houthi rebels remained in control of Sanaa. The rebels officially announced that they were taking over the government in February 2015, forcing Hadi to flee Sanaa for Aden. Houthi advances toward Aden then pushed Hadi out of that area.

Outside forces have now become involved in the conflict. Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition of Arab states in launching air strikes against Houthi targets, while Iran is backing the Houthis.

Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and ISIS are both attempting to take advantage of the chaos to extend their positions.

The United Nations has warned that Yemen is “on the verge of total collapse.”

Yemen is a country with multiple divisions and factions, even in the best of times. It was divided into two countries, North and South, until it officially unified in 1990. Tribal and religious differences continue to divide the country, with Houthis in the north fighting for more authority and Sunnis in the south fighting for independence. Various rebel groups have long held power over different areas of the country, and both AQAP and ISIS are fighting the government for control of territory.

The Houthis follow a branch of Shia Islam called Zaidism. Zaidis make up approximately one-third of the population of Yemen and are heavily concentrated in the northern part of the country. The south of Yemen is primarily Sunni.

In 2004, Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi led an uprising of Zaidis against then-President Saleh in hopes of gaining greater autonomy and to protect Zaidi religion and culture from what he called attacks by Sunni Muslims. The Houthi rebels take their name from that uprising. The Houthis engaged in six rounds  of fighting against the government of Saleh in an effort to gain more access to power and resources.

Ironically, President Saleh and his loyalists are now fighting with the Houthis against President Hadi.

Iran is also backing the Houthis. Although both Iran and the Houthis are Shia, they follow different branches of the religion and often clash over ideology. Zaidis are often accused of being closer to Sunnis than to Shias, and Zaidis and Sunnis often worship in the same mosques. Zaidis are sometimes known as “Fivers,” because they believe Zayd is the fifth and final leader of the faithful, whereas the majority of Shia believe there is a chain of 12 and are called “Twelvers.”

The Houthis are fighting the ousted government of President Hadi, who is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia. Hadi is in hiding, although he insists he remains in power. Many of the police and some of the military also support Hadi, but his largest base of support comes from the Sunnis and those in the south of Yemen. He is backed by the Popular Resistance Committees, who were formed to fight against al-Qaeda and are supported by Hadi’s tribe, the Maremi. Other Sunni groups, including separatists who have clashed with Hadi’s government, are also fighting against the Houthis.

The Yemen security forces have shifted alliances throughout the conflict. Some openly back Hadi while others support Saleh, and many others regularly change sides depending on current conditions.

Although both Hadi and the Houthis oppose al-Qaeda, the AQAP has issued a bounty of 20 kilograms of gold for the head of the Houthis and for Saleh. Hadi has previously said he would be willing to negotiate with AQAP, but there is no alliance between the groups.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State has attempted to capitalize on the chaos. It has assassinated several soldiers, claimed responsibility for suicide bombings throughout the countries and even clashed with AQAP in areas it has taken over.

Diplomats speaking on the condition of anonymity note that the threat of AQAP and ISIS and the complete confusion in the country could actually help in peace negotiations.

Oman recently floated a peace proposal that increases Houthi access to resources and creates a power-sharing government, promises a new election and an interim unity government, and demands Houthi withdrawal from cities it has taken over.

Read Also:  Yemen remains in crisis with an untrustworthy transitional government

Despite the fighting and the continuing conflict, there is hope that some deal could materialize. Yemen has a history of political reconciliation after civil war and of working toward diplomatic rather than military solutions. Moreover, the threat of terrorists gaining strength could push both sides to the bargaining table.

Hadi’s appointment of former Yemeni Prime Minister Khaled Bahah as vice president last Sunday suggests reconciliation is possible. Bahah is one of the few politicians accepted by all sides in the conflict, and he could emerge as the head of a unity government.

As one diplomat noted, “This current problem could turn out to be the best thing for Yemen. A true unity government, with power sharing, might just let the country avoid an even larger rupture in coming years. And the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Iran and the U.S. lets them all know the world is watching.”


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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.