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Sectarian Strife in Yemen

Shi'ite Houthi rebels gesture as they stand atop an army vehicle they took from the compound of the army's First Armoured Division in Sanaa
Houthi rebels stand atop a captured tank in Sana’a, Yemen, after seizing control of the nation’s capital. Source: Khaled Abdullah

February 10th, the U.S. Department of State announced a formal withdrawal from its embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, in response to mounting Houthi power in the capital. This departure marks a new political direction for Yemen, from the American-backed government of President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to a new regime dominated by the Houthis, a Shiite militant group that has expressed profound anti-American sentiment. Hadi rose to power in 2011 amidst the Arab Spring protests, but was ousted by a strong Houthi military in Sana’a that forced him to resign on January 22, 2015.

The future of Yemen is of crucial concern to the United States since the country has been a valuable ally in combating Islamic extremism in the Middle East. The emergence of the Houthis as a powerful faction has complicated U.S.-Yemeni relations and it is unclear what role the new transitional government will play in the global fight against al-Qaeda, especially given their opposition to both al-Qaeda and the United States. American interventionism in Yemen has been crucial in limiting the strength of al-Qaeda, and should the U.S. be forced to scale back their efforts, there is a chance that Islamic fundamentalism will dominate the Gulf State. Moreover, since the Houthis appear to prefer Iranian support, Yemen may develop into another proxy state for Iran.

In 2009, the Saudi and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda united, forming al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, commonly known as AQAP. As al-Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan and Afghanistan deteriorated, AQAP emerged as the organization’s most powerful unit. According to former Press Secretary Jay Carney, who briefed the nation on the new faction in August 2013, “AQAP in particular is viewed by the national security team as the most operational of the al-Qaeda affiliates and the one that poses the greatest potential threat to the United States.” AQAP is notorious for several major attacks against the west, including the bombing of USS Cole in 2000 and the more recent, thwarted Nigerian “underwear bomber.” In Yemen, AQAP’s attacks are not just isolated incidents, but rather the terrorist group has established control over much of the Shabwa Province of Central Yemen.

The Houthis are weary of the expansion of AQAP for many reasons. While the Houthis are aligned with Zaydi Shi’a Islam, a religious sect exclusively found in Northern Yemen, AQAP is associated with Sunnism. Historically, the religious rift between Shiites and Sunnis has been intensely political and violent. However, the current dispute between the Houthis and AQAP is not entirely religious. Rather, it was the dissolution of Hadi’s administration and the subsequent power vacuum in Yemen which has pitted the two militant groups against each other.

Since 2010, the United States has reinvigorated its efforts to diminish AQAP’s power in Yemen, offering the former government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who preceded Hadi, assistance in limiting the effects of the organization, which poses a serious threat to Yemini sovereignty. After Hadi rose to the presidency the next year, these efforts intensified, and since 2011, the United States has provided Yemen with nearly a billion dollars in direct military, economic, and humanitarian aid. Additionally, the United States has launched frequent drone strikes in the country that have successfully taken out nearly 1,000 AQAP operatives, though estimates vary and the exact number remains unknown.

However, instead of seeking continued aid from the United States, the Houthi government has found a natural ally in Iran, as both share a Shiite ideology. As a result, Iran has supplied the militant group with weapons, training, and extensive financial capital in order to ensure that AQAP is unable to expand its stronghold in central Yemen. As a result, Iran has sent the Quds Force, a division of their Revolutionary Guard, to Yemen in order to train Houthi militias. Though Iran denies these ties, in 2013, the Yemeni government of President Hadi seized a shipment of arms from Iran designated for the Houthis which was intended to expand the military supplies of their Shiite allies. Among the cargo were heat seeking surface-to-air missiles, RPG rockets, night-vision goggles, artillery systems, explosives, and ammunition.

It is no surprise that Iran is capitalizing on the rise of a Shiite government in Yemen. Since 2001, Iran has expanded its sphere of influence in the Middle East, exercising power over political structures  in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Yemen appears to have become the fourth country in the region to be supported by Tehran.

Considering the evacuation of its embassy in Sana’a, it appears that the United States is weary of the intentions of the provisional Houthi government. As of now, the Obama administration has not ceased its counterterrorist measures in Yemen–namely drone strikes–but has been forced to scale back its non-military efforts. Without a reliable ally in power, America’s efforts to subvert al-Qaeda will be limited. In a statement made last January, President Obama said that he intended to “go after terrorist networks inside of Yemen without an occupying U.S. army, but rather by partnering and intelligence-sharing with that local government.” The recent coup d’etat may undermine these collaborative efforts.

While the Houthis have not actively resisted American action against AQAP, their political campaign has thus far been defined by profound anti-American rhetoric and interventionism. For instance, the Houthi’s motto includes “Death to America” and the regime has nominally rejected the use of drone strikes by the U.S. However, the militant group gains practical benefits from continued drone strikes against AQAP operatives. Yet due to this political rhetoric, a sustained drone strike program will certainly undermine any remaining hope of cooperation between the new Houthi government and the United States to implement more effective means of combatting AQAP, such as the U.S. training of Yemeni troops and substantial economic aid. Therefore, while the Houthis are united in their vehement opposition to the expansion of AQAP, it is likely that this regime shift will signal the end to a positive U.S.-Yemeni relationship.