Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.