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Syria's Divisive Impact on Yemen

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The violent clashes that erupted last month between Sunni Islamists and Shi'ite rebels in Yemen's Amran province were partly a reaction to U.S. President Obama's declaration of his intention to launch a military strike against Syria. This violence was illustrative of the ability of the Syrian crisis to polarize and destabilize a country more than a thousand miles away. The geopolitical ramifications of the conflict, and its direct impact on Yemen, have compelled many Yemenis to abandon neutrality on the subject. Indeed, the Syrian crisis has served to highlight Yemen's deep ongoing political and religious divisions.

The Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supported the rebellion in Syria at the outset, taking into account the legacy of the Hama massacre in 1982, in which tens of thousands of civilians were killed in a crackdown the Assad regime waged against the Syrian MB. The Yemeni MB considers Assad to be a war criminal, views the Syrian regime as sinfully secular, and resents Damascus for being an ally of Tehran, which wields considerable influence in Yemen. Like its counterparts in other Arab states, the Yemeni MB supported a U.S. military strike against Damascus.

Yet Assad is strongly backed by Yemen's Houthis, who supported Assad in the conflict at an early stage. This rebellious minority formed the political party Ansar Allah ("party of God"), which maintains deep bonds with Tehran. Many Houthis are staunchly anti-American and perceive the Syrian uprising as a conspiracy plotted by NATO, al-Qaeda and Arab gulf monarchies. In late August the Houthis gathered by the thousands in Sana'a and Sa'ada to make their position on Syria clear to Yemeni authorities. As members of the fragile coalition government hold polar opposite positions on how the international community should respond to the use of chemical weapons inside Syria, President Hadi has sought to play down the Syrian crisis fearing that greater focus on the conflict could further weaken the government's cohesion. Thus the government did not provide an official statement in response to the Houthis' demonstration.

Situated between these two political forces are Yemenis who had previously not taken a clear stance on Syria, yet have been polarized toward one side or the other. Many Yemenis wonder why the U.S. targets their country with drone strikes in pursuit of al-Qaeda militants while simultaneously aligning itself with al-Qaeda's affiliates in Syria. Left-wing currents in Yemen that view the conflict in a wider context of Western efforts to keep Arabs divided have begun to vocalize their support for Assad, along with opposition to Western military intervention. For example, Yehya Saleh (the former head of the Central Security Forces under his uncle's regime) travelled to Damascus to express his solidarity with Assad. Such voices welcomed Russia's strong opposition to the strike on Syria last month, reminiscent of the Cold War, when Moscow was a partner of the Arab world's secular nationalist and leftist movements.

Within recent months, reports have surfaced of Yemenis traveling to Syria to fight on both sides. Given that many Yemeni Sunni Islamists travelled to Afghanistan during the 1980s to combat the Soviet military, and that some of those Yemenis helped to form al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) years later, authorities in Sana'a hold similar concerns about jihadists returning from Syria and the Egyptian Sinai to further challenge the weak Yemeni state. Recent reports allege that dozens of al-Qaeda linked armed fighters killed three Yemeni troops before capturing an army compound in Muaklla last month. Suspected al-Qaeda militants also launched coordinated attacks in Shabwa province, killing 56 soldiers and police. These recent acts of bloodshed underscore Yemen's continued vulnerability to AQAP and liked-minded factions, despite the army having returned several southern towns to government control after the jihadist takeover last year.

As Yemen's fragile National Dialogue Conference (NDC) seeks to reconcile the nation's deep divisions and bring peace to an impoverished country torn by decades of armed conflict, prolongation of the Syrian crisis bodes poorly for Yemen's post-Saleh political landscape. In this regard, Yemen is a victim of grander geopolitics. Given that the Gulf Cooperation Council/Turkey-led Sunni axis, and the Iran-led Shi'ite axis, have their respective extensions within Yemen, Sana'a will be compelled to tread carefully vis-à-vis Syria, should it seek to pursue reconciliation between Yemen's divided factions, for fear of a domestic backlash that could easily derail the NDC. However, Washington's decision not to conduct a military strike against Damascus was positive news for Hadi's government. Such a development would have likely served to enhance Yemen's sectarian strife while inflaming already powerful anti-American sentiment, particularly among Yemen's Houthi community, and shared by Yemenis who have grown increasingly resentful of their government's cooperative ties with the U.S. as a result of years of drone strikes.

Given Yemen's host of political, economic and humanitarian problems, Syria is not at the forefront of the Hadi government's set of concerns. Much uncertainty defines Yemen's post-Saleh landscape; Hadi's efforts to save Yemen from slipping into civil war may be too late. Should greater lawlessness and chaos ensue, AQAP would be well positioned to achieve gains at the expense of Yemen's military.

It appears that regardless of how the Syrian crisis unfolds, the weak Yemeni state has the potential to become a major loser as a result of Syria's morass. If Assad's forces eventually strike a decisive blow against the rebels and the al-Qaeda affiliates are dislodged from northern Syria, they will certainly seek a new power vacuum in the Middle East to use as a base. In the event that the jihadists around Aleppo defeat the Syrian military and establish a de facto Islamic Emirate south of the Turkish border, AQAP will certainly have potential to benefit from a new safe haven from where they can train and plot further attacks against the government in Sana'a.

Like other Middle Easterners, the Yemenis view the region's balance of power at stake in Syria. An Assad victory would certainly verify the strength of a Russia-China-Iran-Hezbollah web of alliances, and the comparative weakness of the U.S., Turkey and the Gulf Arab states, in this case. However, if the tide turns against the Assad regime, and Sunni rule is restored in Damascus, Iranian influence throughout the Arab world will suffer a major blow. Implications of either would not be insignificant for Yemen. Unfortunately, unless the NDC can bring about national reconciliation, various factions in the country will continue to perceive the Syrian crisis as a zero sum game. As a continuation of the status quo is the likeliest near term outcome in Syria, the conflict will continue to be a major source of polarization and sectarian tension in Yemen, and many other corners of the Arab world.

*Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book "Managing Country Risk". Giorgio Cafiero is a research analyst with CRS based in Washington, D.C.