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Yemen, a Conflict of Layered Complexity

Yemen, existing on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, has seen generations of conflict and upheaval. The current conflict in Yemen is layered with complexity and poses potential consequences for the nation and the region.

Recent developments

The main protagonists in this fight are the Houthis, often described as “rebels” based in the northern mountainous region of Saada bordering Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, followers of the Zaidi sect of Shi’ite Islam, have existed in this region for centuries and have on numerous occasions marched on the southern lowlands. In January 2014, as a response to a decision by the government to divide the country into six regions, the Houthis again moved their forces out of Saada into Amran, Hajja and al-Jawf and advanced on the national capital of Sanaa. In September of 2014 Houthi-led forces moved into Sanaa occupying the capital but stopped short of a coup d’état instead calling for protests against the government. In January 2015 Houthi led forces moved to seise the Presidential Palace, government buildings and key military installations forcing the president and prime minister to resign. In February President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi escaped house arrest under the Houthi forces fleeing from the capital to Aden in the south where he reasserted his right to the presidency.

Sectarian layer

Much has been made of Yemen’s sectarian divide and how it may epitomise the current conflict. Shi’ites are mostly located in the north of the country, making up approximately 35% of the population. Sunnis, making up approximately 65% of the population, are largely located in the capital and the south and are squarely in the path of the Houthi advance. However there are numerous layers to the most current Yemeni conflict, the sectarianism layer the thinnest.

Internal dynamic

Fighting in a loose coalition with the Houthis are military units loyal to Yemen’s ex-president. Ali Abdulah Saleh was ousted from the presidency in 2011 after mass protests and the splintering of the military during the Arab Spring. Saleh left the presidency as part of a transitional agreement brokered largely by Saudi Arabia that brought in Hadi as the transitional president. Saleh, who led the military in fighting against the Houthis a number of times, most recently in 2009, is now believed to be aligned with the Houthis in an attempt to regain the power that he lost as the Arab Spring continues to reverberate in Yemen adding a layer of complexity to this conflict.

The forces loyal to Saleh bring serious firepower to the battle with well-trained troops, artillery, armour and combat aircraft. The Houthis are a capable force in and of themselves but the added capacity and capabilities of the Saleh loyalists allowed the Houthis to move into the capital and take control with little resistance. Initially after occupying the capital, the Houthis made demands of the Hadi government centred on changes to the new constitution that would increase their influence over territory and resources, integrate 20,000 Houthi fighters into the military and appoint Houthis to ten ministerial roles. This deal disintegrated with the resignation of the president and prime minister and the following escape of the president from Sanaa to Aden in the south and his reassertion of his presidency. Since the relocation of Hadi to Aden and his subsequent travels outside of the country the Houthi forces have driven their advance further southward taking the city of Taiz in mid-March this year and progressively moving into Aden in late March.

Regional layer

In response to the sweeping offensive by the Houthi-led forces, Saudi Arabia has gathered a coalition of forces and commenced with air strikes against the Houthis and their partners. The coalition of forces led by Riyadh includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Sudan, Egypt and Morocco with Pakistan considering a request for their participation. The inclusion of numerous other Arab nations in what may appear as an internal Yemeni conflict adds a layer of regional complexity in the conflict.

With the United States extricating itself from the Middle East after near twelve years of costly involvement the region is adjusting to the new strategic environment. As Iranian interests conflict with Saudi interests in Syria and Iraq, Iran benefits by having Saudi’s attention and resources split between the conflict in its north and conflict in its south. The Houthis have long been considered recipients of Iranian support as a Shi’ite thorn in Saudi Arabia’s Sunni side. Whilst no clear evidence of Iranian support has yet been offered, the Yemeni president, the Saudi ambassador to the United States and anonymous U.S. officials have all claimed varying levels of Iranian involvement ranging from “limited support” to claims that missiles are being activated by Iranian agents and aimed at Saudi Arabia. The accuracy of these statements might be questionable but the presence of such a wide Arab coalition clearly suggests that regional destabilisation is clearly a concern for Yemen’s neighbours.

Terror dynamic

The final layer of the conflict is that of opportunity. Al Qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), often considered the most active and dangerous arm of Al Qaeda, has previously taken example of instability in the region to recruit, launch attacks and increase its influence and is offered to do the same as the country spirals into conflict. In addition to the AQAP threat is the emergence of Al Qaeda’s ideological competitor, the Islamic State (IS). On March 20 this year two Zaidi mosques in Sanaa and a Houthi base in Saada were attacked with suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices. IS claimed these attacks in an effort interpreted to instigate wider sectarian conflict. The Islamist forces of AQAP and IS are not key actors in this conflict but are likely to be major beneficiaries of the instability in spreading their brutality and their message.

Chris Farnham is the National Office Operations Manager for the Australian Institute of International Affairs with a professional background in security and strategic analysis. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.

Published April 2, 2015