The last American troops are being pulled out of Yemen after al-Qaida fighters stormed a city near their base on Friday. Houthi rebels, who have already overrun most of the country, are closing in on Aden, the last stronghold of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. And last Sunday, Isis “(Islamic State) sent suicide bombers into two big mosques in the capital, Sanaa, killing 137 people.
The US State Department spokesperson put the best possible face on it, saying that “due to the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, the US government has temporarily relocated its remaining personnel out of Yemen”. He even said the US continued to support the “political transition” in Yemen.
But there is no “political transition”. There is a four-sided civil war.
Yemen’s current turmoil started in 2011, when the dictator who had ruled the country for 33 years, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was forced out by non-violent democratic protesters (and some tribal militias who backed them). Hadi, Saleh’s deputy, took over and won an election in 2012, but never managed to establish authority over the deeply divided country.
Hadi had the backing of the United States and most of the Arab Gulf states (including Yemen’s giant northern neighbour, Saudi Arabia) because he was willing to fight the Islamist extremists who had seized much of southern and eastern Yemen. But his main preoccupation was the Houthis, a tribal militia based in the largely Shia north of Yemen.
Angry at the status the north was being offered in a proposed new federal constitution, the Houthis came south and seized Sanaa last September. In February, after months of house arrest, Hadi fled to the great southern port of Aden, his hometown and Yemen’s second city, and declared that the capital instead. So the Houthis came south after him.
Meanwhile Saleh returned from exile and made an alliance with the Houthis — despite the fact he had launched six major offensives against them when he was president. But the Houthis needed a national figure on their side.
Third contender for power is al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (Aqap), whose forces, like the Houthis, are a half-hour’s drive from Aden. As its fighters closed in on Aden last week, Aqap seized the town next to the airbase where American forces were living, and Washington ordered them out. The last thing it wants is American military hostages in Aqap’s hands.
It is not yet clear whether Aqap and the Houthis will fight each other first and then the winner gets to attack Aden, or whether one of them will grab the city and try to defend it from the other. It’s possible Hadi can hold Aden, but he probably can’t take the rest of the country.
Isis’ sole operation of note has been suicide attacks on two Shia mosques in Sanaa. But as Sunni fanatics in a country being overrun by its Shia minority, Isis will not lack for recruits. If it doesn’t qualify as a full fourth force, it soon will.
What worries people is the possibility the jihadis (either al-Qaida or Isis) could come out of this on top. Many Sunnis will see them as the best chance to break the hold of the Shias who, despite their internal quarrels, have collectively dominated the country for so long.
Shias are only one-third of Yemen’s population and resentment runs deep. The Houthi troops now occupy almost three-quarters of the country’s populated areas, but it would be an exaggeration to say they control all that territory. They are spread thinly, and if they start to lose, they could be rolled up quickly by jihadis.
That could turn Yemen into a terrorist-ruled “Islamic State” with five times the population of the one that sprang into existence last July on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border. The odds are against it, but after that July surprise, nobody is ruling it out.
Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.