Mere borders will not contain Yemen’s wars

Analysts have underestimated the ambitions of the Houthis in Yemen, as they did that of ISIL in Syria. 2015 will be the year those ambitions become clear, writes Faisal Al Yafai

Members of the Shi'ite Muslim Houthi movement bury fellow Houthi fighters, gunned down by suspected al Qaeda militants recently, in Sanaa on December 29. Khaled Abdullah / Reuters
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A year ago, wary of making predictions about what would happen in the Middle East in 2014, I opted to imagine what would not happen, to discern the glimmers of light in the predictions of doom that seem to plague this region.

As I noted at the time, sometimes there is no pleasure in being proved right. And so it has proved in some cases; although in others, far from merely being wrong, I missed the story in its entirety.

From this standpoint, predicting that Lebanon, despite warnings, would not fragment, and that Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be president were relatively easy: both had proved their resilience over many years.

Sadly, too, Syria’s Bashar Al Assad also proved resilient. But I argued that a peaceful, if not altogether fair, solution could be found to end the conflict. “If Syria remains the biggest story of the Middle East going into 2014, that does not mean it is guaranteed to occupy the same place in a year’s time,” I wrote.

Unfortunately, that has proven to be true, but not for the reasons I imagined. Syria has not fallen off the front pages because it is at peace, but because the whole Levant is at war.

The biggest story of the Middle East going into 2015 is not the fragmentation of one state, Syria, nor even the fragmentation of two states, Syria and Iraq, but the attempted imposition of a new “state” on the landscape of the Middle East.

How did we miss that? Go back to the start of the year and few analysts realised the severity of threat that ISIL posed. At that stage the group controlled parts of Syria, but no one imagined they would soon overrun Iraq’s second city and so easily rout both the Iraqi national army and the Kurdish peshmerga.

Part of the reason for that was, simply, a failure of imagination. Jihadists think big – very big. Instead of merely wishing to destabilise an existing state, ISIL has sought to supplant two, and bring about a new “caliphate”, which means a state with global ambitions. The blueprint for containing problems within nation states in the region has been torn up this year.

But another reason why most analysts underestimated ISIL is they did not understand its ambitions. They saw the destruction waged in Syria and thought it an end in itself.

Looking forward to 2015, then, I fear the same mistake is being made over Yemen. Preoccupied with what is happening north of the Arabian Peninsula, we have ignored what is happening in its south.

Last year, Yemen appeared as one of the bright spots of the Arab Spring. The Gulf-backed transition was working, if slowly and hesitantly. But 2014 has shown that the transition required constant attention from stakeholders – and this past year, attention was in short supply.

But it is time we paid attention. The parallels between Iraq in 2013 and Yemen in 2014 are stark, too stark to ignore.

Like Iraq, both have suffered fractures to the established order in recent years, Iraq because of the US invasion, Yemen due to the Arab Spring.

In both cases, militant groups – ISIL in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen – piggybacked on established grievances to launch a takeover of regions. ISIL looked to the Sunni Iraqis in western Iraq, long marginalised by the dominant Shia politicians in Baghdad, for support. In Yemen, the Houthis jumped on the bandwagon of protests against the lack of a functioning state.

In both places, too, what was not a religious conflict increasingly took on a sectarian tinge, if only because of the strength of that allegiance for recruitment.

For now, the sectarian lens is serving the Houthis and their backers Iran. But just as the sectarian lens has been imposed, it can also retreat. That would leave the Sunni south as the last major obstacle to Iran’s intrigue in Yemen.

Iranian militias have crossed sectarian lines before – look at Hizbollah in Lebanon, where the group has drawn supporters from the Christian communities. If Iran offers the south what it wants, or something the central government cannot deliver, which would be a measure of autonomy, the whole political landscape could be reshaped. Once again, we are failing to grasp the scale of imagination of these militant groups. The Houthis appeared only to have ambitions for autonomy in their stronghold in north-west Yemen. Now it appears they aspire to control the entire country.

If it is de rigueur to make predictions at this time of year, then 2015 will be the year that tensions in Yemen become too strained to ignore. Expect headlines, perhaps from unexpected quarters. Just because the problems in Yemen have been ignored, does not mean they have gone away.

On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai