Recently, the Republic of Yemen has collapsed in a violent three way civil war between the government, Houthi rebels, and radical jihadists. A sizable country with 24 million people, Yemen is a strongly tribal nation split relatively evenly between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Located just south of Saudi Arabia, Yemen is a highly armed society – the country has the second most firearms per capita in the world, only beaten out by the United States. In a powder keg of decades of internal conflict ignited by regional sectarian rivalries, the Yemeni Civil War is sure to be a destructive, bloody conflict.
Above is an ethnoreligious map of Yemen, illustrating the Shia Houthi homeland (in green) which surrounds Sana’a, the capitol of the country, contrasted with the rest of the Sunni population (in yellow).
Houthi Rebels Seize Power
From the religiously Shia north-west, the Houthi rebels pose the greatest threat to the government of Yemen. Promoting a specific brand of Shia Islam called Zaidi, the Houthis have grown in recent years, sponsored and supported by religiously Shia Iran. While Iran disputes its connections with the group, some see the Houthis as a military proxy arm of Iran, much like the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Houthis played an instrumental role during the Yemeni Revolution in 2011, toppling Yemeni strongman Ali Saleh who had ruled for nearly two decades. During the revolution, the Houthis grew in size and power, seizing territory and training recruits. After overthrowing Ali Saleh, the various Yemeni opposition groups in the revolution organized into a provisional government and elected a Sunni, Abd Hadi, president.
However, unhappy with the post-revolutionary government, the Houthis overthrew president Hadi in January 2015 and occupied his presidential residence. The Houthis moved quickly, capturing the capitol city of Sana’a along with key population centers across the country. After president Hadi fled to the southern port city of Aden and declared it his new capitol, the Houthis went on the offensive. Recently on April 5th, Houthi fighters reached central Aden, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. Controlling many of the country’s largest cities, the Houthis continue to grab more territory and take on remaining government loyalists.
As of April 3, 2015 the Houthis (green) control heavily populated western Yemen, while government forces (red) and Islamic extremists (black) such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda control various parts of eastern and southern Yemen.
Breeding Ground for Radical Islam
With radical Islam on the rise across the Middle East in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, the chaotic tribal lands of Yemen have become a breeding ground for extremists. While the Houthis and government forces battle across the country, Islamic Sunni extremists, namely ISIS and Al-Qaeda, have grown significantly. Exploiting the civil war, they’ve seized territory in Yemen’s sparsely populated north, battling both the Houthis and supporters of president Hadi.
Recently, ISIS claimed responsibility for a devastating suicide attack in a Mosque in Sana’a, the main base of the Houthis. However, while ISIS sympathizers are new to the region, Al-Qaeda has an organized Yemeni branch called Ansar al-Shari’a that’s been conducting an insurgency since 1998. Just last week on April 2nd, Ansar al-Shari’a captured Al Mukalla, the fifth largest city in Yemen – making it one of the largest victories for Al-Qaeda in Yemen in a decade. While the conflict continues, radical Muslims such as ISIS and Ansar al-Shari’a will solidify their gains and increase the intensity of their attacks.
While Houthis control 8 out of the 10 largest cities in Yemen, Al-Qaeda holds the 5th largest.
Saudi-Iranian Proxy War
The civil war in Yemen has become a sectarian proxy war between Shia Iran and the Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia. Iran and Saudi Arabia are old regional geopolitical rivals, two nations on opposite ends of the Shia-Sunni religious split that are constantly vying for influence in the Middle East. As the Houthis advance past Aden, Hadi’s regime, backed by Saudi Arabia, is on the verge of total collapse. Frightened by the idea of the Iranian influenced Houthis in power on their southern border, alarm bells have gone off around Saudi Arabia.
In response to what they perceive as an Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia began carrying out airstrikes against the Houthis in Yemen last month, requesting that other Arab nations join their “Operation Decisive Storm” in support of the legitimate government of Yemen. Warplanes from Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain are taking part in the operation, supported with intelligence provided by the United States. Egypt even claims to be planning a ground invasion into heavily armed Yemen, a move that could prove to be costly. Many critics of the airstrikes have predicted that they will unite the Yemeni tribes behind the Houthis, as the external strikes will paint the rebels as the ‘true’ defenders of the Yemeni people.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have both issued aggressive statements condemning each other’s actions. On April 9th the Iranians sent two warships to the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Yemen, infuriating the Saudi government who forbade them from entering Yemeni territorial waters. Reminiscent of the naval standoff during the 1960s Cuban missile crisis, two rivals are currently staring each other down just off the coast of their proxy country.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the possible implications of events in Yemen, saying “The Coalition air raids — and the continuing attempts by the Houthis and their allied armed groups to expand their power – have turned an internal political crisis into a violent conflict that risks deep and long-lasting regional repercussions.”
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