US stuck between two enemies in Yemen

WASHINGTON - The U.S.’s priorities in Yemen is to keep the country together and to contain the raging conflict within its borders in order to secure its counter terrorism strategy against al-Qaeda affiliates there, experts say. 

Since a strong push last week by Houthi rebels forced the resignation of the Yemeni government, U.S. priorities in Yemen and the future of its counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula, also known as AQAP and the Yemeni al-Qaeda, has come into question.  

Charles Schmitz, an analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute and an expert on the Houthis, said of all of Yemen’s many political crises, last week's was among the worst in terms of the U.S. counterterrorism strategy in the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. has invested in the central government in Yemen since 2011 in order to have a partner on the ground to fight AQAP. The failure of the central government left Washington without such a partner. 

The U.S. has been targeting AQAP positions from the air with drones, accompanied by Yemeni ground forces, but the crisis has left the U.S. strategy crippled.  

Furthermore, the Houthi takeover galvanized the desire for independence in the south as well as leaving northern areas to Shia groups, which will create a divided country with neither part of friendly to the U.S. 

"The main concern of the United States is the partition of Yemen," Schmitz said. "So the priority will be paid to keeping the country together." 

In case of a partition, the country will be divided between Houthis, a Zaydi Shiite group predominantly controlling northern areas, and the Shafai Sunni groups in the south.

Yemen does not have a history of Shiite-Sunni violence as Zaydis and Sunnis are close in religious practice but al-Qaeda has explicitly framed the battle in sectarian terms and is using it as a recruitment tool. 

Therefore, al-Qaeda's influence on the Sunni population and Iran's influence on Houthis has put constraints on the U.S.’s counterterrorism strategy in Yemen as the US finds itself stuck between the two enemies.   

In case of a division, Schmitz said both parts will be hostile to Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the U.S., a development that would also endanger Washington's counterterrorism strategy in the country, because Saudi Arabia was another significant sponsor of Yemen’s central government and kept its economy alive. 

Saudi Arabia views Houthis as Iranian proxies and has reportedly suspended the bulk of its financial assistance to Yemen, which would make it difficult for Yemen to form a centralized government in Sanaa and contribute to the U.S.’s counterterrorism strategy. 

Besides the Saudis also have crucial problems with AQAP, as they consider it as an ideological threat to the kingdom. 

According to a report recently published by the Middle East Institute, support from the kingdom has kept the country’s economy afloat to the tune of at least $4 billion since 2012 but following the reports of cuts there are already prospects of a fiscal collapse in 2015.

Despite Saudi sentiments against Houthis, the U.S. has left the door of cooperation open to Houthis as well as all segments of Yemeni society but the minds of policy makers are not yet clear concerning the possible new partners in Yemen.

"In fact, the interests of Houthis and those of the U.S. coincided in Yemen as both are enemies to AQAP, but we should bear in mind that the Houthis also have anti-American sentiments, they have a flag, printed on ‘death to America, death to Israel,’ Schmitz added. 

Add to this, the Houthi group's connection with Iran is also one of the top concerns for the U.S.

"It is undoubted that Houthis are influenced by Iran," said Schmitz, who added that the type of link between Iran and the Houthis is different from that it has with Hezbollah.

"Unlike Hezbollah the Houthi group is a local group which has its own social basis within Yemen," he said. 

White House press secretary Josh Earnest also agreed that Iran’s influence, which he characterized as a sort of "command-and-control influence," doesn't appear to be to the extent as it has on Hezbollah.

Washington also considers the Houthi group "a legitimate political constituency in Yemen," and a group that shares similar concerns toward AQAP, but according to administration officials these factors are not enough for the US to cooperate with the rebel group. 

Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council based in Washington, said that in this context the administration in the near term will try to contain the Yemeni crisis inside the country by reinforcing its counterterrorism strategy in the north. 

"That containment will be done by reinforcing southern Saudi borders with Yemen and also by reinforcing the freedom of the sea lane in Bab al-Mendab which Yemen sits on," he said.

Bab al-Mendab is a strait located between Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, and Djibouti and Eritrea in the Horn of Africa. It connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. It is a strategic point in terms of connecting the Arab Peninsula to Africa and facilitates the flow of fighters between these two main lands.  

American policy makers are well aware of the fact that the Houthi takeover in Yemen will inevitably put Houthis in conflict with AQAP but whether the administration will benefit from this conflict and cooperate with Houthis is not yet clear. 

According to Berman, the U.S. may try to contain the conflict inside the country letting it burn out both groups, or on tactical terms, cooperate with Houthis to fight AQAP. 

"Cooperation tactically is not out of question against the Islamic State, or ISIL, it is already interacting with Iran. It is quite possible that you have the same sort of dynamic emerge over time in Yemen," he said.

In terms of strategic alignment, however, it is going to be very challenging for the U.S., because the Houthis have been very clear that they are far less receptive to cooperation with the U.S. than the Hadi government, according to Berman.

During his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama characterized Yemen’s transition as a "success" but what happens on the ground negates Obama's remarks. 

"The problem is that we have disconnection about how much the administration thinks it has achieved in the war on terror and how much is actually achieved," Berman said noting that the counterterrorism strategy is "intended as a tactical approach.” 

"It is not intended to reverse the flow of al-Qaeda or Houthi rebels. It is intended to erode some of that capability by targeting individuals. It is also intended as a back stop measure for Yemeni counterterrorism,” he said. 

Noting that the U.S. doesn't have good strategic options, Berman said, "We haven’t invested as much as we should have in stabilizing the Yemeni government before it fell."

He added the reason of the lack of sufficient investment in the stability of Yemen is because the administration did not want to interfere deeply in the Arab spring, but he said the U.S. now doesn't have a good stance in order to effect events in Yemen at all.

On the other hand, Washington is not likely to rethink its strategy in Yemen in the face of several challenges in the region. 

Berman said that the major focus of the White House is on getting to a deal with Iran on its nuclear program, adding that working against a government which Iran supports is not in Washington’s near-term interests.

Schmitz also agreed that the U.S. may cooperate with the Houthi in the fight against the al-Qaeda affiliate but the cooperation would either be covert or a tactical coincidence. 

"The United States has indeed cooperated with Houthis but it was not a publicly stated cooperation. American drones were hitting the AQAP targets from the air while Houthi militia were fighting them on the ground," Schmitz said.  

Events on the ground in Yemen are moving in a different direction than the “success” Obama touted in his address last week, and the country appears poised for yet another round of upheaval, possibly more transformative than events since uprisings began in Yemen in 2011.

Inside the country, the Houthi takeover is galvanizing calls for southern independence because Sunni groups argue that recent events are further evidence that they cannot tie their political future to the north.

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