The Yemeni government just collapsed, its president prodded into resignation by an Iran-affiliated insurgent group. In the south, citizens are demanding an independent state. The U.S. is freaking out at the possibility of losing its drone-friendliest partner in the middle east. What the hell is going on? Let us explain.
Is there a video I can watch that gives me the basic outline?
Not quite. But the PBS Newshour interview with author Gregory D. Johnsen, above, sums up a lot of what's going down.
What's been happening in Yemen?
In the past few days, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, along with his prime minister, security head, and cabinet, resigned from the government, saying they can't cooperate with a group of insurgents who have taken over the capital of Sana'a and imposed their demands on the government. The country's Parliament has refused to accept those resignations, though, and now there's a sort-of coup, sort-of stalemate between competing factions in the capital—one that some analysts fear could bring a wider civil war and an opening for radical militants. There's already been an uptick in shooting incidents and explosions around the capital, as different factions seek to take advantage of the uncertainty.
Why should we care?
Beyond our natural interest in the safety and peace of Yemen's citizens? A neighbor of Saudi Arabia with long coastline, key ports, and some oil reserves, Yemen has long been an impoverished, unstable political entity with lots of competing cultural and religious factions—lots more on that below—and those dynamics combined with geopolitics to make the country a battleground between the American government and Sunni Islamists, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
Isn't Yemen a hotspot for American drone activity?
This is one of those places—Yemen has borne the brunt of America's terror war, especially in recent years. Since 2002, there have been 117 air strikes on the nation, killing as many as 1,100 people on the ground, most of who are identified as militants, according to research by the New America Foundation. Alarmingly, all but one of those strikes have occurred under the Obama administration, and most of them have happened in the last three years, with most of the civilian casualties coming recently:
Why the increased bombing lately?
Well, the 2011/2012 spike coincides with the installation of President Hadi, a staunch American ally who has widened the fight against alleged Al Qaeda militants.
— J.M. Berger (@intelwire) January 23, 2015
But it's not Al Qaeda or their allies running this coup.
No; in fact, the coup—or whatever it is—has been spearheaded by the Houthis, a Shiite insurgent group allegedly supported by Iran, that has itself been at war with Al Qaeda and other hardcore Sunni Islamists for most of a decade. These insurgents, mostly from Northeast Yemen, encircled the capital last year and have run security in the area ever since. The Intercept's Casey Coombs and Jeremy Scahill, whose Dirty Wars documentary deals extensively with U.S. involvement in Yemen, don't believe the American government will accept a Houthi-run government:
Armed with AK-47s, the Houthis are primarily looking for members of AQAP.
The Houthis, however, are quickly proving that the old adage, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend," is not always true. While they are bitter enemies of AQAP, the Houthis manning the checkpoints often adorn their AK-47s with stickers bearing the group's motto: "Death to America, death to Israel, curse on the Jews, victory to Islam."
Odious, but it makes sense: The Houthi militants first got their mojo in 2004, bolstered by anger over the U.S.'s presence in majority-Shiite Iraq—and over the longtime Yemeni president who was supporting America's Iraq War.
— Iona Craigأيونا كريج (@ionacraig) January 23, 2015
Houthis ran the capital since last year—and the president's only resigning now?
It's not clear the Houthis ever wanted complete control of Yemen. They're not popular in the Sunni-dominated areas where Al Qaeda takes root. So when they encircled Sana'a in September, they worked on some terms with President Hadi. The sides had agreed to a cease-fire this week, but Hadi said the Houthi hadn't held up their end—invading the presidential palace, confining him to his residence, and committing violence around the capital—so he resigned. Though the Houthis welcomed the move and hinted at a new government by committee, no one's sure of the details yet.
Keep in mind that this wasn't even a single nation until 1990; before that, it was divided into two political entities, north and south, and even those were artificial bodies determined largely by Cold War politics.
As such, the Houthis are just one of many factions that feel they're not represented in the Hadi government. And there's plenty of history there.
Like what? Does this have to do with the "Arab Spring"?
Yes. Hadi's predecessor as president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, had run things since 1990 through violence and intimidation. When anti-tyranny protests spread throughout the Maghreb and the Arab world in 2011, Saleh immediately became a target. He vowed not to run for "reelection," but after meeting protesters with deadly violence—repeatedly—he lost his support in the cabinet and was forced to resign. In June, he was nearly killed in an assassination attempt with explosives; within a few months, he had finalized the transfer of power to Hadi, a deal brokered by Saudi Arabian King Abdullah.
Since then, Hadi has been slow to invite Yemen's many disillusioned factions into his government, even though he's been quick to accept U.S. drones and advisors. The wranglings with the Houthis had been brewing for a while, and came to a head this week—incidentally, about the same time that King Abdullah, Hadi's Saudi benefactor, died.
Alright, so what the hell happens now?
Well, Southern Yemenis are unlikely to accept Houthi control of the government, but now's a good opportunity for them to press their own visions of autonomy.
— N.F.Kelledy (@Kelledy7) January 23, 2015
As far as the U.S. and its allies go, yeah, it's gonna take a while for things to shake out. That means they'll be flying blind for a while in their campaign against Al Qaeda, according to Robert Caruso, a security expert and former official for the Department of State and DOD:
Because the majority of human intelligence that drives what the military calls precision strike (strike ops) is supplied by Yemeni forces, and Hadi would essentially waive each individual sovereignty violation, the US is in a bad spot. Regardless of their moral direction, we rely on these partners to funnel us intelligence and drive the targeting cycle.
"I think there will be a general consensus on Capitol Hill that the US should move militarily to reinforce the Embassy," Caruso tells Gawker. "That's not a bad idea, it just should be done quietly."
"Hi, is this whoever in uniform is figuring what to do post-Hadi? Great. I'm from a Western country. Can we talk, Deep State to Deep State?"
— Spencer Ackerman (@attackerman) January 23, 2015
Is the U.S. gonna have another Benghazi on its hands?
Conservative critics of the current administration certainly seem to be jerking off to that possibility. Experts mostly laugh it off. "Any comparison to the events in Benghazi" is false, Caruso says. "One, we haven't lost the Embassy yet. Two, unlike Libya, the United States owns the air, the sea, and if necessary the land," since there are plenty of Marine units in close proximity. "Both State and the Pentagon have been very proactive about ensuring the safety of the Embassy cadre, so it's fine for now," he says, adding that much of the U.S.'s anti-Al Qaeda training and humanitarian work in Yemen operates out of that embassy, so it's a high priority for protection.
What else should I know?
'What the hell is exactly happening in Yemen?' is now one of the most urgent geopolitical questions in the Middle East. Sadly, few people are qualified or knowledgeable enough to answer this pressing question. Most experts agree that most experts can't give you a straight answer. The reality is Yemen is a complex place that is very hard to understand for outsiders, and even more so for insiders. Indeed most of the people asking what is happening in Yemen are Yemenis themselves.