Reports on Wednesday that the president of Yemen has fled his country underline the latest crisis to strike the state system in the Middle East.
Three other Arab nations – Libya, Syria and Iraq – are already fractured among religious, ethnic and tribal groups, with fighting exacerbated by outsiders bankrolling and arming proxies.
The Barack Obama administration is approaching each conflict cautiously, focusing on salvaging Iraq – where the U.S. has expended the most blood and treasure – and retaining counterterrorism links where possible with selected opposition forces and the remnants of pro-American regimes.
This balancing act is particularly difficult in three countries – Syria, Libya and now Yemen – where there is no longer an official U.S. presence on the ground.
The Obama administration removed U.S. staff from Syria in 2012 as the regime of Bashar al-Assad intensified a violent crackdown on protestors, closed the U.S. embassy in Tripoli in 2014 amid fighting between rival militias and last weekend pulled the last 100 or so U.S. personnel from Yemen.
Administration spokespeople said the U.S. would continue to monitor and respond to threats from terrorist groups that have found a haven in Yemen, such as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that the U.S. “continues to have assets and resources in the region that will allow us to take steps where necessary to continue to apply significant pressure to extremist targets and to keep the American people safe.” He conceded, however, that “coordination would be more effective if there were U.S. personnel in the country.”
It is tempting to blame the U.S. for a failed strategy in Yemen, where nationwide protests forced out a long-time president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2012 and replaced him with a weak vice president, Abed Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
A Shiite group, the Houthis, who appear to have formed an alliance with Saleh, took over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in January and are now streaming south to the southern city of Aden, where Hadi and his cabinet fled last month.
Iran has been providing financial and arms aid to the Houthis, which has antagonized Sunni Arab nations that fear that balance of power in the region is shifting against them.
However, the Houthis are also virulent enemies of al-Qaeda and the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS). That makes them potential allies in a U.S.-led coalition against these terrorist groups.
The Houthis can probably never hope to rule all of Yemen, a chronically divided nation facing a number of existential challenges including a disappearing supply of fresh water. The assumption is that they are trying to take as much territory as possible to improve their leverage in eventual talks on forming a new coalition government.
While each fractured country has unique characteristics, the crises are connected in some cases. For example, Iranians have told this reporter that one reason their government has supported the Houthis – whose brand of Shi’ism differs from that practiced in Iran – was to avenge Saudi military intervention on the side of the Sunni monarchy of Bahrain against a popular uprising by that tiny country’s Shiite majority four years ago.
Charles Schmitz, an expert on Yemen at the Middle East Institute, told VOA that another aspect of vengeance was at work.
“The big story is Saleh’s revenge against Saudi Arabia,” Schmitz said, noting that the former Yemeni president had been forced out by the Saudis in 2012.
Portions of the Yemeni army loyal to Saleh have done most of the fighting, Schmitz said, and will now try to consolidate power in the east of the country. Still, eventually, he added, the Houthis will “have to come to some sort of accommodation with Saudi Arabia,” which has bankrolled its impoverished neighbor.
Those who worry that Persian Iran now controls or influences four Arab capitals – Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sanaa – tend not to mention that it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 that accelerated the process of state disintegration in the region. By toppling Saddam Hussein, the George W. Bush administration overturned the sectarian balance, ending centuries of Sunni rule and giving power to a Shiite majority heavily reliant on Iran.
The popular uprisings that began in late 2010 in Tunisia destabilized other Arab autocracies. Only Tunisia has managed a transition to a true democracy, albeit one menaced by terrorism and unemployment.
Given the popular backlash against U.S. military intervention in the last decade, the Obama administration is wise to minimize boots on the ground and rely on local forces where possible to contain these conflicts.
No one knows at this point whether Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen will hold together, remain unified in name only or splinter into ethnic and tribal fiefdoms. Middle East scholar Joshua Landis has compared the region to Central Europe, where there was a “great sorting out” of linguistic and ethnic groups between World Wars I and II.
Another analogy is the former Yugoslavia, which fell apart in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in bloody wars that eventually drew U.S. and European intervention.
The Yugoslavs had the advantage of being in Europe, where the atrocities committed especially by Serbian forces eventually compelled U.S. and European intervention. There is no appetite for similar involvement in the Middle East in defense of borders that were often drawn a century ago by European colonial powers.
While it is easy for some to say that the U.S. and Europe should simply stay out of the Middle East, the vacuums created when autocracies fall are too often filled by those who want to attack the West, too. Thus, the U.S. needs to remain involved on the intelligence side and look for allies wherever possible, even if that upsets old friends.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Voice of America.
Barbara Slavin is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and a correspondent for Al-Monitor.com, a website specializing in the Middle East. She is the author of a 2007 book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies: Iran, the US and the Twisted Path to Confrontation, and is a regular commentator on U.S. foreign policy and Iran on NPR, PBS, C-SPAN and the Voice of America.