For roughly two years, the Obama administration has hailed Yemen as a rare U.S. success story in the Middle East. The internationally brokered transition from the longtime rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh to the current government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi was cast as a post-Arab Spring model.
The United States’ cooperation with Hadi on counterterrorism matters, including drone strikes, was portrayed as a bilateral triumph. Despite increasing signs of trouble, the U.S. government stuck to the narrative; as recently as Sept. 10, President Barack Obama cited Yemen as a success in his speech explaining his plans for “degrading” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Over the weekend, however, the growing gap between administration rhetoric and reality came to a head, as the acerbically anti-American Houthi rebels _ who American diplomats allege have close financial and military ties with Iran _ took control of many areas of the capital, Sanaa, with minimal resistance from the U.S.-supplied Yemeni armed forces.
In the context of Yemen’s politics, the weekend’s events are earth-shattering to the point that their ultimate significance cannot yet truly be understood. But there’s little question that despite the signing of a peace agreement, tensions will continue, while the balance of power appears to have shifted irrevocably in ways nearly inconceivable mere months ago.
Prior to the 2011 uprising against Saleh, the Houthis, a rebel group led by followers of Zaidism, a branch of Shiite Islam found almost exclusively in northern Yemen, were the target of six brutal wars. They’ve since proven to be the main beneficiary of Saleh’s ouster, taking advantage of a lingering power vacuum and rising frustrations with the government as they and their tribal allies have seized control of much of northern Yemen.
In recent weeks, tensions had mounted in the capital in the wake of Houthi-led protests calling for the replacement of the increasingly unpopular cabinet and the reversal of the equally controversial decision to remove fuel subsidies.
As negotiations faltered, violence broke out as Houthi fighters clashed with Yemeni troops, the bulk of whom appear to have been followers of Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen, a powerful military leader allied with the Islamist Islah party who turned against Saleh in 2011.
By the time a peace agreement was signed Sunday evening, the general’s forces had been routed, buildings across the capital were in ruins, and banners bearing the Houthis’ slogan, “God is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damn the Jews, Victory to Islam,” were hung from a number of government buildings _ even as the fighters turned control of many of the buildings over to “neutral” branches of the Yemeni armed forces.
The peace agreement calls for the inclusion of the Houthis in mainstream politics largely through the appointment of a new cabinet and a new prime minister.
It remains unclear how the ascendance of the Houthis, who refuse to meet with U.S. government representatives on ideological grounds, will affect American policy in the region.
Under the agreement, President Hadi, who has proven a close ally to the U.S., has retained the power to nominate the key positions of ministers of the interior, defense, foreign affairs and finance, and the Houthis agreed to pull out of the capital once the new cabinet has formed.
That being said, it remains unclear whether the agreement will ultimately have any teeth; in the context of recent diplomatic rhetoric, which raised the issue of United Nations sanctions against Houthi leaders, the agreement, which was brokered by Jamal ben Oma, the U.N.’s Yemen envoy, represents a seeming capitulation by the government.
Despite signing the accord on Sunday, on Monday Houthi fighters continued to make moves in the capital, taking control of Mohsen’s house in addition to manning checkpoints surrounding Sanaa’s international airport.
Regional actors appear to have acceded to the new order. Yemen’s wealthy neighbors of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, traditionally wary of the Houthis because of their ties to Iran, issued a statement welcoming Sunday’s accord.
But the accord also has prompted fears that al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials have described as the most dangerous franchise of the terror group, will take advantage of both the tumult and increasing feelings of marginalization among Sunni Islamists to launch attacks and recruit.