Houthi militiamen have taken control of Sana’a, the capitol of Yemen, and the US-supported president of that country has stepped down. The Houthi are Shia Muslims backed by their co-religionists in Iran. The country however, is predominantly Sunni Muslim, which is the prevailing branch of Islam through much of the world, and for historical reasons the two main branches of Islam loathe each other as heretics. Up until now the government of Yemen has been dominated by moderate Sunni Muslims, who have cooperated with the US in battling Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, which is an additional force to be reckoned with. It was they who claimed credit for the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and who have aggressively plotted attacks against the west.
Meanwhile the king of neighboring Saudi Arabia has died, causing more uncertainty in the region, although his successor is likely to follow the same policies. The traditional Sunni kingdom owes its legitimacy to being the guardian of Islam’s most holy sites at Mecca and Medina. Long a US ally, the country is certain to feel threatened by the expansion of Iranian-Shia influence through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and now Yemen, which it shares a border with, as well as its own Shia population. All the ingredients are here for a long, drawn-out battle that the US and its western allies ought to try and stay clear of. We would do well to remember that the main rationale, such as it was, for Al Qaeda’s attacks on the US, was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia, which in their view meant infidels at the gates of the holy places. This occurred primarily in order to protect the Saudis and the oil-rich gulf states from Sadaam Hussein, whose threat, following his defeat in the Gulf War, was not all that clear. US forces subsequently left Saudi Arabia, but the struggle with Al Qaeda continues.
Our meddling in this region has proven to be disastrous and short-sighted. However, there may be some opportunity to gradually extricate ourselves as this situation unfolds. While both Sunni and Shia extremists hate us, they hate each other even more. If this conflict expands, it is increasingly possible that Al Qaeda and other such groups will shift their attention away from the west, and towards the more immediate conflict. This does not mean abandoning the region, but moving towards less active participation, especially with our own troops. The west may even quietly support or supply one side, and we cannot allow the world’s oil supply to be jammed up in the Straits of Hormuz, but we need to avoid becoming a primary antagonist here.
But all of this changes if the Iranians succeed in obtaining a nuclear weapon, insofar as it would enable it to dominate the region as never before. The Israelis, as well as most Arab leaders, are rightly skeptical about the ongoing negotiations with Iran, and any deal that does not largely assuage their concerns should be resisted. Thanks to our ineptitude we have managed to clear the field for Iran by disposing of enemies on its borders, namely Sadaam Hussein in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now Iran’s influence reaches as far as Yemen, and we must not forget that it is the one state that is actually controlled by radical Islamists. At this point by comparison the horrendously brutal “Islamic State” we are bombing in Syria and Iraq has more in common with bandits taking hostages. No doubt alarm bells are ringing in Saudi Arabia, and it is good that President Obama is stopping there at this time. Let us hope that the right decisions are made in this tricky situation, in which there are no easy solutions.