In recent days, all eyes have been on what looks like a coup in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The drama pitted Iranian-backed Houthis, a Shia insurgent group, against a key U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). But the reality is that the Sanaa showdown is a sideshow to the slow-motion collapse of the entire Yemeni state.
Cui bono? Al-Qaeda. Who loses? The United States of America.
To review: We have Sunni and Shia (a Shia sect, to be sure, but nonetheless backed by Tehran) in the Yemeni capital. To the east, where the country’s main gas pipeline runs, rebel tribes are engaged in a campaign of sabotage to extort political and financial concessions from the central government. Further east, in the energy heartland, local grievances over money and governance have meant freedom of movement for AQAP. And finally, there’s the south, once independent, where secessionists are gaining ground again and . . . you got it . . . making room for AQAP.
In short, the trouble in Yemen is not simply sectarian woe in Sanaa, and the challenge for the United States is not merely in ensuring that we have a partner in the Yemeni capital. The trouble is with what President Barack Obama memorably labeled “the Yemen model.” At this point, it’s not just that the model itself — partnership with local government to defeat al-Qaeda and associated movements — is in trouble; it’s that the entire nation of Yemen may well cease to exist as we know it. And doubling down on the notion that all that matters is the presidential palace in Sanaa is mindless.
It’s time for the United States to step back and reassess Yemen overall. The reality is that AQAP has been winning on the ground in this strategically located Arab country for some time now. The group carried out a major attack in Sanaa two weeks ago and is expanding throughout areas ignored by the distracted central government. And while AQAP may not have planned the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this month, there is little doubt about ties between the perpetrators and senior AQAP figures.
What’s the solution? Good question. As in Syria and Iraq, the situation has spiraled so far out of control that there are few good options for the United States (and plenty of good options for al-Qaeda). At the very least, it is in Washington’s vital interest to ensure Yemen’s territorial integrity, the growth of central-government power and legitimacy, and the equitable treatment of Houthis — all the better to separate them from Tehran’s reach. None of this is a panacea, but it’s the least that can be done, and a far cry from the nothing that currently characterizes the Obama administration’s Yemen policy.
— Alexis Knutsen is an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project.