Approaching Yemen, carefully

Brian M Downing

[An article I wrote in 2015 for the Council on Global Relations which argues in part that Yemen cannot continue as a single state and should be divided. The recent coup attempt which aimed at separating north and south might make this piece worth another look.]

Yemen has never been stable. Nor has it ever been more threatening. A Northern Shia movement known as the Houthis is driving south into Aden, and a Sunni-led coalition is countering with airstrikes and troop movements along the Saudi-Yemeni frontier. Skirmishes have already taken place along the frontier and a larger regional conflict – a sectarian one – is possible.

The US, already burdened by war with the Islamic State, civil war in Syria and Libya, and an ongoing dialog with Iran, is searching for a way to calm the situation in Yemen. There is little the US can accomplish with overt intervention, but there is always pressure to do so anyway. The optimal situation is to recognize that Yemen has long had region conflict and has never been a unified country.

US security interests
Yemen is repeatedly said to be vital to US national security. However, substantive interests are limited and indirect. It has some oil and gas fields, but production is in steady and probably irreversible decline. There are of course major hydrocarbon fields in nearby countries, and critical sea routes too, yet neither the Houthis nor their southern enemies are capable of seizing those nearby oil fields or closing shipping lanes, even if they were inclined to.

A small number of American personnel charged with countering al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) had to withdraw from Yemen as fighting increased. While ground intelligence may suffer, the drones operate from outside Yemen and can continue to fly. The US has numerous other military bases throughout the region, including Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Djibouti – with the latter two hosting drone bases.

The rise of the Houthis paradoxically could benefit US counterterrorism programs, as the Shia group is adamantly opposed to AQAP. Conversely, southern Sunnis, or parts of them, cooperate with AQAP. Over the last five years, AQAP has skillfully intertwined itself with tribes and secessionists in the south. It has won their favor by assassinating Houthi leaders and bombing their followers – a campaign recently picked up by actors claiming to be with the Islamic State.

The assertion that the Houthis are Iranian proxies is not well founded. There is little evidence of appreciable support from Tehran, and no evidence of its hallmark in the region – Revolutionary Guard advisers. A recent report that an Iranian ship laden with arms docked at a Houthi-held port is disputed within the US intelligence community. Iranian support there is, but it began relatively recently and is not sufficient to make the Houthis a proxy of Tehran.

The recent Houthi advances are attributable chiefly to internal politics, not foreign support. The Houthis and other Shia movements have arisen before, usually on their own. In the sixties, Shia northerners waged a protracted war against the south and oddly enough the Shia received support from Saudi Arabia – the Houthis main foreign adversary today. Accordingly, the transient nature of Yemeni power alignments should give pause to US policy makers.

Regional and sectarian warfare
Fears of the Yemeni conflict igniting a broader regional war are not unfounded, though they are exaggerated. The Sunni states have limited their action to airstrikes and troop deployments, and wisely so. Full intervention would not bring a Houthi collapse, and no Sunni state wants to commit troops to a protracted campaign. Houthi guerrillas would harass the largely untested Sunni troops relentlessly. The more stalwart Egyptian army learned this lesson in the sixties when it fought the north in one of Yemen’s periodic civil wars.

Sunni troops are more likely to limit any incursion to a few dozen miles across the Saudi frontier and perhaps a modest deployment to the southern coast. This would force the Houthis to strengthen their northern positions at the expense of operations in the south near Aden. This in turn may lead to talks between north and south.

Paradoxically, the Houthi drive on Aden itself may be a parallel move to force the south, and its foreign backers, to the bargaining table. The Houthis are well aware that a sustained presence in the south will lead to a long and costly war that will bring no advantage.

US policy
Washington feels compelled to take some sort of action, though none holds promise. Siding with the Sunni south will place the US amid a welter of antagonistic tribes and factions who are of questionable ability to govern the south, let alone the entire country. The US would find itself in the highly embarrassing situation of being indirectly aligned with AQAP, which as noted has intertwined itself with the southern movement. Siding with the Sunni south would also make further cooperation with Iran more difficult.

From the view of counterterrorism goals, supporting the Houthis would bring considerable results. They are, after all, AQAP’s most determined enemy and are both capable and willing to fight AQAP for years. And as painful as it is to admit in Washington, Shias constitute the strongest opposition to al Qaeda and related groups such as the Islamic State. Nonetheless, US ties with Sunni states are longstanding and closely tied to military bases and arms sales. No alignment with the Houthis is on the horizon.

There are difficulties attached to supporting either side in Yemen, but this presents the opportunity for the US to act as an offshore arbiter – seeking influence with both while siding with neither. Washington may already be signaling its willingness to act in this way by its conspicuous absence in the air campaign against the Houthis.

The US may use its considerable influence in Sunni capitals, and its limited but promising influence in Tehran, to limit outside intervention and move the warring regions toward an amicable settlement – one that at this juncture would be regional autonomy if not outright partition. This would further allow the US to be in a position to coordinate operations – independent ones, of course – by both north and south, against AQAP.

In Washington, where clear forceful action is preferred, a policy of offshore pressure on both sides will face opposition. However, in the absence of vital national security interests, and the presence of numerous pitfalls to taking sides, such a policy holds the most promise.

Copyright 2015 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.