This Monday, Great Britain withdrew its remaining special forces from Yemen, just days after the U.S. made a similar move. Both did so because of the country’s worsening security conditions, which Jamal Benomar, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen describes as, “the edge of civil war.”
The conflict began earlier this year when a group of Shiite rebels calling themselves the Houthi Fighters stormed Sanaa, the capital, and seized control of Yemen’s parliament. The Houthis’ main campaign is for greater autonomy for Northern Yemen. However, the group is also embroiled in several religious disputes, seeing as they are a Shiite Muslim organization within a chiefly Sunni country. Yemeni Foreign Minister Riyadh Yaseen has already begun to encourage Yemen’s neighboring Gulf States–the overwhelming majority of which are also Sunni–to intervene militarily against the Houthis’ advances.
“We have addressed both the [Gulf Cooperation Council] and the U.N. for the need of [imposing] a no-fly zone and banning the use of warplanes at the airports controlled by the Houthis,” Yaseen told al-Sharq al-Awsat, the pan-Arab newspaper. This statement came at the same time as regional unrest was stirring about Iran, which is also a Shiite state, and is seen as backing the Houthis (Bayoumy, Ghobari). This supposed alliance is particularly worrisome to Saudi Arabia, which is already uneasy about Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and Tehran’s negotiations with West over its nuclear program (Calamur). And this is where the U.S. comes in.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s repulsive human rights record, their inefficient regional security, and America’s advances in shale oil productivity, the U.S. needs Saudi Arabia more than ever. The primary reason, of course, is oil, with Saudi Arabia being the most dominant of all the members of OPEC. While the shale oil boom now has America pumping nine billion barrels of oil a day, we have nowhere near the amount of reserves Saudi Arabia still has laid away as a result of OPEC’s raising of petroleum prices in 1973 ($10 billion in comparison to Saudi Arabia’s $750 billion) (Schiavenza). According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, American shale oil production will plateau by 2020, and we’ll be back to drinking OPEC’s kool-aid once again.
As you might predict, Yemen’s neighboring countries have a similar incentive as the U.S. to make Saudi Arabia happy, aside from their shared religious ideology. So as long as Saudi Arabia is against the Houthis, the rebel group could end up having a bad time, despite support from Iran. However, something interesting to note about these rebels is that, while they are avowedly anti-U.S., they have also spent a lot of time battling al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, where the most powerful branches of the nefarious organization are hiding. And now with the Islamic State coming out last Friday as responsible for two bombing attacks on Mosques frequented by Houthi supporters, it looks like the rebels could have it out for ISIS as well. At the same time, Al-Qaida and ISIS, which are both Sunni organizations, regard the Shiites Houthis as heretics, and appear to be against them too. (Calamur). So aside from the dawning civil war in Yemen, what we essentially have brewing is a war between three different Islamic terrorist groups.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has recently announced that it’s lost track of $500 million worth of equipment given to Yemen. With the country in turmoil and its government splintering, the United States has lost its ability to monitor things like small arms, ammunition, patrol boats, and vehicles–the situation having growing particularly worse after the U.S. closed its embassy in Sanaa (Whitlock). “We have to assume [the U.S.’s donations to Yemen are] completely compromised and gone,” an anonymous legislative aid reported last week.
Last September, President Obama offered Yemen as a successful example of America’s counter-terrorism strategy (Peralta). Six months later, it no longer seems like that is the case. And having to pull out of Yemen actually loses the U.S. a lot of ground for the U.S. As The New York Times reported Monday, “The loss of Yemen as a base for American counterterrorism training, advising and intelligence-gathering carries major implications not just there, but throughout a region that officials say poses the most grievous threat to United States global interests and to the country itself.” It goes on to explain how one of Al-Qaida’s deadliest bombmaker resides in Yemen, the plots of which the U.S. has already had to thwart three times since 2009. And while covert CIA agents will still remain on scene, the loss of American special forces on the ground makes any counter-terrorism effort far more difficult (Schmitt).
BBC News. “Yemen Crisis: Who is Fighting Whom?” BBC. March 23, 2015.
Calamur, Krishnadev. “Yemen Descends into Chaos as Foreign Minister Seeks Help from Neighbors.” NPR. March 23, 2015.
Peralta, Eyrder. “Obama Says U.S. Will ‘Take Out’ Islamic State ‘Wherever They Exist.’” NPR. Sept. 10, 2014.
Schiavenza, Matt. “Why the U.S. is Stuck With Saudi Arabia.” The Atlantic. Jan. 24, 2015.
Schmitt, Eric. “Out of Yemen, U.S. is Hobbled in Terror Fight.” The New York Times. March 22, 2015.
Whitlock, Craig. “Pentagon Loses Track of $500 in Weapons, Equipment Given to Yemen.” The Washington Post. March 17, 2015.