Defusing Yemen’s Ticking Time Bomb & the Iran-Saudi Proxy War
Yemen is a ticking time bomb with a dangerously short fuse. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government is under siege; battling an al Houthi insurgency, attacks by Sunn extremists rebranded as “al Queda of the Peninsula” (AQP) and fending off a growing secessionist struggle led by the Southern Movement.” Absent urgent American intervention, Yemen is on a course leading to the collapse of President Saleh’s government or the partitioning of Yemen into autonomous zones run by non-state actors. Concerns in the United States and Saudi Arabia are mounting as Iran has entered the fray backing the al Houthi Shiia (Zaida sect) insurgency. Like Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, Yemen is emerging as a battlefield in a proxy war between Iran and the Saudi/American axis. Tehran is threatening to secure a beachhead in the strategic Southwest Arabian Peninsula, where Yemen’s oil, proximity to Saudi oilfields and control over critical Red Sea shipping lanes are up for grabs.
As the poorest Gulf oil state Yemen is the regional nerve center for trafficking arms, narcotics and harvested body parts, transiting jihadists and sponsoring Somali pirating operations. With President Saleh’s 30 year rule faltering, Saudi Arabia has intervened to contain the threat Yemen’s instability poses to its national security and to short circuit Iran’s growing influence. Saudi Arabia is actively supporting President Saleh’s war to eliminate the Zaida Shiite sect (called al Houthi’s) in the mountains of northwestern Yemen along the Saudi border. The al Houthi are fighting to restore Shiite rule over Northern Yemen they lost to the Sunni in 1962. Shiite Muslims make up 40 percent of Yemen’s population. Saudi Arabia’s Sunni royalists are mortified at the prospects of the al Houthi Shiia revolt spreading across its border with Yemen to inflame the passions of its own repressed Shiia minority concentrated around its Eastern oilfields. Reports are also surfacing that Egypt is providing arms and ammunition to President Saleh’s government with American approval.
While admitting they are “consulting” with Saleh’s regime, Saudi leaders have disavowed claims by the al Houthi that Saudi planes have bombed rebel positions in Sa’adah province where the heaviest fighting is occurring. President Saleh has promised to crush the al Houthi resistance, or force them to accept a six-point peace plan that includes surrendering their weapons and control over key highways on the Saudi border. Pressing the offensive against the al Houthi with his most elite units, tanks and artillery divisions, Saleh has been forced to recruit local tribes to fight the insurgency. Hundreds have been injured or killed and thousands displaced as the both sides battle with resolve.
The tenacity of the al Houthi insurgency has taken the Yemeni government by surprise. President Saleh has accused Iran of arming the northern rebels, and claims his government has uncovered caches of Iranian made short-range missiles and machine guns. Like the Saudi’s, Iran has denied the claims, which means the likelihood that both countries are arming proxy forces is true. In the spring Iranian Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani visited Yemen and affirmed Iran’s support for a unified Yemen. Yemen has entered into discussions with Tehran over Iranian investments in its energy platform, roads, dams and housing industry. Yemen reciprocated by announcing its support for Iran’s development of a civil nuclear program, much to the chagrin of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s capacity to leverage Yemen’s huge Shiite community, the al Houthi insurgency and President Saleh’s weak position is substantial and can be projected over time. Indeed, Iran’s genius in cultivating ties with Hezbollah and Hamas are the result of decades of support. In addition to Iran’s support for the al Houthi insurgency, Tehran could also begin supporting the socialist-led Southern Movement coalition. Notwithstanding its Shiia roots, Iran could also funnel backdoor support to the resurgent elements of “Al Queda of the Peninsula,” (AQP) if the Sunni extremist target President Saleh’s regime or more importantly use Yemen as a base to continue their battle against neighboring Saudi Arabia’s royal family.
Al Queda resurfaced in Yemen last year after its forces were routed by the House of Saud in the 2004-2007 jihadist war. Given Saudi concerns about AQP reigniting its insurgency inside the kingdom from neighboring Yemen, the Obama Administration’s plans to transfer 110 Yemeni detainees from Guantanamo Bay when the base closes has surfaced as a complicated issue. The Yemeni government wants to accept the detainees, insisting they will prosecute those who have committed acts of terrorism and rehabilitate the rest. However, after the mysterious prison break of 2006 when 23 al Queda members escaped from Yemen’s jails, the U.S. is reluctant to hand over the detainees to President Saleh. The Obama administration prefers to return the detainees to Saudi Arabia, who they believe has a better record of rehabilitating extremists. The Saudi’s don’t share the U.S.’s enthusiasm on the detainee issue. Ironically, last week in Jeddah, royal family member and Saudi counter terrorist head Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef narrowly escaped death after a Yemeni jihadist turning himself in for rehabilitation set off a suicide bomb in his presence.
With Yemen on the brink of a renewed civil war between Saleh’s regime and the secessionist “Southern Movement” in South Yemen, the Obama administration has stepped up its call for a negotiated settlement. After two years of peaceful protests led by civil service workers and soldiers whose pensions were never paid, the situation is escalating to violence. In the last few months three opposition leaders have been murdered by northern security forces and seven newspapers have been shut down. The movement has been joined by socialist forces and sympathizers of the former South Yemen government who are fed up with the Saleh government’s rampant corruption and mismanagement of the economy. Ali Salem al-Bidh, the former Marxist leader who negotiated the first reunification agreement between North and South Yemen in 1990, has been named the new leader of the Southern Movement. Because the Southern Movement has no faith in negotiating with Saleh, they have called for the United Nations to lead reconciliation talks or allow the Gulf Cooperation Council to form a new caretaker government in lieu of new negotiations.
Once again, the United States finds itself caught in a diplomatic tangle. The Obama administration wants negotiations to unify Yemen. The Southern Movement and the al Houthi Shiia have no intention of entering direct negotiations with a corrupt regime that has criminalized the machinery of national governance and used authoritarian measures to suppress their just struggles.
In the final analysis, the al Houthi Shiia sect and the Southern Movement insurgencies can be resolved through negotiations and diplomacy, but not as long as President Saleh remains in office. The U.S. must insist on his replacement, a new negotiations process and the willingness to make compromises with the insurgents to preserve Yemen’s unity. If not, Yemen’s descent in chaos will continue, marked by sectarian violence, balkanization, and foreign proxy wars. It is time for the Obama administration to defuse the powder keg in Yemen before it explodes. ***