Will ‘deconflicting’ be the new US strategy in Yemen?

The current chaos in Yemen is not about Sunnis versus Shi’ites - it’s more of a struggle for territory and who controls a larger share of the pie.

PROTESTERS SHOUT slogans against the Shi’ite Muslim Houthi movement, in the southwestern city of Taiz. (photo credit: REUTERS)
PROTESTERS SHOUT slogans against the Shi’ite Muslim Houthi movement, in the southwestern city of Taiz.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the past two weeks Yemen experienced another phase in the slow disintegration of the country’s institutions and the consolidation of power by the Houthi, a Shi’ite insurgency that has been fighting the Yemeni central government for over a decade. The Houthi takeover is another blowback of US policy in the region, and it will exacerbate ongoing challenges regarding regional stability and the fight against terrorism.
For the US Yemen is important for many reasons. First and foremost it is the home of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a terrorist organization that time and time again has proved to be the most capable in planning terrorist attacks against the West and inspiring extremists all around the world. Furthermore, Yemen shares a long border with Saudi Arabia, one of the US’s main allies in the region, and everything that happens in Yemen is destined to influence the Saudi kingdom.
Yemen is also located at a strategic intersection – the Bab el-Mandab strait, which connects the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea (around 3.5 percent to 4% of global oil supply passes through Bab el-Mandab on a daily basis).
However, the US interest that will probably be most affected by the Houthi takeover will be its counter- terrorism policy in the country.
America’s fight against AQAP in Yemen was based mainly on the use of drones. During the Obama administration there have been approximately 105 drone strikes conducted in Yemen that have killed between 700-950 militants and around 80-90 civilians. The debate over whether this policy was effective or not deserves an entire discussion, and many analysts have argued this way or the other. However, the undisputed fact is that an effective drone policy relies heavily on good intelligence and the cooperation of the local government, which right now can be very limited.
Moreover, the fact that the US closed its embassy in Yemen and scaled back CIA presence and operations in the country will probably make it almost impossible to obtain credible intelligence on the ground.
This is precisely the reason why some reports suggested that the US is trying to establish connections with the Houthi leadership, with the objective of keeping the fight against AQAP alive. Nevertheless, if the US actually works with the Houthis, overtly or covertly, and focuses solely on the fight against AQAP, it will be counterproductive to its objectives in Yemen and the region.
Trying to court the Houthis, and not condemning their actions fiercely, as the European Union and the GCC have, will only make things worse. Firstly, it will strengthen the perception in the region that the US is once again aligning itself with the Shi’ite camp, led by Iran, as many people believe is currently happening in Syria and Iraq. A perceived US acceptance of the current situation in Yemen or a quiet understanding with the Houthis will be perceived by many Arab leaders as another attempt by the US to appease Iran through respecting its sphere of influence in Yemen.
To be clear, the current chaos in Yemen is not about Sunnis versus Shi’ites, and the country is not a battle ground between the two such as Syria and Iraq are. Rather it’s more of a struggle for territory and who controls a larger share of the pie. Be that as it may, for many in the region it is a situation in which the temporarily victorious side, the Houthis, is being backed by Iran and by Iran’s proxies. This is not far from the truth, as American and other officials had stated more than once that Iran is supplying arms and funds to the Houthis.
The links between the Houthis and Iran did give this last takeover a sense of an Iranian victory. It is reasonable to assume that many of the GCC countries will see it exactly as such, and any US acceptance of the situation will not be received kindly. Not for nothing did the GCC countries release a harsh statement against the Houthis after their meeting in Riyadh last Saturday, asking the UN Security Council to “take a decision under Chapter Seven of the UN charter.”
Any policy that shows quiet support for the Houthi takeover will also create a dangerous precedent. In a region that is so accustomed to the rule of the strong, a policy that will signal an American acquiescence to the new situation in Yemen will only embolden this belief. It’s true that in Yemen negotiations are not always conducted in good faith to say the least, but they are the only solution to this leadership crisis. The fact is that the Houthis took control using blatant force, threatening key figures and giving ultimatums. It’s hard to negotiate when you have thousands of armed men watching your every move and threatening to bring the entire process down if a single clause is not be favorable to their objectives.
An American acceptance of this situation will show other insurgencies or other opposition groups in the region that ultimately the size of your gun is the only thing that matters. If you’re able to take control by force not only you will gain control, but you will also get American cooperation.
The US wants to weaken AQAP, but the Houthi takeover will probably only strengthen it. As noted above, Yemen is not a battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Nevertheless, that’s precisely how AQAP will depict this situation. Along with describing the situation as a “Shi’ite ascendance” and thereby an increasing danger for the Sunnis in the country, AQAP will also fill the vacuum that was created due to the disintegration of state institutions. With providing its own services and security, AQAP will increase its base of support among the Yemeni people.
The chaos the Houthi takeover created also significantly damaged the capabilities of Yemen’s armed forces to quell any advancement of AQAP to new areas. Just last week, AQAP took control of the Yemeni Army’s 19th Infantry Brigade base in Shabwa province, an area that in the past was controlled by AQAP for more than a year, until Yemeni forces, backed by US airpower, drove them away. As the Houthis continue to widen the cracks between Yemen’s multiple factions, mainly by using force and not negotiating, AQAP’s influence will only grow stronger. The US support or perceived support to the Houthis will help AQAP boost its recruitment and help it incite many more against the US.
This new situation in Yemen is still very unstable, and as Yemen showed us in the past, whenever you think you know how things will turn out, you are probably wrong. However, it is safe to assume that someone in the administration is thinking right now, “We have a common goal with the Houthis – both of us want to eradicate AQAP.” It’s true, the Houthis would like to see a weakened AQAP.
Nevertheless, working with the Houthis against AQAP, or “deconflicting” with them, a term that has been used plenty in regard to Syria and Iraq, will be counterproductive to America’s fight against AQAP and to US policy in the region. The only productive thing the US can do right now is work with other countries in order to find ways to bring the various Yemeni parties to the negotiation table, including the Houthis, just without their guns.
The author is currently a masters student at Princeton focusing on the Middle East