Four Ways America Can De-escalate the Crisis in Yemen

02/17/2015 10:57 am ET | Updated Apr 19, 2015
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So it comes to this. Four years after the Yemeni uprising and a hopeful beginning for a new democracy in the region, U.S. and European powers give in to an armed takeover of the capital Sanaa and pull their diplomats out. The U.S. ambassador's departure comes only four months after President Obama touted Yemen as a counter-terrorism success story, totally ignoring the fact that the country was falling apart with nary an American attempt to intercede diplomatically to help local power centers patch up their differences.

It's a triumph -- albeit a still incomplete one -- for the Houthi rebels, who now inherit a central government in shambles and a country divided and on the brink of civil war. It is also a success for Iran, whose support for the Houthi rebels is no longer a secret affair in terms of its regional struggle with Saudi Arabia. For the U.S., it's another foreign policy dilemma with the emergence of yet another dangerous spot for Americans in the Middle East. The Houthis had a relatively easy time getting into Sanaa.

Their expansion southwards and eastwards, however, is meeting stiff resistance. Ma'rib, the oil-producing region east of Sanaa, mobilized tribal opposition and have so far blocked the Houthis' advance into their government. The Hirak leaders in south Yemen have rejected Houthi overtures to them and have declared their opposition to the Houthi takeover of Sanaa. Ta'iz, the second largest urban center in Yemen, has witnessed daily demonstrations in the same vein as Aden's protests. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, having fought the Houthis in the north, are putting up a costly (to the Houthis) fight near their own stronghold in the south. All these ongoing battles have the potential to involve neighboring powers, especially Saudi Arabia, which cannot abide a Houthi-controlled Yemen on its borders.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The Houthis, a Zaidi tribe and the largest and most powerful of its sect in the north, grew militarily out of seven years of consecutive wars against the central government in Sanaa. Zaidism, having historically branched off of Shia Islam, has always had distant and mostly dormant kinship with the broader Shia community in Iraq, Iran and the Levant. These dormant links were awakened by the brief entry of Saudi Arabia into Sanaa's war with the Houthis in 2009 and the 2011 youth uprising which shook the Saleh regime in Sanaa http://goo.gl/KL4lSS. The opportunity to take advantage of the Houthis' growing strength and the power vacuum in Sanaa was too tempting for Tehran to pass up.

To be fair, by the time the Houthis took Sanaa back in September 2014, there was very little the U.S. and its Western allies could do to stop the takeover. At that point, this was certainly no place for the U.S. or N.A.T.O. to take a military stand. The decision to shut down the embassy was also inevitable, given the deteriorating security situation, the lack of contacts with the Houthi rebels and a dubious connection with Iran, which could easily complicate the embassy's security profile.

This is another stitch-in-time story though -- another spot in the region where early preventative diplomacy might have had a positive impact. As in Syria, so in Yemen: policies that could have saved the day in 2011 are no longer sufficient. Diplomacy, backed by force or the threat of force, could have empowered the Syrian secular opposition in 2011 -- when they were the only game in town -- at least to the point of making balanced negotiations possible between them and the Syrian regime. The allied effort is costlier now and with questionable impact on the ground as violence spreads and endangers the entire region.

A decisive role in intra-Yemeni diplomacy back in 2011 could similarly have kept the U.S. in the mediation game and given it a chance to try to keep the country together without much expenditure in either blood or treasure. That opportunity to mediate has come and gone. The next U.S. intervention will be costlier, and it may well become necessary at some point -- if not against an overly-ambitious Houthi movement, then against an emboldened al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

WAYS AMERICA CAN HELP

1. Ask Iran to help moderate the Houthis.
Iran's leaders have now admitted their involvement on the side of the Houthis and, after the decline of Saudi influence there starting in 2009, Iran may, for the time being, be the only regional power with influence in Yemen. Such a request, however, would have to be part of a tough and comprehensive regional deal -- the kind that has not yet been tried with Iran, where the focus has thus far been on the P5+1 nuclear power talks. Saudi Arabia would also have to be on board because of its vital interests in Yemen. Hezbollah's probable involvement, at least as a model for the Houthis, further complicates this admittedly far-fetched option.

2. Empower Qatar to talk to all sides of the conflict.
As a Gulf Cooperation Council member with no direct interests at stake, Qatar has had successful mediation efforts in Yemen in the past. The ongoing attempts of the U.N. envoy, Jamal Benomar, to restart the national dialogue process would be enhanced by Qatar's active participation. Doha's diplomacy would complement his efforts, and Qatari funds could be the needed carrot in terms of the reconstruction of the north -- a region devastated by a decade of continuous war.

3. Empower the U.N. envoy.
Jamal Benomar has engaged in some heroic diplomatic efforts since 2011, reaching out to all political parties in Yemen, bringing them to the national dialogue table and presiding over an agreement signed by all, including the Houthis, to pave the way for a new constitution and new elections to follow. The U.S. endorsed his efforts and offered new economic assistance to Yemen, which alas was too difficult to spend, given deteriorating security conditions.

However, in recent years, U.S. diplomacy was limited to the two main power blocs: the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (al-Tajammu') and Ali Abdallah Saleh's ruling General People's Congress. The Houthis, the southern Hirak (in its three factions) and the southern opposition overseas -- all important power centers -- remained outside the scope of U.S. diplomacy and therefore influence. Empowering the U.N. envoy would require the U.S. to be more directly involved in Benomar's efforts, offering incentives to those who cooperate and disincentives to those who insist on being an obstacle.

4. Back up its verbal support with a threat and a promise.
A threat to intervene forcefully should the Houthi advance continue against south Yemen, and a promise to coordinate and support a major reconstruction effort should the Yemeni parties agree to a new government with full participation by all regions and power centers in the country -- two options which Benomar was never authorized to offer.

These options are not mutually exclusive and are well within the capability of U.S. diplomacy. The U.S. national interest is definitely at stake in the direction events in Yemen take over the next few months.

Should the Houthis succeed in subduing the south, Iran's military assistance and influence will have reached Bab al-Mandeb, the strategic entrance to the Red Sea, giving Iran a stronger hand in overall regional and international politics. Should the Houthis fail in their thrust eastward and southward, the fighting will continue with southern leaders and eastern tribes. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would benefit immensely from the ensuing chaos and further expand its hold on the ground in Yemen, along with its ability to plot terrorist operations regionally and internationally. U.S. leadership is essential, both for U.S. security interests, as well as for the security and stability of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the broader Middle East.

Houthi Takeover In Yemen