Apr. 13, 2015
The Yemeni capital of Sana'a is said to be one of the world's oldest cities. UNESCO has named its old town a World Heritage site. But the city is now the focal point of a brutal civil war. The conflict is threatening to divide not just the country but the entire region. We look at how the situation developed and hear from an expert about what the future might hold.
The unrest in Yemen began four years ago with the Arab Spring democratic movement. Protestors forced autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down after more than 20 years in power. But that led to increased tensions between the Shias in the North and the Sunnis in the South.
Yemen's leader is Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, a Sunni who had served as Saleh's vice president. He quickly found himself battling Shia rebels who wanted a greater political role.
Two months ago, the rebels toppled the government and seized the capital. Hadi fled to the predominantly Sunni city of Aden, in southern Yemen.
He called on neighboring Sunni governments to help. Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of countries staging air strikes against the rebels. The strikes have helped government forces retake some areas. But the rebels have made gains elsewhere. They're now fighting to take control of Aden.
Two weeks of air raids have left more than 600 people dead, and forced more than 330,000 to flee their homes.
Kazuo Takahashi is a professor at the Open University of Japan and an expert on Middle East affairs.
Shibuya: Why do you think the rebels are showing no signs of backing down, despite the air raids?
Takahashi: I think there are two reasons. It's very difficult to win the war by an air campaign alone. As we have seen in Iraq and Syria, the Americans have been bombing the Islamic State group for six months and they are still there. And secondly, the Houthis are supported by the Yemeni national army. The majority of them are still loyal to the former president Saleh who is supporting the Houthis in order to destabilize the current government. Saleh is trying to engineer his comeback as a powerbroker, if not as the president. So these are the reasons why the air campaign hasn't stopped them yet.
Beppu: Is there any place for negotiations?
Takahashi: I think the time will come soon when Saudi Arabia will realize that they cannot win by an air campaign alone. Then they will have to decide to either accept a ceasefire and negotiate with the Houtis or escalate the war by sending ground troops. But this could be disastrous given the geography of Yemen. It is like Afghanistan. The Houthis are seasoned mountain guerrilla fighters. So I hope Saudi Arabia will choose the former to accept the ceasefire with the Houthis and start negotiating and get out of this mess. But you never know what will happen.
Beppu: Yemen is known as a particularly difficult place. In the past, Egypt intervened and they had a difficult outcome.
Takahashi: Actually Yemen was called Egypt's Vietnam War in the 1960s so I hope that Saudi Arabia will not repeat this tragedy again.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations are carrying out airstrikes against Yemen. Some governments accuse Shia Iran of backing the insurgents. That's led some people to describe the conflict as a proxy war between the rival powers.
The UAE is one of the countries backing the air raids. Its foreign minister has accused Iran of helping the rebels and trying to wreak havoc in the region.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned members of the Sunni alliance that they are making the same mistake in Yemen as they made in Syria.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged other countries to do everything possible to prevent Yemen from breaking apart.
"The last thing the region and our world need is more of the chaos and crimes we have seen in Libya and Syria," he said.
Extremist organizations are making the most of the confusion. They are hoping to expand their power bases.
Members of the Islamic State group staged suicide attacks on two mosques in Sana'a last month. More than 130 people died.
Beppu: Yemen is also the base of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Its members tried to set off a bomb on a passenger plane over the United States and they reportedly inspired the men who staged the attack on the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Do you think the chaos in Yemen could help them?
Takahashi: They have already benefitted from the worsening situation. The United States was forced to close its only base in Yemen that was being used to track down Al Qaeda members. Also one of the prisons that were holding Al Qaeda members was broken into. More importantly, the Houthis are the ones who kept Al Qaeda influence in check in some parts of Yemen. But now the Saudis are bombing Houthis and the Americans are supporting the Saudis. So, in a sense, the Americans and Saudis are making life easier for Al Qaeda in Yemen. It is ironic, isn't it?
Beppu: It's very ironic. Saudi Arabia and America are supposed to be against Al Qaeda but, by attacking their enemy, unintentionally they are helping the extremists grow.
Takahashi: Yes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend is a proverb in the Middle East. But, actually, it's not working as far as the Americans and Saudis are concerned.
Beppu: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned that the situation in Yemen could turn more chaotic. What do you think could be the outcome of the Yemen crisis?
Takahashi: The good news is that Pakistan has refused to send troops to Yemen despite a request by the Saudis. Another good piece of news is that Yemen's neighbor Oman has refused to join the Saudi air campaign against the Houthis. So there are some rational people who remain in the Middle East. And I hope they can convince the Saudis to negotiate their way out of this mess.
Beppu: If the conflict goes on, what kind of impact will this have not only on the region but beyond?
Takahashi: The worst case scenario is a Saudi ground invasion which would only deepen Saudi involvement. It could turn it into a sectarian war. Also, if a Saudi ground invasion failed, then surely that would have repercussions in Saudi Arabia and that would be bad news for the international market because Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter to the world. That means higher oil prices for all of us.