Thinking Aloud: Yemen, That Escalated Quickly

Mar. 20, 2015 by Darius

Within the last 48 hours, the situation in Yemen has deteriorated sharply as the political dispute between two of Yemen’s former presidents escalated into violence and one of the worst terrorist attacks in years struck the capital.

When Houthi rebels seized control of the capital, Sanaa, two months ago, Yemen’s president, Abd Rabbo Hadi, resigned in protest.  Hadi was originally kept under house arrest but was released a month ago.  He promptly fled to Aden, outside Houthi control, where he has concentrated on rallying forces loyal to him.  One of Hadi’s many rivals is the president he replaced, Ali Abdullah Saleh.  Saleh was eased out of office after 33 years (!) during Arab Spring protests and has supported the Houthis, almost certainly because he sees the Houthis as his best path back to power.

Yesterday, a military unit loyal to Hadi moved to disarm a military unit loyal to Saleh in Aden.  Saleh’s troops resisted, and heavy fighting broke out, leaving more than a dozen people dead.  In the course of the fighting, large sections of Aden’s airport were destroyed.  Ultimately, Hadi’s men were largely victorious.  However, after the fighting, a warplane dropped bombs on Hadi’s compound in Aden, though Hadi himself was not there at the time.  Today, another strike was carried out in the vicinity of Hadi’s compound, again injuring no one.  It remains unclear who ordered the airstrikes and if they were a serious attempt on Hadi’s life.

Yesterday’s fighting raises the spectre of large-scale fighting between forces loyal to Yemen’s various power bases, which had thus far been avoided despite the Houthi takeover.  In response to the events of yesterday, the Houthi government called for calm and restraint on all sides.  Calm and restraint are likely to be in short supply, though.

To make matters much worse, earlier today, four coordinated suicide bombs ripped through mosques heavily attended by Houthi supporters in Sanaa.  Right now, the death count stands at 137, with hundreds more wounded.  The death toll is likely to rise.  The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement that decried the Houthis as infidels.  (The Houthis are Zaydi revivalists and follow a form of Shia Islam.)  ISIS vowed to continue carrying out attacks against the Houthis.

Yemen still lacks a meaningful government, and the idea of a central government having a monopoly on the use of force in Yemen is rather laughable at this point.  The Houthis will need to respond to the bombing in some form.

In the last 48 hours, Yemen has degenerated from a tenuous calm to major bloodshed.  One can only hope that calm, however tenuous, will return soon.  However, all of major armed players – the Houthis, Hadi, Saleh, al-Qaeda, and ISIS – believe themselves to have unfinished business at the moment.

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