Syria’s civil war hasn’t gone away, but to many, it has suddenly become less urgent. The chaos unfolding in Yemen has drawn international energy and attention away from the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year. Compared to Syria, Yemen’s neighbors see fewer battle lines and much greater proximity, alongside the same Iranian hand. Yemen also gives the impression of being easier, since 10 million people have not been forced from their homes. But the parties in Yemen are not nearly exhausted, and a flood of armed support to Yemen likely means the problem will get much worse before it gets better. And all this will happen as the other wars continue to rage around the region.
It is easy to remember a time when Yemen was optimistic, but hard to remember when it was successful. After a civil war that ravaged the north for most of the 1960s, and a Marxist takeover in the south that consolidated control at the end of the decade, Yemenis fitfully sought to modernize a land that lacked basic infrastructure with a population suffering from high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and disease. Unification of the north and south in 1990 created a flood of optimism, and for a time in the mid-1990s, Yemen’s elections made it one of the most promising candidates for democratization in the entire Middle East.
Poor governance and rampant corruption took its toll on Yemen in the 2000s, when for most of the world, Yemen became important principally as a front in counterterrorism. The resurgence of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) became the principal concern of the U.S. government and its allies. As an illustration, in the early Obama administration, then-National Security Council Senior Director for Counterterrorism (and now CIA Director) John Brennan had control of Yemen policy, rather than anyone in the Near East Directorate. The United States was, in some ways, a junior partner in Yemen. For many years, Saudi Arabia put well over a billion dollars into Yemen annually, much of it in the way of payments to friendly tribal and political figures.
Over time, the domestic economy of Yemen deteriorated from its already parlous state, and an increasing proportion of the population made a living in the security business: either through providing someone with security, or through denying someone security. Throughout the country, protection money, no-show security jobs, and soldiers who existed only on paper so their masters could collect a paycheck became rampant.
During the Arab uprisings, Yemen’s myriad failures forced long-time President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power. A “Friends of Yemen” initiative brought together neighboring states, Western governments, and international organizations to provide the economic support for political reconciliation. Meanwhile, a heavily facilitated national dialogue process sought to hammer out a political understanding going forward.
It did not, and Yemen has been melting down for months. Saudi Arabia cut off support in the fall to protest the rise of Houthi rebels who derived some support from Iran—no matter that the Saudis had supported Shi'ite forces from the Houthi heartland in the 1960s as a strategy to check Gamal Abdel Nasser’s republican rebels. In today’s Middle East, Sunni-led governments are suspicious of all Shi?ite affiliations. The doctrinal similarities between the Zaydi Shi'a of Yemen’s highlands and the Sunnis of most of the Arabian Peninsula mean little today.
The Saudi government has been concerned with instability coming out of Yemen since the Saudi government was established in the 1930s. Those fears have not dimmed. There are more citizens of Yemen than citizens of Saudi Arabia—the Arab world’s poorest state bordering one of the Arab world’s wealthiest—and millions of Yemenis work in the Kingdom. When Saudi Arabia lashed out against al Qaeda affiliates within its own borders, AQAP decamped to Yemen, where it capitalized on a weak government with tenuous border controls and impoverished local leaders whose loyalty could be bought.
The looming danger is seeing Yemen merely as a proxy war between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Iran. Iran is clearly giving some support to the Houthis, but over the last ten years that support has been limited and slow to arrive. There are no indications that the government of Iran sees Yemen as a strategic priority. If the proxy war route is pursued, the conflict is likely to rage for years. Rugged geography and broad spaces will make it hard for any side to hold land, and poor populations with little to lose will find themselves used as cannon fodder by one side or another. Jihadi groups of various stripes are bystanders to the principal fight between the rump government and the Houthis, but they will surely benefit from the widespread suffering. They do not control large tracts of land now, but they are likely to do so if a war wages for years.
The instinct of many U.S. allies is to seek the defeat of the Houthis. Doing so would deal a defeat to Iran and reimpose the status quo ante in Yemen. Yet the Saudis, in league with the government of Yemen, have been trying to do just that for a decade with no positive result. It is hard to imagine the Houthis can be pushed from control of the north, just as it is hard to imagine the Houthis effectively controlling the entire country or having much influence at all outside the tribal heartlands.
Circumstances call for a hard-minded deal that circumscribes the influence of all, inside and outside of Yemen, and grants some degree of autonomy to the various populations in the country. Such a deal would require an understanding between the GCC states, Iran, and external donors. It will require a view of Yemen that goes well beyond counterterrorism and considers longer-term strategies to manage Yemen’s challenges. None of this is easy, but it is worth serious high-level investment for at least two reasons. First, a complete meltdown in Yemen will put the entire Gulf on edge. It will make managing GCC-Iran relations far harder and is likely to spawn terrorist attacks against a range of U.S. allies. Second, reaching some sort of understanding in Yemen would create the basis for broader regional accommodation on a variety of proxy conflicts, reaching into Syria, Libya, and beyond.
Yemen is not hopeless, but its rapid collapse provides just a hint of how bad things could get. Seeing the threat should not blind anyone to the opportunity and the urgency to seize it.
(This essay originally appeared in Middle East Notes and Comment. To subscribe, please contact the CSIS Middle East Program at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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