ISIS and al-Qaeda are the greater threats In Yemen
WASHINGTON - The terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France are likely to make US policy in Yemen even more focused on extremist threats in that country — and that means the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda, not the Houthis.
From Washington’s perspective, the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni capital Sana’a and other parts of the country was alarming not because it was seen as an extension of Iranian influence in the area, but because it caused chaos in Yemen which is being exploited by al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Indeed, al-Qaeda has been able to gain ground in Yemen over the past several months because of this instability. And al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been the most active of all al-Qaeda affiliates in hatching anti-US plots, such as assisting the so-called underwear bomber who tried to detonate a bomb on a Detroit-bound aeroplane in 2009.
The chaos in Yemen compelled the United States to close its embassy and withdraw US Special Forces who had been aiding the Yemeni government in an anti-terrorist campaign.
It was only with a great deal of luck that a recent US drone strike killed AQAP leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi.
The rise of ISIS as both the new terrorist threat in the region and as a competitor to al-Qaeda complicated the situation in Yemen even further. ISIS has repeatedly shown it can undertake attacks outside of its base in Syria and Iraq.
Although as a newcomer to the scene in Yemen — ISIS is not as strong there as AQAP — its recent spate of attacks elsewhere may draw more young Yemeni extremists to its side.
What Washington wants, therefore, is a relatively stable Yemen where it can resume its counterterrorism efforts on the ground.
This is the main reason why US diplomats met with a Houthi delegation in Oman in June. Reportedly, US and Houthi officials, with the help of Omani diplomats, discussed the implementation of a ceasefire and a political transition in Yemen. Although the Houthis have frequently used anti-US rhetoric in their campaign, they are opposed to both AQAP and ISIS, which view them as heretics, and thus have something in common with the United States.
The talks in Oman paved the way for follow-on meetings between the exiled Saudi-backed Yemeni government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthis that were held under UN auspices in Geneva. However, these talks failed after only a couple of days.
The United States says that any settlement of the chaotic situation in Yemen must involve the Houthis in a power-sharing arrangement with the Hadi government. However, there is so much bad blood between Hadi and the Houthis, and between the Saudis and Houthis, that it is hard to see a political outcome. The Saudi air campaign against the Houthis, which began in March with support from several Arab states, has included logistical and intelligence support from the United States.
But Washington has come to realise that the air campaign has not done much to degrade or roll back the Houthi gains. Instead, it has largely resulted in civilian casualties and an exacerbation of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
From the Saudi perspective, the Houthis are proxies of Iran and the takeover of Sana’a not only represents Iran’s meddling in the Saudis’ backyard but also Tehran’s mischief making throughout the Arab world. Although the Saudis view AQAP and ISIS as threats, they seem to believe that the Houthis and their Iranian patrons are the greater threats at this point.
All of this poses a dilemma for Washington. If the P5+1, led by the United States, succeeds in securing a nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudis will likely be even more nervous about the Iranian threat.
Washington, in an effort to calm Saudi nerves, might then have to show even more support for Riyadh’s tough campaign against the Houthis. On the other hand, if a nuclear deal is reached, Washington might want to use its new ties with Tehran to elicit Iran’s help to moderate Houthi demands and get them back to the negotiating table.
After all, if the United States and Iran can indirectly collaborate in Iraq against ISIS, why can’t they do so in Yemen? Achieving a stable Yemen and weakening AQAP and ISIS may be in both Washington’s and Tehran’s interests. If Washington chooses the latter option, the Saudis will, at best, see the United States as naïve and, at worse, see US and Iranian collaboration on Yemen as part of a dangerous trend that they would need to oppose.