WASHINGTON — Only months ago, U.S. officials were still referring to Yemen’s negotiated transition from autocratic government to an elected president as a model for post-revolutionary Arab states.
Now, after days of gunbattles in the Yemeni capital that left President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a key U.S. ally, confined to his residence, the country appears to be at risk of fragmenting in ways that could provide greater opportunities for al-Qaeda, whose Yemeni branch claimed responsibility for directing the Paris terrorist attack this month.
Although the Houthi rebels who now effectively control the capital are at war with al-Qaeda, they are also allied with Iran and with Yemen’s former president, Abdullah Saleh. The Houthis’ rise to a dominant position may set off local conflicts that would give more breathing room to al-Qaeda’s local branch, which has repeatedly tried to strike at the United States.
“The Yemeni state has always been weak, but now there’s a real danger of economic meltdown and of the kind of fragmentation that could ultimately make Yemen almost ungovernable,” said April Alley, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that works to resolve conflicts.
The Houthi takeover, which began in September and was reinforced in recent days, has deepened sectarian and regional divisions in a poor country that has long been a sanctuary for jihadi followers. And though the latest round of fighting appeared to end Wednesday when Hadi conceded to the Houthis’ political demands, the underlying crisis will continue to fester, analysts say.
The deal announced Wednesday addressed a number of the Houthis’ grievances, including a lack of representation in government bodies and complaints about provisions in a draft constitution. In return, the Houthis agreed to withdraw fighters from the presidential palace and other parts of Sanaa and to release an aide to Hadi who was kidnapped by Houthi gunmen Saturday.
But there was little doubt that the Houthis, who have threatened repeatedly to use force to win political concessions, remain in control.
The Houthis’ public humiliation of Hadi — a southerner — prompted southern rebels to close the country’s chief port in Aden and shut the border between the north and south this week, raising the specter of actual secession. Armed tribesmen have cut off oil exports in three southern provinces. And Saudi Arabia, which sees the Houthis as a proxy of its regional rival, Iran, has shut off almost all aid to the Yemeni government, leaving it virtually penniless and unable to pay salaries.
The Saudis, who have long been Yemen’s economic lifeline, pumping in more than $4 billion since 2012, say they would rather allow the Houthis to take the blame for the approaching economic collapse than provide aid to an Iranian client, according to a Yemeni official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
In another ominous sign, the Houthis appear to be gearing up for a major battle with their Sunni rivals in Marib province, to the east of the capital, where much of Yemen’s oil infrastructure is. That could prove devastating to Yemen’s government and economy, which is dependent on oil.
It could also exacerbate sectarian tensions in a country that was almost entirely free of them until recently. The Houthis belong to the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, and Saudi Arabia — whose leaders see all Shiites as heretics — has been providing aid to Sunni tribes in Marib, diplomats say, fueling another proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In Washington, military and intelligence officials expressed grave concern Wednesday about the violence in Sanaa and the impact any further deterioration could have on one of the Obama administration’s staunchest counterterrorism partners. Michael Vickers, the Pentagon’s top intelligence policy official, said analysts were still trying to determine the Houthis’ ultimate goal.
The Houthis’ leader, a charismatic guerrilla fighter in his early 30s named Abdel-Malik al-Houthi, inherited his mantle from his father and his older brother Hussein, who founded the movement in the 1990s and was killed in the first of a series of wars against the Yemeni state that ended in 2010.
Houthi’s speeches focus on fighting corruption and fulfilling the agreements reached in a series of “national dialogue” sessions that ended last year. Those demands have helped bolster public support for the Houthis — which remains strong — in a country where corruption has gutted the state and appears to have worsened since Hadi became president following the uprising of 2011.
The Houthis modeled themselves on Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia, and though their ideology and leadership are distinct and unmistakably Yemeni, they are allied with Iran, which has provided them with weapons, training and money, especially since 2011.
The Houthis’ ongoing and bloody battle with al-Qaeda has led some in the West to see them as potential partners, despite the trademark Houthi slogan, “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel.”
Under Yemen’s former president, Saleh, “the formula was to milk the USA for support in the fight against al-Qaeda, which was a recipe for more drones and more radicalization,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor at Princeton who has written extensively on Yemen. “The Houthis actually want to fight al-Qaeda, which could be more effective.”
But the Houthis are also allied with Saleh, who remains a powerful figure in Yemen and is bent on revenge on those who engineered his ouster during the turmoil of 2011. If the Houthis succeed in consolidating power, many in Yemen expect a bloody power struggle between them and Saleh’s loyalists in the military and the tribes.
Capitalizing on the chaos, Saleh made a rare public statement Wednesday, calling on Hadi to call early presidential and parliamentary elections and urging the cancellation of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed on him and two Houthi leaders last year after the Houthi seizure of power.
The conflict between the Houthis and their mostly Sunni rivals has led some Yemenis to give up on the state.
In Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city, the local governor has taken over the military and intelligence quarters and is effectively governing a city-state.
In southern Yemen, which was a separate country from 1970 until 1990 and fought a brief civil war against the north in 1994, many have similarly seized on the Houthi ascendancy as an opportunity to break away. Those aspirations have fueled fears of a wider breakdown that could benefit al-Qaeda, which ejected government officials across a wide swath of the south in mid-2011 and declared an Islamic emirate that lasted about a year.
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