Al-Qaeda Wins If Yemen Falls Apart

It can't go on like this.

Photographer: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen teeters on the brink of economic collapse and civil war. After being held captive for three weeks by Houthi rebels, President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi has escaped from Sana'a, the capital, to Aden, in the country's south, where he is rallying support to restore his government. If his country now splits, or falls into sectarian strife, the clear winner will be al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which thrives amid chaos in Yemen.

This al-Qaeda offshoot poses one of the most dangerous terrorism threats, and the U.S. needs to do all it can to promote stability. That means averting a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and supporting President Hadi's elected government, at least until a process for a political transition can be agreed on.

Yemen's Fault Lines

The U.S. and its allies can hardly resolve this impoverished country's foundational problems. The roots of today's crisis are sunk deep in Yemen's history as a land divided -- among tribes and regions, by the British and the Turks, and then as two independent nations. In 1990, the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south were united. But the new country's halves were held together less by common purpose than by cunning, corruption and brute force.

As a result, long-standing grievances have festered. The Houthis, for instance, seek to rekindle the glory days when the Zaydi, a Shiite sect that includes the Houthis, ruled much of present-day Yemen for centuries until 1962. (Zaydis now make up about a third of Yemen's population, which is mostly Sunni.) Over the past decade, the Houthis have fought to enlarge their influence and to protect their religious and cultural traditions from what they see as Sunni encroachment backed by Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, tensions between the country's north and south have persisted.

The unseating of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2011 -- Yemen's version of the Arab Spring -- led to efforts to create a new federal structure that would distribute power and resources more evenly. But a much-touted National Dialogue Conference did little to mollify the Houthis, who embarked soon afterward on the offensive that has led to today's impasse.     

In response to the Houthi takeover, the Gulf states recently called on the United Nations Security Council for outside military intervention. In this unsettled climate, that seems unwise. The Shiite Houthis are not necessarily a cat's-paw for Iran, but an intervention against them by Yemen's Sunni neighbors, beginning with Saudi Arabia, risks fulfilling fears of a sectarian proxy war. And if the U.S. were to get militarily involved on Hadi's behalf, it might jeopardize U.S. operations against al-Qaeda, which the Houthis have tolerated as targeting a mutual foe. 

Right now, the best diplomatic course is to support the talks that the UN has convened. Until they are finished, the U.S. in particular needs Hadi to remain in office -- not least to sustain the legitimacy of its drone strikes. The U.S. also needs to manage these strikes especially carefully, to keep controversy and civilian casualties to a minimum. It should also have a consistent public policy on compensation for innocent Yemeni victims.

In the long term, the U.S. will need to pursue a more balanced counterterrorism policy in Yemen. That means not just more dollars in economic aid for schools, hospitals and roads -- something the Barack Obama administration is providing -- but also enough non-military personnel on the ground to ensure the money is well spent.

One of the first to make the trip should be the returning U.S. ambassador, whom the White House timorously evacuated last month. Keeping diplomats on the ground can be risky. But the U.S. cannot hope to shape events in Yemen without showing up.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.