Rebel Putsch Is Trouble for America’s War in Yemen
But the Houthis are also fighting Al Qaeda
As Pres. Barack Obama prepared to make his State of the Union address, Houthi fighters in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a laid siege to the presidential palace and a separate residence for the country’s leader.
Obama didn’t mention Yemen in his speech, but if the Shia militia overthrows Pres. Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, then the United States could lose an important ally in its global war on terror.
“All the options are open and without exception and the ceiling is very, very high,” the militant group’s leader Abdul Malik Al Houthi said on live television. “And this is why, I here advise the president … Implement this deal. It is for your benefit and for the benefit of your people.”
Al Houthi was referring to a recent deal between his organization and the Yemeni government sponsored by the United Nations. Four months ago, both parties agreed to form an interim power-sharing government, draft a new constitution and disarm any militias.
Neither side has agreed on how to move forward with the process. We don’t know if the rebels will actually take control—they’re merely holding Hadi under house arrest, according a report from the Associated Press.
Hadi may have to accept their demands. Now the AP is reporting Hadi and the rebels have reached a deal.
Here’s why the events in Sana’a matter to Washington. Since 2002, both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon have hunted Al Qaeda members in the small Arabian nation.
“We’re working with the Hadi government in Yemen and have been working with the Hadi government to support them and their efforts to deal with terrorist attacks that continue, AQAP, specifically,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Dec. 8, using the acronym for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
The U.S. Air Force regularly sends warplanes from bases in Djibouti to blow up AQAP camps and lob missiles at its leaders. American drones based in Saudi Arabia—likely operated by the CIA—are widely suspected of carrying out air strikes.
Most notably, an unmanned drone killed American-born cleric and AQAP spokesman Anwar Al Awlaki in 2011. American commandos also regularly train and conduct operations in the country—sometimes with their Yemeni counterparts.
“We are monitoring the situation,” a Pentagon public affairs officer told War Is Boring.
The amphibious assault ship USS Iwo Jima and her accompanying vessels—loaded with Marines and their aircraft—are nearby if American citizens come under attack. For more than a year, an extra 100 or so Marines have been in Sana’a to guard the U.S. embassy.
But a Houthi regime could easily put an end to cooperation with Yemen. For one, the group has spoken out against American strikes in the past.
The Pentagon has made some serious mistakes in Yemen over the years. In December 2013, American drone pilots killed a number of innocent civilians when they mistakenly attacked a wedding convoy.
Despite public outrage in Yemen, Hadi continued to allow American forces to operate in the ground and in the skies. In December, the two countries tried to rescue American journalist Luke Somers and South African humanitarian Pierre Korkie held captive by Al Qaeda fighters. Somers and Korkie died in the failed U.S. raid.
The Houthi movement also has ties to Iran. “For years, Yemeni leaders have claimed that Iran meddles in Yemeni affairs by supporting secessionist movements at odds with its rival Saudi Arabia,” the Congressional Research Service’s Jeremy Sharp wrote in a recent backgrounder.
Since the ’90s, Yemen’s Shia militia movement—known as Ansar Allah, or the Partisans of God—has waged a sporadic civil war against the traditionally Sunni-majority government in Sana’a. The fighting has sometimes spilled over into Saudi Arabia.
Five years ago, Yemeni authorities tried to cut a deal with the militants with the help of Riyadh. “The ceasefire, which brings to a close nearly five years of on-again, off-again battles with the Houthis, has the potential to last for some time,” stated a U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks.
“Both sides appear tired of fighting each other,” the message added.
That agreement gave Yemeni troops—and the country’s American and Saudi allies—much needed breathing room to double down on defeating AQAP. But like recent peace plans, the deal failed to hold, and the Houthis went back to fighting Sana’a—with Iranian aid.
Two years ago, the U.S. Navy and Yemeni sailors seized a shipment of suspected Iranian weapons on their way to the insurgents. While Washington has not formally labeled the militants a terrorist group, the State Department listed this incident as an example of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism.
“The Houthis have been beaten, but not vanquished, leaving them able to quit the fight while drawing pride and accomplishment from their defiance of the central government,” the State Department cable noted.
The militant group’s leadership has tried to play down any affiliations with the Iranian government, but not enough to ease American and Saudi fears.
“What we have in common with Iran … is that we have a common stand vis-a-vis Israel and U.S. and we will cooperate with any political actor in the region who stands in the face of the U.S. regional designs,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Al Bukhaiti explained to Al Jazeera in October 2014.
But the Houthis have also been battling AQAP. The loathing is very much mutual. The Sunni extremists and the Shi’ite movement view each other as false Muslims.
The Shia fighters look set to clash with Yemen’s Sunni clans, too. Riyadh has historically funded these groups as an insurance policy to protect its border—and the House of Saud’s influence in the country.
All of this means a Houthi administration could conceivably try to work with both Washington and Tehran … at the same time.
That’s not unprecedented. Washington and Tehran both support the Iraqi government as it pushed back against Islamic State. Regardless, Houthi fighters now have de facto control over large sections of the Yemeni capital. “The president has no control,” Nadia Sakkaf, Yemen’s information minister, told CNN.
And despite recently declaring the country a success story in the fight against international terrorism, Obama didn’t mention Yemen once by name in his national address.
“We will continue to hunt down terrorists and dismantle their networks, and we reserve the right to act unilaterally, as we have done relentlessly since I took office to take out terrorists who pose a direct threat to us and our allies,” Obama said.
Now, Washington just has to decide which side the Houthis are on—and the militant group’s leaders will probably have to do the same.