HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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“God is great, Death to America…”

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.

President Hadi

President Hadi

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.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 12.10.22 AM

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.

-Cory Pope





  1. dnicoloso3 says:

    Conflict occurs because outcomes are uncertain. Groups fight because the there is a significant probability of victory. If multiple groups are trying to militarily control Yemen, the practical solution is for a dominant military force to crush all resistance. Whether is means US intervention, or a Yemen group rising up, stability will only follow when a force rises up that can crush all others.

    • jjacob7 says:

      I don’t know if you could call US intervention a “practical solution.” I agree with what you said below, that law and order is a prerequisite to addressing other issues and that law and order may be achieved when the government has the power to defeat opposition. However, US intervention doesn’t ensure that whatever government we prop up will automatically have legitimacy or power. That would require an extraordinary commitment of time and resources. Since we are ostensibly beyond the era of imposing authoritarian regimes (though it is apparently not beneath us to support them), we would not only have to train their military, supply them with arms, and increase foreign aid to build their hard power, but also provide electoral assistance and help set up democratic governing institutions to give the new government legitimacy and to give us at least a veneer of international legal responsibility. The US has not been very successful at this method of comprehensive state-building in the past. On the other hand, if we do a shoddy job and just try to defeat the rebels and leave, that vacuum of power will still exist and the conflict would eventually continue. This is how states get trapped in perpetual cycles of instability.

      • cryan3232 says:

        I agree with this response to the article but also I do not know if US intervention is the necessary solution. Our involvement in nations troubled with political turmoil has not always yielded the best results. While setting up a government that is friendly to the US would be ideal, I think it becomes a question of if the resources required to accomplish this are worth it. And also, even investing completely in this idea still does not guarantee success.

    • ashumway3 says:

      I could not disagree more with your point. We have seen over and over that US military intervention does not lead to more stability in a region. You say that stability will follow only when a force rises up that can crush all others, but there is no guarantee that this ambiguous force would create a just or humane government. As we have seen repeatedly in countries all over the world and in the Middle East specifically, when one group comes to power through a violent conflict, the region becomes less stable and a much more dangerous place to live in. Why do you think that armed conflict is the only way to resolve this issue? I feel it would be a much more rational and peaceful solution to work through the political struggles of Yemen through diplomacy and peace talks so that both sides benefit without any bloodshed.

      • dnicoloso3 says:

        I don’t necessarily think US intervention is a practical answer. My main point is that stability is a product of strong government. Even if a diplomatic solution were a possibility, a militarily strong government would have to exist after that. If people can diplomatically come to a new government, fine, but what happens when more rebels rise up intent on overthrowing the new government. Diplomatic solutions only work so far, and a relatively strong military is going to be a prerequisite to any effective government. As to the question of a humane government, it is not even a relevant in the absence of law and order. Anarchy and instability are worse for people than the state of an unjust government, so restoring stability is a necessary, not sufficient, prerequisite to anything that might be considered just or humane.

  2. mdsmith910 says:

    In response to dnicoloso3’s response, I’m not sure I entirely agree with your last statement. Yes power can happen after there’s a force in place that is uncontested, however I believe stability occurs when economic needs are met, poverty is decreased, safety in ensured, etc. I wouldn’t say conflict occurs because outcomes are uncertain, I would say that conflict occurs because there’s a clash of interests. Let’s say the takeover in Yemen is stopped by American forces, stability will only occur if the needs of the country are met, not by scaring people because of a new power in place.

    • dnicoloso3 says:

      Even stable countries have conflicts of interest, many of which are not resolved. In the US, there are a diverse range of political interests, but these varied political interests do not turn to violence, because we have effective law enforcement. There will always be clashing interests in any country, but the mark of stability is that these do not turn into violent conflicts. The people’s needs cannot be addressed in any effective capacity as long as the government can be easily deposed. Law and order is the prerequisite to addressing any other issue. Law and order is only achieved when the government has the power to defeat violent opposition.

      • zhuyutong202 says:

        I disagree with your assessment that peace can only be achieved when a powerful government defeats their opposition. An excellent example will be Iraq when the minority but powerful government oppressed and defeated their opposition but that just leads to oppression and human rights violation. True peace can only be achieved when the powerful government is willing to negotiate and make concessions. One of the reason our country is so stable is because we allow minority representation in government.

  3. Travis says:

    That was a very interesting post to me simply because I didn’t know much about Yemen. When chaos is caused in a country, there are often major and minor consequences. Some of the consequences can be easily identified while some cannot. However, the growth of terrorist groups in Yemen is an easily identified threat, but, as you stated in your argument, the challenge comes with how to deal with the threat. It’s not safe for the United States to ignore the events in Yemen, so they will need to find a way to acquire more knowledge about the situation as is progresses unless of course another country decides to step in. The United States is not the only country that dislikes the ideologies that fuel terrorism, so maybe United States officials can somehow use that fact to their advantage.

  4. coreilly says:

    This can turn out to be a big deal for America depending on how it turns out. Like you said in the post, just because a group doesn’t like Al-Queda doesn’t mean that they will cooperate with America. The last thing America needs right now is for another big terrorist organization to have a safe haven in the middle east. And if this group continues to rule Yemen, or if a civil war of sorts outs them and puts another non ideal leader into power, it could prove to be a breeding ground for training camps. I’d imagine it would be relatively easy for a terrorist organization to recruit and train in an unstable country, with no one checking up on anything. The scary part about this post is the fact that America hasn’t been able to make contact with Yemen. A lack of communication is never a good sign. I guess we’ll have to see how this plays out in the following weeks and months to get a better idea of the status of this event.

  5. lmoghimi3 says:

    It feels like there are few stable governments left in the Middle East. This is not good news to anyone who wants a stable Middle East, but it appears that there is not much America can do right now. Yemen needs to try and figure out a new government and a new leader before any other country can try and have real relations with them. Hopefully America will not lose any allies in the process.

  6. vlobo3 says:

    I thought this article was quite interesting, mainly because I don’t really know very much about Yemen and its affairs. For me, it was quite informative. Personally, it’s a bit nerve-wracking to think about what this could mean for the US, since the consequences could be small or dire. It is all dependent on how much power this act of overthrowing the government has on the region as a whole. As you stated earlier, there is a pairing of common beliefs between Al Qaeda and the Houthi rebels, and there is a halt in the training of Yemeni military to fight terrorism, which could have some terrible consequences. Based on your final paragraph, I think that action would need to be taken based on what the US hears when they have contact with the Houthi rebels, since the severity of the situation may be brought to light then. I don’t know if I would support immediate military action from the US, since that would take a lot of time and resources. I also agree with my peers above that military action alone will not solve issues, but I realize that sometimes it is necessary to help contain and prevent further issues that could arise from these rebellious actions.

  7. austinsoper says:

    “It will be difficult to conduct diplomatic meetings with the new government seeing as how there is no clear government to speak of.”

    I thought this quote was interesting. In the Summer of 2013, I did an internship with the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, the office assigned with protecting U.S. Diplomatic Missions abroad. One of the agents in the office was the Regional Security Officer in Sanaa back in 2004, and boy did he have some stories to tell about his time there. One of the most striking things he said to me was that “Everyone in Yemen lies.” The Yemeni people are culturally self-serving, taking bribes from multiple parties if it suits their interests. (His words, not mine). This makes diplomacy nearly impossible, when each party is trying to one up the other and go behind each other’s backs. The U.S. embassy in Sanaa is also a virtually impenetrable fortress, and for good reason. Despite whatever pro-American sentiments the Yemeni leadership may have harbored, the country itself is volatile and largely hostile to the imperialistic notions of the USA. Long story short, I don’t think this coup will change much for the U.S. from a strictly diplomatic standpoint.

    • amiteichenbaum says:

      I thought this point was really interesting because I do feel that perceived (or real) cultural differences greatly influence relationships between nations. The United States has an idea of how things should play out, and we consistently see that while the US is an incredibly strong force, it can not over come the desires of the people (even with a few pro-american leaders). Your post basically sums up my thoughts exactly!

  8. jackjenkins2015 says:

    I am amazed at how little I know about what is happening in the Middle East. I hadn’t heard anything about this until I read your blog post. While I agree with many of my classmates here in that it probably isn’t best for the US to intervene and try to establish a different government, I definitely think it’s possible that we will do it anyway. This is especially true if the group is extremely anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, whom the US is pretty heavily tied to. Also, the idea of a safe haven for terrorists definitely won’t appeal to the US, and I could see military intervention if there were even a hint of that. Ultimately, I hope none of this has to happen, but I definitely think there will be an answer to your question of “What is the United States going to do regarding the government overthrow in Yemen?”, and I think it will be sooner rather than later.

  9. apabst3 says:

    Very informative piece, I was unaware of this turmoil in Yemen. It seems as though many people are arguing on whether or not they believe the U.S. should intervene in this overthrow. At this point the Houthi rebels don’t seem like a very legitimate political power. When your slogan or chant involves anti-semetism it is tough to pass as a serious political party. Does this mean the U.S. should intervene? I would say not quite yet, the Houthis may tone down their anti-semetism and other extreme views once in power. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening. As other people have mentioned though Yemen has always been a very unstable place so this overthrow could have come and gone three months from now. If the Houthi’s find a way to stay in power however I think the U.S. needs to keep a close watch on the country.

  10. trevormcelhenny says:

    This begs the question, “What is the United States going to do regarding the government overthrow in Yemen?”

    At this point, I hope nothing. But as others have already pointed out, if the past actions of the US can be deemed a good predictor of the future, then we will probably do “something”. There should be no reason to meddle in the civil affairs of a sovereign nation, unless the new regime directly threatens (something more substantial than foot-soldiers chanting in the streets) or attacks the US, one of our allies, or is found to be guilty of human rights violations towards its citizens.

    Good post, Thanks!

  11. cfundora says:

    Thanks for writing the piece. Considering the current level of instability in the Middle East as a whole, I doubt the United States would seek serious military action let alone, to get in the middle of Yemen’s affairs. Ultimately, there is no pressing reason for the US to intervene unless our immediate security was in jeopardy.

    Its interesting how usually whenever a conflict bursts out somewhere in the world, we ask if the US is going to do anything about it. There have been very few pure humanitarian interventions and the ones that do occur, there are most likely other significant interests involved. I think the US will still try to maintain diplomatic relations with Yemen.

  12. jkempa3 says:

    Any instability in the region is bad news for all foreign interests in the region. With no established government, there is no entity for any country to meet, negotiate, or trade with. The “vacuum” is a void that will quickly be filled. Depending what that void id filled by could dramatically change the status quo in the region. If a group such as ISIS or another radical group takes control it will only make establishing peace and stability in the middle east more difficult. The U.S. and all other interests involved should keep a close eye on the situation and be ready to act if the region appears to be falling into radical hands.

  13. khospedales3 says:

    The note about the people being followers and willing to side with any party with similar beliefs is quite interesting. I would not expect many Muslims to believe that these terrorist organizations truly are guided by the principles of Shia or Sunni Islam. Is that simple designation really enough to gain trust? Are the people there in such a desperate state that such a vague connection will send people into the clutches of the terrorist groups? Maybe it isn’t a majority of people who join these groups but it’s interesting that enough people seem susceptible to joining these groups for it to be a problem.

  14. ssweeny3 says:

    It is also important to note that Yemen, while it claims to not have a nuclear program, does have access to ballistic missiles. Which does not so much worry the United States, but worries the other country the people of Yemen were saying death to. The missiles are easily within reach of Israel. If Al-Qaeda or another terrorist organization takes the proposed course of action in this blog post, tensions could rise very high very quickly. However, it could be very worrisome for the Israelis if the UN or America does nothing. After one of the large motivators for Operation Iraqi Freedom being Weapons of Mass Destruction and then supposedly not finding any, according to the media, the UN or USA could simply call their bluff and see where it takes them.

  15. emartin36 says:

    When a party comes to power due to a military takeover, chances are that the administration will be one of corruption. While I do not think that the United States needs to be overly concerned about a potential attack on the country, other countries, especially those in the area, should be concerned about the state of the Yemen government. They pose a very clear threat to surrounding areas, specifically Israel. I am indifferent about the idea of US intervention in most cases, but the people of Yemen deserve a fair and democratic system.

  16. missypittard says:

    It seems there are 3 key courses of action the U.S. could take in regards to the situation in Yemen. The US could intervene by force, negotiate peace talks, or as Cory puts it, play the “waiting game.” The first, intervention would lead to disaster. Time and time again the U.S. has attempted power plays in countries with vastly different social and cultural surroundings. Highly functional government is not a cookie cutter, what’s best differs from country to country. Singapore, for example, is a highly functional dictatorship. The U.S. does not need to start Iraq round 2. We already know where that road leads. Second option, negotiations and peace talks, appears to be the optimal path. Primary stake holders could gather to help Yemen get back on its feet and reestablish a solid form of government. While there are many intangible issues there, it emerges as the most viable option. The US by no means needs to play the waiting game, and while we’re not aware of exactly what is happening, I’m sure our officials have a course of action in the works.

    • jenglish7 says:

      Agreed. US intervention is too much of a minefield to consider to any serious degree. Furthermore, engaging in any form of military support is bound to unleash a plethora of political issues not limited to the politics of the region. The United States, as you mentioned, has a history of interventionist policy, with drastically varying outcomes. It is just not in our interest to over-involve ourselves in every world affair that presents itself.Yet the US still holds political influence, and a more diplomatic solution is without a doubt preferable. It would keep us involved in the region in a supervisory and indirect sense, while allowing us to forgo the more extreme military measures that a full intervention would entail.

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