Shia militiamen, Sunni clans, al-Qaida, Iran and Saudi Arabia all have their hands in the rapidly shifting sands of the poorest state in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen is everybody's business.
The palace has fallen. The fighters of the Houthi militia have occupied the presidential seat in Sana'a. This is the last symbolic act of a virtually creeping coup in Yemen that began last September, when 30,000 people came north from their ancestral territories to overrun the capital.
Not a single member of Parliament in President Abed Rabbuh Mansur Hadi’s cabinet would dare to sign a decree without a representative of the Houthi militia having first given their consent. And if this does happen (as in the case of Hadi’s chief secretary suggesting a new draft of the constitution), the militia reacts with threats and brazen kidnappings. The internationally accepted government is not capable of fulfilling its role.
The passivity of Hadi and the advance of Shia troops forced Sunni clans in the south to take their protection into their own hands. Not every battle between Sunnis and Houthis is accompanied by al-Qaida fighters, but the clans tend to grant them free passage across their territories.
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Yemeni President Abed Rabbuh Mansur Hadi — Photo: U.S. Defense Department
The government is powerless against the jihadists as the loyalty of the military has been shattered, with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh still pulling the strings. The drone attacks of American forces against jihadist squads has not mortally wounded the terrorists on the Arabian Peninsula. Quite the opposite: It may have even created an inlet for supporters.
What is happening today in Yemen is actually the calm before the storm. Although the worst-case scenario may yet be prevented, this is what could happen: a country torn in half, with the southern part turning into a refuge for Sunni jihadists and the northern part becoming a reincarnation of the Shia Zaidi Imamate that ruled the North for thousands of years until the revolution in 1961.
Many in the south of the country hope for separation with the aid of other Gulf States, under the lead of Saudi Arabia. The north would find a willing protector and supporter in Iran.
Most of the Gulf States see the Houthi militia as an extension of Iran, financed, armed and governed by Tehran. There is no conclusive evidence to prove this but, as it is often the case in politics, perception winds up driving reality.
It seems certain that there is some sort of connection between the Houthi command and Tehran as well as between the Houthi and Hezbollah militia of Lebanon — an ally of Iran. The rise of the Houthi militia is explained less by the increase of Iran’s interests than by the retreat of Saudi Arabia.
When the Muslim Brotherhood was disgraced in Saudi Arabia, Riyadh withdrew its support for certain Sunni Islam Parties and their families. They, therefore, lost a significant amount of influence and are now devoid of a partner in Yemen.
The Houthis gained support beyond their general base through their popular demands. The geopolitical and religious dimensions of this conflict complicate efforts to find a solution to what was initially a local struggle. Should Saudi Arabia deny funds to Yemen to prevent money falling into Houthi hands, then the poorest of the countries in the Arabian world would be at risk of total collapse. Many Yemenis already suffer from starvation.
The West has no other choice but to trust in the mediation efforts of the United Nations. Financial aid — inextricably linked to clearly defined goals as part of the program of interim measures, agreed upon in September — is worth the consideration of top American and European leaders.
Much is at stake in this seemingly distant land. Let us not forget that the Paris attack of Charlie Hebdo was carried out in the name of al-Qaida in Yemen.