Yemen has always been a tumultuous, unpredictable state. Violence is common, the citizens are by far the poorest in the region (GDP per capita is $1,473), and the nation is divided between Shia and Sunni Muslims. However, Yemen’s most recent developments are extremely precarious, even for a country as historically unstable as Yemen.
On January 22nd, after days of fighting, Houthi rebels, who had been in control of various parts of the capital city of Sanaa since September of 2014, finally overwhelmed the Presidential Guard and infiltrated the central government. The day before, the president of Yemen, Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, had signed a peace deal with the rebels that effectively relinquished President Hadi of his power. This act also allowed the Houthis to place their own officials in office. Hadi, his prime minister, and his presidential cabinet then resigned, claiming that they did not want to be associated or blamed for any problems that occurred in Yemen as a result of Houthi control. But who exactly are the Houthi rebels?
The Houthis, or Ansar Allah (Partisans of God), are Shia Muslims from the northern province of Saada. They gained control of this region in 2010, and aided in the revolt against President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011. They used this instability to further increase their reach and influence in Yemen, and eventually made their way to the doorstep of Sanaa.
Even though Yemen is a small player in the Middle East and the world as a whole, this situation could have far-reaching impacts. The major problem in the eyes of the United States is not necessarily the military coup, but how this takeover could affect terrorist groups operating in Yemen. A power vacuum has been created in Yemen, making the country increasingly unstable, and instability is the lifeblood that fuels terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Any instability, whether it be political, social or economic, causes chaos, and a military coup such as this causes a seismic wave of chaos throughout the region. According to a citizen of Yemen, “People here are followers”, and with no clear leader, people will be willing to follow any party, especially if that party reflects their beliefs. The majority of Yemen is Sunni, as is Al Qaeda. This will allow Al Qaeda to expand their influence, as well as recruit and train soldiers. Not only are people more willing to follow a party that echoes their beliefs, but they are more willing to oppose a party that conflicts with their beliefs. Rule by a minority Shia group could potentially bring opposition from various other Sunni tribes and militants in southern Yemen. This could spell even more chaos, and more trouble for the United States.
Another problem facing the United States in this matter is that the recently overthrown President Hadi was a loyal ally to America. With his rule over, the U.S. has no one looking out for their interests in Yemen. Even though the Houthi rebels are sworn enemies of Al Qaeda, this does not ensure that they are proponents of the United States either. In fact, evidence would argue exactly the opposite. After the Houthi rebels took over Sanaa, they celebrated in the streets chanting, “God is great, death to America, death to Israel, damnation to the Jews, victory to Islam”. Even though the Houthi rebels have not made any aggressions toward the United States, the U.S. government does not seem to see them as allies yet, and for obvious reasons. This begs the question, “What is the United States going to do regarding the government overthrow in Yemen?”
It will be difficult to conduct diplomatic meetings with the new government seeing as how there is no clear government to speak of. Also, the United States can no longer train the Yemeni military in counter terrorism tactics like they had been doing. As of January 22nd, the U.S. has had no contact with the Houthi rebels, and has no information regarding their agenda or intentions. It seems that right now the U.S. government is playing the waiting game.