Using a stream of videos showing the horrific murder of Egyptian Christians, once again put ISIS/ISIL in the headlines. And while the world is watching the atrocities of the ISIS/ISIL propaganda machine, a more powerful story may yet emerge out of the Arabian Peninsula. In the south, the unfolding developments in Yemen have the potential to become the flashpoint for fractures that transcend the fight against terrorism, and present instead, a full out war within the entire Greater Middle East.
In Yemen a battle for territory is currently taking place in the aftermath of the Houthi overthrow of the Yemeni government. The Houthi’s are a rebel group who follow the Shi’a branch of the Islamic religion. The expression of Shi’a Islam followed by the Houthi’s known as Zadism, is also referred to as Ansar Allah, meaning “Partisans of God”. This specific self-identification and tradition alone put the Houthi’s at odds with many others in the Sunni majority region. It also sets the preconditions for sectarian conflict.
As part of the Shia branch of Islam, the Houthi’s are religiously juxtaposed with all Sunni’s of the region, most indicative in Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s neighbor directly to the north. The religious leaders in the heart of Islam (Mecca/Saudi Arabia) have denounced Zadism as illegitimate, unacceptable to Islam. The Saudi’s would not want to see their neighbor to the south under a Shi’a sectarian authority and, of more concern to the Saudi’s, open to any influence from Iran. Likewise, in the ungoverned tribal areas of Yemen, lines will be drawn between Sunni and Shi’a loyalists.
For the Greater Middle East, interest in Yemen will remain a very high priority as Sunni’s and Shi’ites take sides. And one cannot forget the presence of various Al Qaeda groups under the umbrella name of AQAP. It was AQAP that asserted its role in the Charlie Hebdo attack in France. This group has sought global recognition for many years now and is presently competing with ISIS/ISIL for new recruits to their brand of terrorism. (For those readers who do not know, AQAP associates itself as a Sunni group.) Watchers are careful to pick up on any signals out of Yemen that indicate an all-out clash between the Houthi’s and AQAP fearing an influx of fighters in to already dynamic situation.
As political events develop, it is unknown whether Yemeni loyalties will fall in line with future of the state or along lines of sectarianism. Within Yemen, many supported AQAP, having little other choice. But as new possibilities hoover on the horizon, there will be those who choose to support the Houthi’s, stating that AQAP does not advance the needs of the Yemeni’s, due to the fact that AQAP is focused on objectives like competing with the rise of ISIS/ISIL or attacking the United States.
There are dire needs that plague Yemen. Reports have indicated that the Houthi’s efforts have found both Shia and Sunni support, as long as the agenda clearly attends to the needs of the state and not to the greater conflicts that have impacted both the Middle East or terrorist aims masked under the religion of Islam. Many in Yemen are looking for a way forward; to reform the army, reduce the presence of militias, to address the water crisis, and to provide more economic growth. But in the wake of the overthrow of the government on January 21, 2015, increasing anti-Houthi protests spread in the southern provinces of Yemen. The specter of a civil war could bring irreversible instability to Yemen and its neighbors.
The Saudi’s have long been involved in internal affairs in Yemen with a mixed history in terms of the terrorist movements which have found haven in the backlands of Yemen. Saudi ability to exert influence in Yemen is waning. support for But the Houthi rise to power in the capital city, has created a security vacuum for both Saudi and Sunni interests in the Peninsula.
The U.S. also has great concerns about the future of Yemen. Having kept advisors in country for the past decade (even further back), the U.S. has been able to tamp down on persistent threats to U.S. citizens through coordination with Yemeni government officials. But the strategic location of Yemen alone guarantees that both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. will remain attentive to on-going political developments. The shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden have the potential for exploitation and leverage against those who challenge the ascending government. One line item at the top of the Houthi list for the future of Yemen the is dismantling U.S. -Yemen gov-to-gov cooperation, a matter that fits the agenda of many other powerful groups in the GME.
Given the tension the U.S. already manages with both the Saudi government and the Israelis over the Iranian nuclear talks, Yemen may become the most powerful story in the Middle East. Unfortunately, the conditions in the southern Arabian Peninsula create the perfect geography to exacerbate the tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Saudis see Yemen as a threat to their southern stability as well as yet another potential problem with Iran as allegations continue to spread that it was Iranian funding which allowed the Shi’ite Houthi’s to overthrow President Hadi.
While ISIS/ISIL (IS) continues to rage havoc in the northern Arabian Peninsula, other forces will contend for the future of the south. Yemen may soon represent a clear fracture point for the Greater Middle East as bragging privileges to sectarian forces and states who seek to expand territory and power will dominate the internal conflict. UN efforts to broker a deal that avoids an all-out civil war are underway, yet there has not been an agreed upon deal. Yemen may see itself as a split country with two capitals: Shi’a-supported Sanaa in the north and Sunni-supported Aden in the south. Or the fight for Yemen may become the nexus for the greater underlying and unresolved tensions between Muslims throughout the Greater Middle East. In the absence of legitimate governing systems where representation is protected by a constitution, loyalties to religious traditions remain an alternative providing a sense of identity and share alliances with others. Religion can fill the vacuum where there is a lack of institutional integrity, but it can also lead to emotionally inflamed passions rendering rational decision-making nearly impossible. Bad actors in the GME region will likely seek to exploit such passions to their advantage in the unfolding Yemen story.
The Sunni/Shi’a split which has been contained for decades, largely through autocratic governments or military-backed family regime systems, may find its modern day ‘raison d’etre‘ in Yemen. Who governs? Who controls the most territory? Who has the most powerful backers? All these questions lie at the base of the future of Yemen.