Twin Pillars of Containment: Intervention in Yemen and the U.S. Response

By Daniel Nevins

Cartoon by: The Oslo Times Political Cartoonist, Soheil Akbarpouran Narani

Before the fall of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1979, the United States pursued a strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union in the Middle East with Iran and Saudi Arabia as the strategy’s foundation. Then came the fateful Islamic revolution led by the cunning Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite its seemingly socialist and populist undertones, the revolution was fiercely Islamic…and fiercely Shi’a; from the day the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) was born, the U.S. strategy of containment in the region weakened and the Sunni Wahhabi firebrands from Saudi Arabia went to work against the Ayatollah with the support of its benefactors in the U.S. Government. The Saudis, threatened by the rise of Shi’a influence in the region, supported Zia Ul Haq in Pakistan (a leader known for his strong devotion to Salafist Islam) and funded thousands of radical madrassas in refugee camps after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Saudis avidly promoted the call to jihad and sent thousands of foreign fighters to Afghanistan to battle the communist forces; they also funded Pakistani ISI efforts to mobilize, arm and train groups like Hizb al Islami and al Qaeda. Vali Nasr brilliantly describes the rise in global Sunni extremism as a Newtonian reaction to the creation of the IRI and its covert creation of groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Palestinian Territories and the Mahdi Army in Iraq.

At the same time Iran and Saudi Arabia were mobilizing their sectarian armies of “true believers”, Yemen was two countries: North Yemen was a republic and South Yemen was a Socialist democratic republic. The Zaydi Shi’a, who had long controlled Yemen until the death Imam Yahya in 1962, inhabited a large portion of northern Yemen in Sa’da, al Jawf, ‘Amran and Sana’a provinces. Yemen’s deeply tribal landscape afforded the Zaidis political power and social prestige to the point where sectarianism was not a defining factor in Yemeni identity. For the Zaydis, they were Yemenis with little connection to the Shi’a of Iran or Lebanon…they had not been politically marginalized in Yemen and still had strong tribal affiliations.

In 1968, pan-Arabs supported by Nasser and Republican military officers won control over North Yemen from the Zaidi monarchy after six years of civil war. In 1978, Ali Abdullah Saleh became North Yemen’s leader and ruled for over three decades until his ouster in 2011. During those thirty years, Yemen reunified in 1990, fought a brief civil war in 1994 over the inequalities of reunification and experienced low-level instability from an al Qaeda cell operating within its borders. Coincidentally, the Zaidi Shi’a organized under the banner of Hussein al Houthi in protest against marginalization from the Saleh’s governments. Known as the Houthis, the Shi’a movement adopted slogans like “Death to America” and began a military campaign against the central government, of which they were defeated several times by the Federal Army and Saudi warplanes.

Yemen has been slowly destabilizing since it became a country in 1990. While the Saudis had been funding and promoting radical Sunni groups and the Iranians had been vetting various Shi’a militias, al Qaeda had been growing in Yemen and the Houthis had been inching toward military victory. When the Arab Spring swept through Yemen in 2011, Saleh stepped down to be replaced by Rabd Mansour al Hadi, a former Army officer who commanded fewer political alliances than his predecessor. The Army crumbled as forces loyal to Saleh (typically the best trained and equipped) went rogue and did little to assist Hadi’s various military efforts against the Houthis on one side and al Qaeda on the other. Since September of 2014, the Houthis have taken over all of northern Yemen and have stretched as far as Aden, the Sunni heartland where they are not welcome. Hadi has fled and the Houthis have created a shadow government threatening to send the country into full civil war.

It isn’t the first time the country has experienced civil war, but this conflict threatens to be its most deadly. The regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia has manifested into a sectarian split, evidenced by the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria that has drawn in Shi’a militias. The former twin pillars of containment are now regional pillars trying to contain each other; unfortunately, that means Yemen is fertile ground for this effort. It has been reported that the Houthis receive tacit backing from Iran. Whether that means rhetorical support or actual weapon shipments and training is unclear.

Over the last several months, the Houthis have solidified their grip on the port cities of Hudaydah and Mokha, two major import centers that the Iranians could use to smuggle weapons and trainers. Additionally, the Houthis have established a thrice-weekly air service to Tehran from Sana’a International Airport which is certain to raise the likelihood that Iran’s support for the Houthis goes beyond superficial approval.

The Saudis have reacted in a way even more overt: they began an air campaign against Houthi militia with the help of Egypt and other Sunni allies. The instability of escalating conflict will no doubt allow AQAP room to join in the unfolding sectarian civil war as well as coordinate sophisticated attacks on the U.S. homeland. It seems as though the United States will be forced to take sides in this conflict, so which side should it take?

It is clear that Saudi Arabia doesn’t always make the best ally and that full rapprochement with Iran will be constrained to the nuclear negotiations for the foreseeable future. The United States has two core interests in Yemen: to prevent the Houthis from becoming a totally hostile Shi’a group directly linked to Iran and to decimate the threat that al Qaeda poses to the homeland. In order to ensure that these core interests are protected, the U.S. must do the following:

1. Attempt to negotiate a political solution that respects the core demands of the Houthis, but also keeps the state of Yemen intact. Many analysts argue that the only solution for Yemen is to recreate the two-state solution. This would be a poor decision because a new North Yemen would likely be ruled entirely by the Houthis, which the Saudis would never support. A negotiated solution would have to remove Saleh from the U.N. Sanctions list, allow for the integration of Houthi fighters into Army units and some key positions to be filled by Houthi political leaders. Hadi should remain the rightful president.

2. Encourage the Saudis to desist the air campaign. Intervention by the Saudis has discontented many Sunnis in Yemen, but has also driven a sectarian wedge in Yemeni society. The Houthis ties to Iran were only recently developed because the group is not inherently sectarian. The Saudis risk alienating Shi’as in Yemen from their Sunni compatriots and forcing sectarian conflict on the delicate nation.

3. The United States should keep open basic lines of communication with the Houthis in order to conduct high-value drone strikes. It is unlikely that the strikes will be launched from Yemeni territory due to the security risk; however the U.S. cannot allow AQAP to grow in strength. Since it is the most active AQ affiliate in plotting attacks on American soil, it would be unwise to stop coordinating with the Houthis on counterterrorism for the sake of marching in step with the Saudis.

It is not an easy course for the United States to take, but U.S. leadership is needed now more than ever in a region where sectarian conflict is proliferating. Tough choices will need to be made and Yemen is the best place to start. If the U.S. wants to see a more stable Middle East with a degraded al Qaeda (and other jihdi groups with the U.S. in their sights), it must start by elbowing its way into the Yemen conflict and forcing each side to make concessions in exchange for peace and stability.

Daniel Nevins is currently pursuing his Master’s degree in International Security at the Josef Korbel School for International Studies. You can follow Daniel on Twitter @daniel_nevins.

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