Yemen is probably the most misunderstood international story in the Western mass media since… well, Uganda in September 2009. As was the case during the Uganda uprising, I believe the problem originates in the ignorance of regionalism in Yemen, or as Professor Harm J. De Blij has written time and time again: geography matters.
There are two major yet unrelated conflicts taking place in Yemen — the Sunni and Al Qaeda-linked separatist threat in the central south of the country (a major concern of the United States) and a Shia uprising in the north (alarming to the Yemenis and Saudis, possibly supported by Iran, but of little relevance to the rest of the world). And carefully distinguishing between the two is critical to keep the US out of a real quagmire.
Let’s start from the beginning. A century ago, Yemen was divided into two spheres of influence, with the Ottomans controlling the Red Sea coastal area (North Yemen), while the Aden coast was a protectorate of the British (South Yemen). After World War I, a Shia spiritual leader established himself as King in North Yemen and titled his country the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen. Although he initially fought with the growing Saudi state, the Saudis backed the king during the 1960s civil war, whereas the Soviets and Egyptians backed a republican insurgency, which came to an end in 1970. Meanwhile, the former British Protectorate became the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1967, also enjoying backing from the Soviets. Perhaps due to the dual Red sympathies, perhaps due to Arab nationalism, the two states agreed to unify in the early 1970s, and ultimately merged in 1990. (A group in South Yemen declared and fought for independence during several months in 1994.)
The Cold War conflicts are essentially unrelated to today’s violence. Back then, the differences were primarily political. Today, the roots of the conflict are religious and tribal. The northern uprising in the mountains along the Saudi border is a Shia rebellion based on anger and frustration with the persecution and neglect of the mountainous region by the (Sunni) government. The Yemeni and Saudi governments are fighting this rebellion, and the Saudis have blockaded the coast, on the pretext of stopping Iranian arms from reaching the rebels. The violence has caused widespread displacement of people in the areas, as the Shia rebels and government troops treat civilian casualties as a secondary concern.
The border with Saudi Arabia and Yemen was definitively demarcated in 2000.
The Saudis are guilty of aggravating and prolonging the conflict. Wary of taking too many losses on the ground and unable to do much by air and sea, they have recruited the Hashed, a local tribe, to fight against the Huthi, the tribe central to the Shia rebels. The Hashed have several incentives to continue fighting for as long as possible — they have a long-standing feud with the Huthi, and make a great deal of money from fighting for the Saudis, and may be coming up with schemes to prolong the conflict. According to a source of Al Jazeera:
If [the Hashed are] given the mission of taking a particular mountain, for example, they’ll call up the Huthi leaders and tell them: ‘We’re getting five million riyals to take the mountain. We’ll split it with you if you withdraw tonight and let us take over’… After the tribesmen take charge, they hand it over to the Saudis… The next day, the Huthi return and defeat the Saudis and retake the mountain… It’s been happening like this for weeks.
No Western country wants to get involved in this fiasco, and we shouldn’t be baited into participating by either the Saudis or the Yemenis. Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the deputy Saudi defense minister, says he has “confirmed information” that al-Qaeda has been communicating and co-ordinating tactics with the Shia rebels, a charge Saudi and Yemen government official regularly trumpet as they justify their actions. They are also shouting that the Iranians are backing the rebels. But all of this is nonsense, and its worth comparing the map above, showing the area of the civil war, with the map below, showing strikes against Al Qaeda in recent months carried out by Yemeni forces. Note that the areas are entirely unrelated.
Then also compare the Shia uprising with this map showing key terrorist attacks in Yemen over the past decade. Once again, the map of attacks shows no common regional area with the Shia rebellion in the north.
Yemen has been a terrorist haven for the past decade. Kaplan wrote about the country in 2003, generally praising the president as a pragmatist, while recognizing that he has long forgiven and even allied with many of the violent Sunni tribalists in bed with Al Qaeda. And although Yemen only launched into the headline news after the Christmas 2009 attempted bombing, the violence is not new — the government killed dozens of Al Qaeda suspects in the weeks before Christmas, while the Shia rebel violence had spilled into Saudi territory by at least November. But the US, and the news media, must be cognizant of the fact that these two conflicts are entirely separate. The US must only assist Yemen in eradicating Al Qaeda elements in the central and southern coastal region of the country, and must not get involved in the Saudi-Yemeni border conflict that originates in the Sunni-Shia tribal rivalry of Arabia. If policymakers are awake, they should already know that, but the lack of analysis focusing on this in the media is alarming.