US keeps wary eye on Yemen conflicts

SANAA, Yemen — As three loosely aligned rebel groups continue to wage war against Yemen's U.S.-backed government, American officials here insist the way to peace is through aid rather than military involvement.

And despite repeated concerns that one battlefront particularly — in the north of Yemen — had distracted Sanaa from the fight against Al Qaeda-linked terrorism, an embassy source told GlobalPost that Washington opposed aerial bombardments like those that reportedly killed more than 80 civilians last month.

Both governments agree, however, that the northern conflict, with the Shi'ite Houthis opposed to the government's close alliance with the U.S., continues to derail counterterrorism efforts in the Arabian Peninsula.

They are concerned that the war strengthens the already growing Al Qaeda presence, bolstered last January, when the Saudi Arabian and the Yemeni branches of Al Qaeda joined forces.

A senior State Department counterterrorism adviser, Shari Villarosa, meantime warned in late August that security in Yemen had "deteriorated significantly," according to The Associated Press.

“Al Qaeda benefits from the atmosphere of instability,” said Mohammad Shahir, the Yemeni deputy minister for press, who added that Yemen was not seeking military assistance. “We have enough power, and we are not seeking outside support,” he said.

But while the Yemeni government has referred to the Houthis as “terrorist elements,” the U.S. government does not consider them part of its fight against terrorism and continues to refer to their activities as “armed rebellion.”

The insurgents, based in the Saada governorate, call themselves the Houthis after their founder, Abdul-Malik Al-Houthi, a fiercely anti-Western member of parliament who died when the first round of fighting began in 2004.

The Houthis are one of three violent anti-government groups in Yemen, along with the Southern Movement and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. While the three groups are separated ideologically, they all share a common goal: to see the central government of Yemen fail.

Like Al Qaeda, the Houthis charge the government with being a puppet for the U.S., and the two groups are united in their hatred of the West. On the battlefield, Houthi leaders reportedly shout, “Kill the Americans,” even though they are fighting the Yemeni Army.

Videos released on the internet by the Houthi media department show crowds of supporters chanting, “Death to America! Death to Israel!”

The U.S. government, while pushing for a cease-fire, peace talks and safe passage for humanitarian workers in the region, insists it has and will not provided military assistance to Sanaa. The U.S. says it has donated more than $8.6 million dollars to humanitarian aid organizations this year to help people displaced by the conflict.

Late last month, at the urging of the U.S. and international community, Sanaa and the Houthis agreed to a cease-fire on the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr to allow time for humanitarian aid to reach civilian victims of the conflict. The cease-fire lasted less only a few hours, according to the Yemeni government.

A U.S. Embassy source in Yemen said Washington held that development and increased autonomy were more likely to end the conflict than continued fighting. “That’s the path to peace in the region, not aerial bombardments,” the source said.

“Clearly, right now, the focus of the Yemeni government is in Saada,” the source said, adding that the U.S. did not have monitors in the area and relied on reporters and NGOs to keep track of events there. 

The Yemeni government, meantime, appears to be gearing up for a long battle with the Houthis.

“Our blood is being shed every day in Harf Sufyan and Saada. We will not draw back, even if the battle continues for five or six years, we will not backtrack or stop,” said Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in a speech late last month, quoted in the National newspaper. While Yemen is focused on fighting the Houthis in the north, and the secessionist movement in the south, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula boasts that the country is becoming a place for the organization to thrive.

“Any insecurity in the country or instability or riot, such as the Southern Movement or a war in Saada helps wake the regime,” an Al Qaeda leader, Ghalib Al-Zaidy, reportedly told the Arabic-language newspaper, Al Ghad late last spring.

Nasser Al-Bahrie, a former bodyguard of Osama bin Laden, said that if the Yemeni government lost control, Al Qaeda would thrive because of Yemen’s huge stash of personal weaponry, and the fact that most of the population is young, and poor. “If the government fails, the young people will turn into an army against it,” he said.

Most estimates say that there are more than 60 million guns in Yemen — that is almost three for every person. It is also the poorest country in the Arab world, according to the CIA Factbook.

And the current humanitarian crises caused by the war has only added to nation’s fragility.

As many as 30,000 people have been forced to flee their homes since renewed fighting ended a year-long cease-fire in early August. And, since the conflict began in 2004, up to 150,000 people have been displaced in northern Yemen, according to the UNHCR.

At a displaced persons camp in Hajjah, not far from the fighting, as many as 30 families arrive every day. Some make it to the camp after walking for four or five days, according to Andrew Knight, the organization’s external relations officer in Yemen.

“By the time the turn up, they are in a desperate situation,” he said.