Atlantic Council’s Nabeel Khoury discusses crisis in Yemen

A quick return to diplomacy is the best bet for Yemen, says Nabeel Khoury, a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Khoury spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: In what ways has the crisis in Yemen benefitted AQAP?

Khoury: AQAP is benefitting from the chaos and the collapse of the Yemeni state. The forces that would normally be containing AQAP are divided and preoccupied. The Yemeni military is divided and most of it seems to be working with the Houthis and some of it with Hadi. They are busy fighting each other and not fighting AQAP. The tribes in the south and the east are also busy fighting the Houthis and therefore not paying attention to what AQAP is doing.

Altogether it seems like a free environment for AQAP in which to try to expand, recruit, take over certain areas that are neglected by other forces. It is a perfect time for them to make a move.

Q: With the US no longer in Yemen, who is monitoring AQAP?

Khoury: The main monitoring is done electronically. There are targets, information already in the system so drone strikes can continue without local authorities being on the ground or the Americans being on ground to help direct fire. There are some on the ground who have been working with US forces before who can continue to provide targeting services and information electronically rather than face to face. Counterterrorism and drone operations, specifically, can continue although they are definitely more difficult to do nowadays.

Q: Are the Saudis targeting AQAP in Yemen?

Khoury: Saudi Arabia has for many years been concerned about AQAP and they are concerned about ISIS, but my guess is that is not their top priority right now. Normally they would collaborate with the United States on AQAP, sharing information that could be used for stopping or targeting people. Under the current circumstances my guess is the Houthis are the top priority for Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has not used airstrikes against AQAP. The only time they’ve used airstrikes [in Yemen] before was in 2009 and that was against the Houthis as well. Right now they’re engaged against Houthi targets and I don’t think they are bothering to go after AQAP. That is normally the Americans’ job.

Q: We’re seeing a proxy war play out between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen.

Khoury: One of the main goals of Saudi air and sea operations, other than targeting Houthis, is to stop Iran from resupplying the Houthis. At this point Iran is probably interested in monitoring the situation. If they see gaps where they could land some supplies for the Houthis they probably would do it, but I think they would avoid as much as possible any direct confrontation with Saudi forces.

The rivalry definitely complicates the situation and is one of the motivating factors for Saudi Arabia’s military involvement in Yemen. But I think it also opens up an opportunity, which is Iran has growing influence with the Houthis. Rather than use that as a factor to make the fighting worse, I suggest that Saudi Arabia perhaps approach Iran about a joint diplomatic role to try to end the crisis.

Q: Is Yemen important for Iran?

Khoury: Yemen is a big opportunity for Iran. Since the Saudi involvement in 2009, Iran was alerted to a conflict zone where they could compete with Saudi Arabia for influence. Iran would have a great advantage if the Houthis were to completely dominate Yemen and Iran were seen as a big help for them in that process. Iran would gain a presence not only in Sanaa but also near Bab el-Mandeb, which is the entrance to the Red Sea. That would be a big strategic advantage for Iran.

Iran’s interest in Yemen is recent, but it is not a vital interest for them to defend as is the case for Saudi Arabia. But for Iran it is definitely an advantage. They could do with or without it. If they gain a foothold in Yemen it would be to their advantage strategically.

Q: What level of support does Iran provide the Houthis?

Khoury: Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah started with having only a few people on the ground to communicate with the Houthis and possibly provide some training, but once these hostilities started there has not been an opportunity for Iran to increase that role.

The level of involvement of Iran in Yemen is much lower than their involvement in Iraq and Syria.

Q: How are the Houthis faring in this war? They have taken over territory that is not traditionally Zayidi territory. Are they overstretched?

Khoury: They are doing very well for being overstretched and being pounded from the air by Saudi forces. They are on their way to taking over Aden. They are doing well in the south and east, pushing forward or at least holding their own.  I would say this conflict is not going to be resolved through military power at this point.  A quick return to diplomacy is the best bet for the country and the people of Yemen who are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.