TSG IntelBrief: The Splintering of Yemen
February 26, 2015

The Splintering of Yemen

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Yemen is moving towards partition and further conflict, with the Houthis in the north and former president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi in the south—though in true Yemeni fashion the situation is not that clear cut

• This week the Houthis tightened their control of the capital while Hadi withdrew his resignation and called for ministers to convene in Aden; this move creates a situation similar to that in Libya, of two governments, neither fully legitimate nor capable of effective rule

• The head of the GCC visited Hadi in Aden on February 25, and there are indications that when ambassadors of some Arab countries return to Yemen in the future, they will go to Aden and not to Sana’a

• As the Yemeni factions and their regional backers move towards further confrontation, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will move to exploit the increased sectarian tensions and power vacuum, with regional and global security implications.

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A unified Yemen has lasted 25 years; it is uncertain whether it will last one more. Even for a long-troubled country with countless ‘tipping points’ and premature predictions of civil war, the events of this week are as significant as they have been theatrical. There are deep-seated internal and external factors that threaten to violently splinter the country back into two.

Earlier this week, former President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi escaped from the capital, Sana’a, making his way to the southern city of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen. There, he announced that he was withdrawing his resignation and called for government ministers to convene in Aden, in effect calling for a separate government. In much more than a symbolic gesture, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)’s Secretary-General, Abdullatif Al Zayani, visited Hadi in Aden, highlighting just how seriously the GCC members oppose the continued rule of the Shi’a Houthi rebels. It is likely that whenever the ambassadors of certain Arab countries return to Yemen (many countries have pulled their ambassadors from the country, citing security and political unrest), they will return not to Sana’a but to Aden. This will further the already widening divide between north and south, though the issue is of course not as simple as north or south or even Sunni and Shi’a.

Claims of Iranian and Gulf Arab machinations are quite valid but Yemen resists such a neat proxy description. The Shi’a of northern Yemen are quite different from Iranian Shi’a. The Sunni of the south, due to years of socialist rule, are quite different from their Sunni supporters in the Gulf. Some southern Sunni factions want nothing to do with Hadi or with the proxy gamesmanship played in their name; they prefer a new South Yemen. Overall, Yemen has resisted straightforward sectarian tensions, but groups such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) very much want a straightforward sectarian fight, in order to gain both local and regional support.

The Houthi rebels who control the capital of Sana’a obviously oppose any attempt to create an Aden-based government, and have been arresting and preventing politicians supportive of Hadi’s call from traveling to Aden. The rebels also seized a special forces compound in the capital after an intense firefight on February 25, further demonstrating their intention and capability to control the area. They are not leaving Sana’a anytime soon.

This creates a Libya-esque situation, in which a fractured and violent country is divided between two competing governments—neither of which is legitimate nor able to rule the country effectively. Also like Libya, the tribal and geographical nature of the Yemeni conflict defies easy analysis and prediction, with all parties making continuously shifting cost-versus-gain judgments. Regional actors such as Iran and the GCC will increase their support to their respective sides, as all see the Yemeni issue as crucial to regional power dynamics, while the UN, against increasing odds, works to avoid what appears to be a coming fight.

The consequences of such a fight will spill out beyond the borders of Yemen. With Syria, Libya, and Iraq already in flames, the international community simply doesn’t have the ability to contend with another fire. Extremists will seek out every chance to make the situation worse, and tie it into the larger “New World Disorder” of violent ideology that respects no boundaries. A violently splintered Yemen would be a tragedy for that country and a security nightmare for the international community. There is no easy solution to reverse the momentum towards division.

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