Belmont Club

Ersatz

Recent events in Yemen have underscored the problem of the failure of the substitute.  For those who’ve not been following events in Yemen, Shi’ite rebels, who some say are backed by Iran, have been attacking government buildings in the capital and shutdown the international airport.

“This is a coup attempt,” President Abbed Rabbo Mansour Hadi said.

The fighting on Sept. 19 marked an escalation of the Shi’ite revolt in Yemen. After several days of massive protests, the Shi’ites, also known as Ansar Allah and led by Abdul Malik Al Houthi, have turned to open attacks on the government.

ABC News reports, “In a stunning sweep of the Yemeni capital, the country’s Shiite rebels seized homes, offices and military bases of their Sunni foes on Monday, forcing many into hiding and triggering an exodus of civilians from the city after a week of fighting that left 340 people dead.”  Yemen is one of the administration’s partners in its whatever-you-call-it against terror.

It was the latest development in the Hawthi blitz, which has plunged volatile Yemen into more turmoil, pitting the Shiite rebels against the Sunni-dominated military and their Islamist tribal allies.

The heavily armed Hawthi fighters on Monday seized tanks and armored vehicles from military headquarters they had overrun, and raided the home of long-time archenemy Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, the commander of the army’s elite 1st Armored Division and a veteran of a series of wars against the Shiite rebels, as well as residences of top Sunni Islamist militiamen or the fundamentalist Islah party.

Recent events in Yemen are significant because the administration’s partnership with its government and with the Saudis is a template for its plan to fight ISIS.  They have also partnered with the the Yemenis to fight al-Qaeda. And the model’s performance is not reassuring. In Yemen, the Saudis have evacuated their diplomats.

Sana’a: Saudi Arabia evacuated most of its diplomats from Yemen as tension mounted between Al Houthi rebels and the government in the capital, a source who deals with the Saudi embassy told Gulf News.

“The Saudi diplomats snuck into Sana’a airport on Sunday hours before police attempted to break up a sit-in by Al Houthis on the airport road”.

From a socio-political point of view Yemen is a miniature of the sectarian troubles in the region. The Saudis helped the ruling Yemeni party establish a hegemony over the Shi’ites in favor of the Wahabis.  Charles Schmitz of the American Institute of Yemeni Studies describes how that worked:

The Huthi movement’s origins lie in the Shabab al-Mumanin (the Believing Youth), which began in the early 1990s as a summer school program using modern means—videos and cassette recordings—to promote Zaydism among the literate youth of the north who had largely forgotten their ancestors’ religion.

Zaydism, the religion of the imams that ruled Yemen for a thousand years, was severely repressed by Republican leaders during the years of the Yemen Arab Republic. A key component of Zaydism under the Imams was the idea that only the Sada, those in the blood line of the family of Fatima and Ali, are eligible to rule the Muslim community. In spite of the political diversity among the Sada, Republican leaders attack them all as agents of the ancient regime; the government promoted Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism, imports from Saudi Arabia, in the Zaydi heartland as alternatives. …

When the Saleh regime endorsed the Bush administration’s war on terror and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hussein al-Huthi saw an opportunity to broaden the appeal of the Shabab by attacking Saleh’s alliance with the United States.

Saleh has since fallen and the current government in Yemen appears to be playing a losing hand.   Yet it is not all ‘Believing Youth’ vs Saudi sheiks. The one word that Schmitz fails to utter in all of this however, is “Iran”.

Katherine Zimmerman of the AEI makes up for the deficiency however.  The Iranians are quite naturally enough, arming their Shi’ite bretheren.

Events in Yemen this weekend underscored one of the many weaknesses of the so-called “Yemen model.” The US strategy to counter Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) relies on a counterterrorism partner in the Yemeni government to combat the group, and direct military operations—targeted airstrikes—to degrade AQAP’s leadership. The model, replicated in Somalia, now also serves as a starting point for a counter-Islamic State strategy in Iraq and Syria, but its success remains limited. …

The counterterrorism partnership disappears if the Yemeni government ends it due to more pressing threats. That’s essentially what happened during the Arab Spring in 2011 when former President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government faced an existential crisis and withdrew security forces to the capital. And it is what we could see happening in the coming days or weeks as President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi navigates political negotiations (enforced by the threat of all-out-fighting in the capital) with the Shia al Houthi movement. The al Houthis, who have received Iranian support, already forced the main Sunni political party out of power and only just stopped short of a complete coup—President Hadi remains.

Zimmerman ends almost with an understatement: “Here’s the lesson of Yemen: As the United States looks for counterterrorism partners, we need to be aware of their limitations, or risk failure.” Yemen shows that the almighty Saudis are not unbeatable and that the proxy sword is no good if it is wrested from your hand and thrust into your guts.

All those multiple drone attacks can be undone if your proxy simply falls on its face and dies.

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