Just when Yemen looked like it couldn’t get any worse, this week the Houthis, a Zaydi Shia rebel group from northern Yemen that already controls much of the country’s capital, advanced toward the southern port city of Aden, reportedly forcing the U.S.-recognized Yemeni president Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee and prompting Saudi Arabia to begin military operations.
The Houthis’ advance comes a few days after the U.S. withdrew the hundred or so Special Forces stationed at al-Anad airbase, lying 24 miles north of Aden, in Yemen’s southern governorate of Lahij.
It’s possible, though in no way confirmed, that our withdrawal of forces emboldened the Houthis to make their moves. Had our forces remained, the Houthis might not have advanced at all or, at least, not as quickly, to avoid encountering U.S. troops. So, not only has our Yemen model — er, “template” — utterly failed, but our rapid exit may actually have contributed to Yemen’s rapid unraveling and the expansion of this conflict into a regional war.
Yemen has been marching on a path toward civil war for some time now. The country has fractured into two rival governments: The Iranian-backed Houthis, who control much of north-central Yemen since a late January coup, started sending forces southward earlier this week, while Hadi, who has established a rival government in Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, sent forces north to confront the Houthis. Hadi’s departure leaves only the Houthis in Yemen now.
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has benefited from the chaos to embed its fighters with local tribes opposed to Houthi expansion. The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has also entered the fight, conducting five major suicide attacks on March 20 that killed upward of 140 people. The attacks, which targeted Zaydi Shia mosques, were likely an effort to inflame sectarian tensions — the same modus operandi ISIS has long used in Iraq.
Yemen’s fracturing is also giving some newly minted ISIS cells room to emerge. ISIS’s presence in Yemen is still murky: Some supporters claimed that ISIS fighters temporarily seized a city south of al-Anad airbase and executed 29 Yemeni soldiers the same day as the mosque attacks. Pro-ISIS Twitter accounts also recently started announcing the establishment of a wilayat (province) in Lahij. Maybe a coincidence? Doubtful.
It doesn’t take an expert to realize that the global fight against terrorism is going badly. With ISIS spreading in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and now Yemen, al-Qaeda affiliates still operating throughout the region, and a growing foreign-fighter threat, it’s a matter not of if, but when, something is going to hit closer to U.S. soil. In the meantime, the start of Saudi military operations in Yemen raises the specter of wider regional conflict and is yet another major distraction from efforts against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.