Saudi Arabia has launched air strikes on Yemen, backed by a coalition of partners. Codenamed Operation Storm of Resolve, the strikes come in response to a new wave of insurgency and violence that even mighty Saudi Arabia can no longer risk leaving to its own devices.
In recent months, the violence in Yemen has reached an unprecedented pitch, and it’s getting worse. Fighting in Sanaa has reached a crisis point, most recently with a number of suicide attacks carried out against Shia mosques by IS’s new Yemen branch. This escalation has been in the offing for a long time, but Yemen may be reaching a tipping point.
With a powerful al-Qaeda-affiliated organisation hiding in the desert, an increasingly influential Shia group seizing control of the capital, the secessionist movement in the south and a complex tribal web underpinning it all, the hope of achieving any semblance of security and stability is fading fast.
It seems Yemen could be about to fall into the abyss, and it could make things across the region much worse.
Over the edge
Yemen faces a unique set of mounting challenges, all of which have been getting steadily more serious since Arab Spring.
In early 2011, years of frustration with unaccountable governments and an abjectly poor socio-economic situation finally boiled over, and Yemenis took to the streets in huge numbers. The uprisings ultimately led to the resignation of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in November 2011 and the election of his vice president, Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, to the office of the president.
But things have only deteriorated since – and aside from Syria, Yemen has been hit by more political turmoil than any of the Arab Spring countries. Political chaos often appears out of nowhere to fill a power vacuum, and the end of the Saleh regime invigorated a range of anti-establishment causes across Yemen.
The result is that in the years since Saleh was driven out, the institutions of the state have radically fallen apart, with power increasingly decentralised – to the point where a secessionist movement is threatening to cut Yemen in two.
Secessionists and terrorists
Yemen’s Houthi insurgents, who have been operating out of the north-west, are in revolt against what they see as discrimination against the country’s Shia Muslims. While Yemen is in effect a Sunni state, somewhere in the region of 40% of the population belong to the Zaidi Shia sect, which ruled Yemen for 1,000 years until 1962.
The Houthis have made startlingly fast advances into Sanaa, storming the capital in November 2014 and seizing the presidential palace on January 20 2015. President Hadi fled to Aden in the south – the rebels are now closing in on his base there, and he has taken flight again.
The post-Arab Spring chaos may have let it out of the bottle, but this secessionist groundswell had been building for some time. Relations between the former states of North and South Yemen had long been fractious; it was the erosion of Hadi’s regime and the Houthis’ increased political dominance in the north that allowed the movement to gain real traction.
And in parallel to this internal political wrangling, Yemen has for years been at the centre of global jihadist terrorism.
The al-Qaeda franchise operating in the Yemini desert, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has been terrorising people and states across the region and in the West for well over a decade. Among other things, the group was responsible for the attempted bombing of the American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami in 2001 and the 2008 bombing in Sanaa. In late 2014, Obama called the drone-led campaign against the group a “success” but its apparent involvement in the January 2015 Paris attacks ended any hopes he was right.
More ominously yet, in November 2014, AQAP was joined in Yemen by the Islamic State’s new Yemen branch – the organisation that claimed the recent attacks in Sanaa, which killed more than 100 people.
All of this is happening in a Middle East riven with spiralling sectarian conflicts, which are becoming increasingly violent. Sectarian divisions have wrecked both Syria and Iraq, and they are doing the same to Yemen.
Saudi Arabia is now swooping in to help after years of trying to contain the Yemeni chaos. The government in Riyadh has long been concerned with the double AQAP and Houthi threat from Yemen, and actually began to build a fence separating the two countries in 2013. This has not been enough to create a sense of security – and heavy arms are now being moved to the border to keep the violence from spilling over it.
But there are concerns this is just the opening act of a new proxy war with Iran. Both the Saudis and the Iranians have long been hijacking sectarian causes to advance their own interests at the other’s expense, and with American-Iranian relations gently improving, Saudi Arabia is clearly not inclined to take any chances with the sectarian meltdown on its southern border.
With all of these factors at play, Yemen’s future looks grim indeed – and imagining what any kind of settlement would look like is only getting harder.