April 30, 2015

What In The World Is Going On In Yemen?

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

 Of Thee I Sing Heading AuthorsActually, a lot more than salmon fishing. – Dangerous stuff, and it probably won’t end any time soon. Yemen is host to a genuine, long-running civil war, a vicious intramural religious conflict in which Shia and Sunni interests are vying for hegemony, and a potential standoff between the US and Iran.  It also represents the loss of a key American base of operations in the US fight against radical Islam (yes, we are fighting radical Islam). In short, it’s a mess and it’s apt to get worse.

First, a little geography and a little history.  Yemen is huge. It occupies nearly quarter million square miles of the Arabian Peninsula, stretching from the Red Sea to the west, the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea (or the Persian Sea if you live in Iran) to the south, all the way to Oman in the east.  It has a long border with Saudi Arabia to the north, and therein lies much of the current tension.

Now, for some fascinating history.  While few people remember the Sabaeans who ruled the area a thousand years ago, most people will remember their kingdom and their queen – Sheba (who came calling on a king named Solomon). Toward the end of the 3rd century AD, the kingdom was ruled by Himyarites, which adds an interesting twist to Yemen’s history. The Himyarites converted to Judaism, which played a significant role in the history of Yeman for another 200 years or so.  In the 7th century Yemen fell under the influence of Islam as did most of the region.  

The 20th century ushered in much of the turmoil that has antagonized the entire Middle East.  Yemen was divided between the Ottomans and the British early in the last century.  The country was divided between two kingdoms, one constituting the Kingdom of Yemen in the north, which became the Yemen Arab Republic. South Yemen stayed in British hands until 1967. The Yemen of the north and the Yemen of the south combined to form the current republic of Yemen only 25 years ago.

Yemen, under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Three men, essentially, ruled Yemen under a power-sharing agreement. President Saleh, Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, who was very close to the Saudis, which kept Saudi money flowing into the hands of Yemen’s power brokers. Yemen, which has long been corrupt, has been in severe crisis for most of the past five years. That’s because few people cared for President Saleh, and his plan to amend the constitution to create a presidency for life, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was forced to resign and the recently deposed And Rabbu Mansour Hadi was made President (he has since fled to Saudi Arabia, which brings us to the current crisis).

Keep two important facts in mind.

While the two Yemens (north and south) were combined into one nation in 1990, the people who inhabit the two regions are quite different, and, in many respects, don’t care for one another.

The rebel Houthis, about whom we read everyday, are actually a large sect of Shia Muslims from the north who follow a branch of Islam known as Zaidism.  They make up about one-third of the Yemini population, and actually ruled North Yemen for nearly 1,000 years. That ended in 1962.  They identify themselves as Houthis in honor of Badr al-Din al-Houthi who led an uprising in 2004.  In the south we find a large Sunni population.  All else aside, the current crisis is, in great measure, a battle between Shia Muslims and Sunni Muslims.

Why the antagonism? Simply stated, the two branches of Islam really despise one another.  They have despised one another from the very early days of Islam, all the way back to 680 AD.  Actually, it was all about the succession of leadership of the faith. A small group (several dozen) of Muhammad’s relatives (Shia), including supporters of the prophet’s grandson, Hussein ibn Ali, met in battle at Karbala in present day Iraq.  A much larger force of Muslims known as Yazidis (to whom Muhammad’s grandson Hussein refused to give allegiance) faced them in battle.  Muhammad’s grandson Hussein, his own infant son and all of his male followers were killed and, according to the history of the event, their bodies mutilated and their women taken prisoner.

Robbed of their succession rights, the Shia have been marginalized in much of the Islamic world, except where the Shia predominate such as in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain. There is also a sizeable Shia plurality (between 35% and 40%) in Lebanon.  So, much of the fighting represents the latest iteration of the interminable Shia/Sunni conflict.  And that is why Saudi Arabia and several other Sunni-dominated countries are duking it with the Shiite Houthis in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia believes Shiite Iran is arming and supporting the Houthis, and Saudi Arabia will go to any length (and we mean any length) to keep Iranian influence (Shia) from spreading onto the Arabian Peninsula, where Saudi-backed Sunni Wahhabism dominates. 

Enter al-Qaeda.  Al-Qaeda of Yemen is the strongest remaining faction of al-Qaeda, and the US has aggressively waged a largely successful drone-centric war against al-Qaeda from Yemen.  That was until the Houthis overran the place.  We’ve now lost our base of operations in Yemen and that is a huge problem for the United States.

Then there is the potential dust-up with Iran over what is happening in Yemen.  We have moved formidable naval forces into the area to keep Iran from assisting the Houthis.  Some have compared the current situation to a budding Cuban missile crisis, which we think is way overblown. We would think it far-fetched that Iran would take on the US navy, but the far-fetched often becomes routine in this part of the world.

The potential for al-Qaeda-sponsored mischief is huge.  Al-Qaeda in Yemen is considered the strongest, best organized and the most sophisticated al-Qaeda operation in the world today.  They are now pretty much free to move about without constantly having to look over their shoulders for American drones.  Our intelligence operation on the Arabian Peninsula has been substantially degraded.

So, in summary, we have civil war, religious war, Iranian mischief and a substantial degradation of our intelligence capability all evolving at the same time.  Not a good place to be, even for salmon fishing.

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2 responses to “What In The World Is Going On In Yemen?”

  1. m m kaback says:

    Thank you gentlemen for a clear and concise depiction of the situation in Yemen. Where, if at all, do you see the Sunni dominated ISIS operation playing a current or near future role there? My bet is that they will move in that direction if they can (and almost certainly with the help of anti-Western Saudi money).

    • ISIS, or militants who claim to be affiliated with ISIS, are quite active in Yemen and just last month staged several deadly attacks in the country. They have declared a Caliphate in Yemen and vow “to cut the throats of the shiite Houthis and take back the land they have occupied. ISIS emerging in Yemen as a power competing with al-Qaeda could be the worst of all alternatives given Yemen’s proximity to the world’s busiest oil shipping lanes located right off the coast of this failed state.

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