Will Yemen follow in the footsteps of Libya and Syria?

Will Yemen follow in the footsteps of Libya and Syria?

Yemen has been thrown into turmoil in recent months. Its continued existence as a unified state is increasingly called into question.

In the middle of a difficult political transition since massive protests roiled the country in early 2011, the Northern Shiite Houthi tribe’s seizure of the capital Sana’a and their subsequent dissolution of parliament on February 8, 2015 may mark the gradual disintegration of the Yemeni state.

Yemen has historically been a fractious country. Divided in two for decades between a conservative religious North and a South led by a Marxist regime, the country only unified in 1990.

Just four years later, an attempted Southern secession sparked a civil war. To this day the south and north of the country remain divided by deep cultural and political differences, with a southern secessionist movement continuing to simmer.

The current crisis pits the Sunni Isah tribe, who held power in Yemen until last month backed by Saudi Arabia, against the Shiite Houthi tribe backed by Iran. Iran has for years provided weapons and material to the Houthis and is quite likely playing a key role in the Houthi’s recent advance.

Yemen is just the latest site of the “Great Game” fought between Saudi Arabia and Iran for influence in the Middle East, a game that has also fueled the conflicts in Syria and Libya.

Not content with their hold on the capital the Houthis have indicated that they may move south into the oil-rich province of Marib, bringing them into conflict with the Marib tribe.

Meanwhile, the disposed former president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi has escaped his house arrest in Sana’a, rescinded his forced resignation and fled to the southern city of Aden, giving renewed vigor to its secessionist movement.

The situation in Yemen would already be complex enough, with the intricacies of tribal politics and the active involvement of two regional powers within the country.

But an active Al-Qaeda and Islamic State presence in the country provides an additional destabilizing element. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – one of the more active branches of Al-Qaeda – was responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole and an attempted plot to destroy passenger jets in the United States in December 2009.

Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos in Yemen to launch a spate of attacks against police forces and seize a large military base in the South of the country.

In response, the United States has pursued a drone strikes campaign against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, yet with many key members of Yemen’s military fleeing the country, the effectiveness of these strikes is likely to decrease as on the ground intelligence and coordination of these strikes is lost.

A new Islamic State splinter group will also cause further instability in the country.

Western and Saudi Arabian embassy staff are fleeing the country and the United Nations has issued a warning that Yemen risks disintegration and civil war.

The situation in Yemen is rapidly beginning to resemble Syria and Libya, where a plethora of militia groups are backed by outside powers with divergent interests, provoking a sustained and spiraling cycle of violence. Yemen then is only the latest flashpoint in a region beset by conflict and volatility.

About Author

Matthew Morgan

Matthew is an adjunct lecturer in political science at the State University of New York Cortland and a PhD candidate from York University in Toronto. His research focuses on the intersections between political economy and security studies. His work has appeared in the Studies in Political Economy, the Stanford Journal of East Asian Studies, and Millennium amongst others.