Winter is here
Christopher Newton | Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Incessant warnings about looming catastrophe typically have the unintended and counterproductive effect of desensitizing people to an issue. Think of warnings about climate change or the effects of binge drinking on your liver function. Better yet, consider the Game of Thrones refrain “Winter is Coming.” Said so often, they tend to be ignored until calamity strikes. As I’ve argued in this column before, my own personal mantra has been “Yemen is collapsing.” Lo and behold, the country now stands at the brink of not only a multi-sided civil war, but also a Hobbesian war of all against all. Already a state resting on crumbling foundations, the tectonic geopolitical shifts across the broader Middle East are now toppling the entire edifice of the Yemeni statehood and threatening numerous others.
The poorest of the Arab states, Yemen possesses the second highest guns per capita in the world, depleted oil reserves, a rapidly dwindling national water supply and incorrigibly corrupt government institutions. In a land filled with guns, but lacking exportable commodities, water and any means of nonviolent redress, violence and extremism have become aspects of daily life. Repeated rebellions in the north, a simmering secessionist movement in the south and the world’s deadliest al-Qaeda franchise are hallmarks of modern Yemeni politics.
Houthi rebels, members of a minority sect of Shia Islam, have moved from their mountain redoubts to not only seize the capital, Sana’a, but major ports such as Mocha and a string of military bases. They now march south, engaging military units loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted in the Arab Spring protests, as well as those who remain faithful to current president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) continues to control its own southern and western territories, waiting for the opportunity to expand its influence amidst a growing security vacuum.
As the fighting intensifies, with each faction backed by various states and other organizations, the violence will further distract Yemenis and the international community from the country’s real problems. Its economy and natural resources will continue to suffer from neglect and exploitation, and in turn, feed back into the basic motivations for violence. As geopolitical concerns assume greater prominence in the conflict, this downward cycle will only grow in speed and intensity, much to the detriment of the average Yemeni.
Following in the footsteps of Syria and Iraq, Yemen is rapidly becoming yet another battlefield for the region’s major powers, an opportunity to extend one’s own influence and to reduce one’s rivals’. Iran, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Coast Council, Egypt and the United States have flocked to the state, proffering interventions of various forms alongside platitudinous claims of safeguarding Yemen’s sovereignty and regional stability. In a region where several centers of power have vied for supremacy since the close of World War II, any instability is akin to blood in shark-infested waters.
Iran backs the Shia Houthis, providing intelligence and logistical support and seeking to expand its reach deeper into Saudi Arabia’s backyard. The Gulf States do not so much back the irrelevant Yemeni government as they oppose Iranian encroachment, with their airstrikes targeting Iranian facilities more than strategic Houthi positions. The United Sates, already forced to close its primary Special Forces base, schizophrenically seeks to counter Iran’s moves in Yemen while also allying with its involvement in Iraq and negotiating a possible nuclear deal in Switzerland. Egypt’s Abdul al-Fattah al-Sisi is more than willing to commit Egyptian ground troops to the fray to serve its own interests. AQAP seems to have been almost lost in the shuffle.
Yet Yemen stands as one arena among several in the broader Arab world. Libya, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories all present opportunities for the extension of this or that regional power’s influence. With so much instability, it appears to many westerners that the Arabs may be experiencing their own, tempered version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War. When pan-Arabism died with Gamal Abdul Nasser following the debacle that was the Yom Kippur War, the ideological void was filled with a dichotomy of secular autocrats like Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein and Hosni Mubarak on one side and dynastic theocrats like the House of Saud and the Iranian ayatollahs on the other.
This dichotomy held throughout the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s until its contradictions boiled over with the rise of violent Islamic fundamentalism and the Arab Spring uprisings. These trends swept away the post-Nasser paradigm, ushering in a new period of political reorganization, historically a bloody affair. Not only has despotism been questioned as a legitimate form of rule, but also Sykes-Picot itself is in jeopardy.
Yemen is the canary in the coalmine, the first alarm to sound of catastrophe over the horizon. If there is indeed to be a geopolitical reshuffling of the Arab world, Yemen will not be the only failed state. Libya is about to follow suit, Syria stands at the edge, Iraq is at risk for dismemberment and Lebanon remains ready to implode at a moment’s notice. Yemen has collapsed, just as climate change is a reality, our livers may need a check-up and winter will fall upon Westeros. What will follow will likely not be a peaceful series of events.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.