Another civil war looms in Yemen

The last American troops are being pulled out of Yemen after al-Qaida fighters stormed a city near their base on Friday. Houthi rebels who have already overrun most of the country are closing in on Aden, the last stronghold of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

The last American troops are being pulled out of Yemen after al-Qaida fighters stormed a city near their base on Friday. Houthi rebels who have already overrun most of the country are closing in on Aden, the last stronghold of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

And on Sunday, the Islamic State sent suicide bombers into two big mosques in the capital, Sanaa, killing 137 people.

The U.S. State Department spokesman put the best possible face on it, saying that “due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, the U.S. government has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen.” He even said that the U.S. continued to support the “political transition” in Yemen.

But there is no “political transition.” There is just a four-sided civil war.

Why would anybody be surprised? There has been no 25-year period since the seventh century AD when there was not a civil war of one sort or another in Yemen. (And the impression that it was less turbulent before that may just be due to poor record-keeping.)

But this time it’s actually frightening the neighbours.

Yemen’s current turmoil started in 2011, when the dictator who had ruled the country for 33 years, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced out by non-violent democratic protesters (and some tribal militias who backed them). Saleh’s deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, took over and even won an election in 2012, but he never managed to establish his authority over the deeply divided country.

Hadi had the backing of the United States and most of the Arab Gulf states (including Yemen’s giant northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia) because he was willing to fight the Islamist extremists who had seized much of southern and eastern Yemen. But his main preoccupation was actually the Houthis, a tribal militia based in the largely Shia north of Yemen.

Angry at the status that the north was being offered in a proposed new federal constitution, the Houthis came south in force and seized Sanaa last September. In February, after months of house arrest, Hadi fled to the great southern port of Aden, his home town and Yemen’s second city, and declared that the capital instead. So the Houthis came south after him.

Meanwhile Saleh, the former president, returned from exile and made an alliance with the Houthis — despite the fact that he had launched six major offensives against them back when he was president. That’s what radicalized the Houthis in the first place, but they needed some national figure on their side as they moved deeper into the south, and Saleh is at least a Shia. He will have to do.

Clear so far? Good.

The third contender for power is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), whose forces, like the Houthis, are only a half-hour’s drive from Aden. As its fighters closed in on Aden last week, AQAP seized the town next to the airbase where the American forces were living, and Washington ordered them out. The last thing it wants is American military hostages in AQAP’s hands.

It is not yet clear whether AQAP and the Houthis will fight each other first (and then the winner gets to attack Aden), or whether one of them will grab the city and try to defend it from the other. It’s even possible that Hadi can hold Aden — but he probably can’t take back the rest of the country.

And we mustn’t forget the fighters of Islamic State, who announced their presence in the country last month. Their sole operation of note so far has been the suicide attacks on two Shia mosques in Sanaa. But as Sunni fanatics in a country that is currently being overrun by its Shia minority, ISIS will not lack for recruits. If it doesn’t qualify as a full fourth force yet, it soon will.

In conventional terms, Yemen doesn’t matter much. It has a lot of people (25 million), but it is the poorest country in the Arab world. Its oil has almost run out, and its water is going fast. You could argue that its geographical position is “strategic” — at the entrance to the Red Sea, commanding the approach to the Suez Canal — but it’s hard to see any Yemeni government getting the kind of military forces it would need to close that waterway.

What worries people is the possibility that the jihadis (either al-Qaida or ISIS) could come out of this on top. They are certainly not there yet, but many Sunnis will see them as the best chance to break the hold of the Shias who, despite their internal quarrels, have collectively dominated the country for so long.

Shias are only one-third of Yemen’s population and the resentment runs deep. The Houthi troops now occupy almost three-quarters of the country’s densely populated areas, but it would be an exaggeration to say that they actually control all that territory. They are spread very thinly, and if they start to lose they could be rolled up very quickly by the jihadis.

That could turn Yemen into a terrorist-ruled “Islamic State” with five times the population of the one that sprang into existence last July on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The odds are against it, but after that “July surprise” nobody is ruling it out.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Just Posted

Ella Stoner, five, is ready to cut off her hair and donate it to A Child’s Voice Foundation. (Photo by Lauren Stoner Photography)
Central Alberta girl to donate her ‘princess hair’ to A Child’s Voice Foundation

A five-year-old girl from Rimbey has never had a haircut before. Now,… Continue reading

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Alberta adds 1,195 new COVID-19 cases Saturday

Red Deer has dropped to 760 active cases

Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr
Central Alberta MLAs comment on UCP members kicked out of caucus

A pair of central Alberta MLAs have commented on the two United… Continue reading

Contributed photo
Johanna Hannaford: Central Alberta designer offers inclusive clothing

By Stephanie Rhodes Local designer Johanna Hannaford’s inclusive clothing creations are smashing… Continue reading

Red life-ring with splash
Started from the bottom: How a family business started and grew in central Alberta

By Carina Moran We started our business in the basement of our… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks' Zack MacEwen (71), Travis Boyd (72) and Jimmy Vesey (24) celebrate a goal against the Edmonton Oilers during third period NHL action in Edmonton on Saturday, May 15, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Big third period lifts Vancouver Canucks to 4-1 victory over Edmonton Oilers

Canucks 4 Oilers 1 EDMONTON — Matthew Highmore scored twice in the… Continue reading

A vial of the Medicago vaccine sits on a surface. CARe Clinic, located in Red Deer, has been selected to participate in the third phase of vaccine study. (Photo courtesy www.medicago.com)
Canada’s vaccine rollout operation won’t miss a beat with new military leader: expert

DARTMOUTH — The sudden departure of the senior military officer in charge… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault speaks during a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic, Tuesday, September 29, 2020 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot
Quebec premier argues province has power to amend constitution in letter to Trudeau

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault has written a letter to Prime… Continue reading

A demonstrator stands in front of riot police officers during a banned protest in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Paris, Saturday, May, 15, 2021. Marches in support of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip were being held Saturday in a dozen French cities, but the focus was on Paris where riot police countered organizers who said they would defy a ban on the protest, ordered on the grounds that it risked turning violent. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh)
Police fire tear gas on banned Palestinian march in Paris

PARIS (AP) — French riot police fired tear gas and used water… Continue reading

Photo by The Associated Press
NYC Pride parade bans police; Gay officers ‘disheartened’

NEW YORK (AP) — Organizers of New York City’s Pride events said… Continue reading

Welcoming cowboy boots at the historic and colourful Last Chance Saloon in the ghost town of Wayne near Drumheller, Alta., on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. The bar and hotel are up for sale. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘It was a going concern’: Remaining bar and hotel in Alberta coal ghost town for sale

WAYNE, Alta. — Built during the First World War, it survived the… Continue reading

A letter from a bottle that washed up in New Brunswick in 2017 is shown in an undated handout photo. A team of researchers from Université du Québec à Rimouski are trying to solve the mystery of whether a letter in a bottle that washed up in New Brunswick in 2017 was indeed from a young victim of Titanic shipwreck or simply a hoax. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, N. Beaudry, UQAR *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Real or hoax? Quebec scholars probe mystery letter allegedly from Titanic passenger

MONTREAL — Researchers from Université du Québec à Rimouski are trying to… Continue reading

Minister of Transport Marc Garneau takes part in a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication between the federal Transport Department and the Canadian Transportation Agency regarding passenger refunds throws into question the independence of the CTA, an arm’s-length body. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Emails reveal close communication between government, transport regulator on refunds

OTTAWA — Advocates, experts and opposition MPs say correspondence showing close communication… Continue reading

Most Read