It has become rote and tedious to observe that it was just six months ago that President Barack Obama held up Yemen as an example of how his administration’s approach to counterterrorism was bearing fruit. Just 24 weeks later, Yemen is a basket case, and the administration’s policy toward this key state on the Arabian Peninsula is in tatters.
In January, Shia-dominated Houthi rebels mounted an assault on the Yemeni capital of Sanaa and toppled the government of President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi. Hadi’s government fled the capital and traveled to the Yemeni city of Aden where it established a government in exile. Last week, the Houthis launched a series of airstrikes on presidential targets in Aden, prompting the White House to condemn the action taken against the “legitimate government” of Yemen.
The Houthis can be forgiven for thinking that they’re receiving mixed signals from Washington. The Tehran-backed insurgent movement now in control of the Yemeni capital was, according to reports, the target of wooing by American diplomats. The administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran and their desire to ingratiate themselves with an organization opposed to the Sunni insurgent organizations ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula prompted the administration to hedge its bets in Yemen.
While Washington finds itself on both sides of a burgeoning civil war, the conflict in Yemen is taking on a distinctly chaotic character that does not so much resemble an unstable interregnum but the collapse of civil society. Some fear that Yemen could soon look become a failed state.
“About 100 U.S. Special Operations Forces have been ordered to evacuate Yemen because of a dramatic increase in sectarian violence,” NBC News reported over the weekend. “The move comes as al Qaeda fighters captured the capital of a southern Yemen province late Friday, leading to the deaths of about 20 soldiers, Reuters reported. Earlier, four suicide bombers hit a pair of crowded mosques in the capital of Sanaa, killing at least 137 people and injuring more than 300 others, officials said.”
Seizing and holding territory has never been a tactic favored by al-Qaeda, but the success of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria might have prompted the notorious terrorist organization to adapt its strategy. ISIS, too, has reportedly taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen to gain a foothold in the Arabian Peninsula.
With pro-government forces fighting Houthis rebels, and al-Qaeda fighting the Houthis, and ISIS fighting everyone, Yemen is starting to look more like Syria and Libya with each frightening hour. On Monday, NBC News foreign affairs correspondent Richard Engel made that observation.
“Yemen, which is right on the border of Saudi Arabia, could become the new Syria,” Engel warned. He noted that the battle between the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Western-backed Hadi government is complicated enough, but the fact that ISIS and AQAP have taken advantage of the opportunity to seize territory in the country should terrify American policy makers.
For the Saudis who are now surrounded by Iranian-proxy governments in control of failed or failing states on virtually all sides, preventing foreign destabilization efforts within their borders has become a markedly more pressing task. Some have observed that the Sunni-dominated Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have taken a lead role in combatting ISIS in Syria and, in the UAE’s case, in Libya as well. A proposed Peninsula Shield Force may look like a tempting option to restore stability to Yemen, but it is a fraught prospect and the resources to undertake such a mission do not presently exist.
But the continuing chaos in Yemen could change that calculation. If Saudi Arabia’s choice becomes one of fortifying its borders and hoping for the best or intervention across its borders to forestall the establishment of a failed terror state, the latter choice might look like the only viable option for policy makers in Riyadh.