By Emma Ashford
Yemen’s volatile civil war has been depicted as merely a battleground between Sunni Arab countries and Shiite Iran for dominance in the Middle East.
The Houthis, northern tribal rebels who have waged a prolonged insurgency against the Yemeni government, took the capital, Sana, in September and have continued to seize territory since, drawing near to the southern port city of Aden, forcing President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee and prompting a Saudi-led military intervention last month. But in fact, the conflict in Yemen is local, not regional. And the Saudi-led, American-backed bombing campaign is doomed to failure. It will fuel Yemen’s internal strife, condemning it to a protracted torment that could rival Syria’s four-year-old civil war.
Washington and Riyadh have pushed the narrative of an Iranian-supported Houthi rebellion in Yemen. This is an oversimplification at best.
While the Houthis are Shiites, their Zaydi faith is theologically distinct from the Shiite practices of most Iranians. Historically, this has limited ties between them and Tehran. And although Iran has given the Houthis some financial support, it has not been directly involved in the conflict. In fact, many of the Houthis’ recent gains are a result of their alliance with Sunni supporters of Mr. Hadi’s predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was removed from power in 2012, during the Arab Spring.
Iran’s major gains in the region are in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, where the Iranians are funding and training Shiite militias battling the Islamic State. In Syria, Iranian support has been critical to the survival of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Yemen, where Iran’s involvement is trivial, is simply not a major front in this broader regional struggle.
The conflict in Yemen — a continuing power struggle between the central government and the many secessionist and tribal groups that seek greater autonomy — is all about Yemen. And it dates back more than half a century.
Yemen itself was not even unified until 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union led Marxist South Yemen to unite with the Yemen Arab Republic to the north. In addition to conflicts between the two states, Yemen has experienced a succession of civil wars both before and after reunification, including rebellions by both northern tribesmen and southern secessionists. These conflicts were driven largely by uneven economic development and a distrust of the central government.
In today’s crisis we find not only the culmination of a 10-year guerrilla war by the northern Houthi tribesmen, but also a growing insurgency in the east by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, continued popular dissatisfaction in the south, and mixed support for the transitional government by mainstream political parties.
You can read the full opinion article at Cato Institute here.