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I'm Asa Fitch and I report on Yemen for The Wall Street Journal. I'm based in Dubai and have been working in the region for seven years.
I've been covering the recent conflict in Yemen and the latest push of the Houthis to consolidate control over the country. I'll be taking input from my colleagues Maria Abi-Habib in Beirut and Hakim Almasmari, who is based in San'a, as we answer your questions and try to help you understand this complicated country at a crossroads in its history. You have the WSJ's entire Yemen team at your disposal.
Edit: Ok folks, I'm going to wrap it up here. Thanks for everyone who participated, and a big shout-out to /r/YemeniCrisis for keeping Reddit up-to-date and informed about Yemen's unfolding conflict. Many thanks to Maria and Hakim, as well.
where do we go from here? are there any good/not horrible options at all?
It's hard to know. Conflicts are never straightforward, but Yemen's is extraordinarily complex. On one side you have the Houthis, plus their uneasy alliance with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. On the other are Sunni tribes and forces loyal to Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the Western-backed president who's now in Saudi Arabia. There are several other groups and power centers that I'm not even mentioning here, including Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and groups that have recently emerged purporting to be branches of Islamic State. Yemen doesn't now have a central power structure that could unify the country under its control, which analysts say makes it difficult to foresee any settling-down of the conflict. The Gulf countries would probably see a best-case scenario where their airstrikes force the Houthis to come to the bargaining table and the political transition under which Hadi was president is reinstated.
Maria points out that Yemenis on either side of the divide -- those that support Pres. Hadi and those that don't -- believe the only way to find a solution is through a negotiated settlement. U.S. and Arab officials also agree, and point to the Houthis being an organic, national and popular movement as evidence that a Saudi military campaign will not achieve the desired result: forcing the Houthis to cede power and re-install Hadi. Despite dozens of Saudi airstrikes, the Houthi military offensive has not been stopped, and at best, Riyadh's campaign has halted the rebels' advance in some areas.
A couple of questions. 1) Do you think we're going to see more incidents like last night where AQAP were able to break into a prison, it seems like they are going to have great opportunities to insert themselves into the political vacuum that has been created? 2) A lot of experts on Yemen like Iona Craig, Gregory Johnsen and Adam Baron have spoken about how framing this whole conflict on a purely sectarian basis is very simplistic and that a lot of the issues at stake are local to Yemen. That being said, do you think this (the fact that the conflict is rooted in Yemeni politics) ensures that we won't have a spillover of the whole situation into the wider region?
On the first point, AQAP has been taking advantage of the chaos in Yemen for some time to make military gains. There doesn't seem to be any reason to suspect that this won't continue. AQAP certainly sees this as an opportunity to recruit and expand, especially as the withdrawal of U.S. counterterrorism personnel allows them to perhaps operate more openly.
On the second point, a lot of what's happening is indeed local to Yemen, but the conflict has already become to some extent internationalized by the involvement of the Saudi-led coalition conducting airstrikes. It seems like a more likely scenario than a spillover of the situation to the wider region is the use of Yemen as a proxy battlefield for regional adversaries. It's tough to say how likely/unlikely that is at this point, but it's certainly something people have raised as a fear.
> the relationship is much more complex than that implies
I think this is something a lot of us would be very curious to know more about. Can you expand on it at all?
Our reporting has shown that Iran has/does provide support for the Houthis, mainly in the form of cash, intelligence help and (potentially in the future if the Houthis consolidate control) large investment in the economy. A Houthi delegation went to Iran to discuss this last sort of aid recently. Iran denies that it has given the Houthis weapons. The Houthis say any support from Iran is more on the level of moral/political support. Precisely where this line of support begins and ends isn't fully clear.
Maria adds: The Houthis are an organic, independent movement, they are not created by Iran, as some of Tehran's most loyal proxies, like Hezbollah or some of the Iraqi Shiite militias. They are also fiver Shiites, which means that their faith is very similar to Sunni Islam. Some scholars say their beliefs are more in tune with Sunnis than Shiites. The Houthis also don't believe in Velayat Faqih, the backbone of Iran's theocracy, which espouses the Ayatollah of Iran as Shiite Islam's supreme leader, which Hezbollah subscribes to and essentially colors their thinking. For the Houthis, they've ruled Yemen for large swaths of the country's history, when they Zaidi sect of Islam the Houthis now represent had their own king installed in San'a, which lasted until the 1960s. And although Houthis will admit to training and equipment from Iran, they maintain that that help is limited - and US officials have agreed for years, whether under the Bush presidency or the Obama. Essentially the Houthi argument is - 'we're a discriminated-against minority and Iran comes along, providing help, no strings attached. You want us to say no?' And what's in it for Iran? Well, it helps to have a piece on the chessboard that also hates your number-one enemy, Saudi. But there's hardly a command and control relationship there between Tehran and the Houthis.
What's one story you've seen that you wish has/had received more attention in the western media?
We've covered the situation in Yemen fairly extensively, but there are always stories you wish would get more play. One thing that I think needs to be explored more carefully in future is the nature of the relationship between the Houthis and Iran. We're often forced for the sake of convenience and word count to gloss over it by saying "the Iran-backed Houthis," but the reality is that the relationship is much more complex than that implies, and it merits more reporting.
How do you see the newest generations in Yemen and other ME reacting to their various situations? Are worldviews and ideology being passed stoically from one generation to the next, or is there a change being seen?
Hakim, who's Yemeni, says he thinks the younger generation is lost between liberal ideas and religion. They don't want to let go of religion, but they know that most of the wars in the Middle East are caused by or rooted in religion.
How are you guys staying safe while reporting the news (do you have your own security? I presume it is unsafe to wander the streets)? And how do you filter through all the news coming in in such a chaotic environment?
I'm not in Yemen now, and neither is my colleague Maria, who also covers the country. We can't go right now for (I suppose) obvious reasons, but it's certainly frustrating to cover it from afar. Luckily Hakim is there, and he knows his way around well. Nothing is perfectly safe, of course.
How the current situation affecting people's life there? Is this "war" thing happening in all regions or only at certain parts of the country?
Thousands evacuated San'a, since it was the first province to be attacked. Now Saudi attacks are spread through most provinces. Yemenis are just being patient, hoping for a political deal and that this war can end before Yemen turns out like another Syria.
Hi, thank you for informing us about the AMA. I've pinned it to the top of /r/YemeniCrisis.
What do you think the new government in Yemen will look like?
This is a hugely important question, but I think it's too early for me to answer. Things are in a state of chaos and upheaval right now, and the Saudi coalition airstrikes may also play into the political calculus that determines the shape of the new government. Some analysts I've talked to say the Saudis will try to use their military campaign to reinstate the political transition under which Hadi was president, but in a revised form that somehow takes into account the ascension of the Houthis. If the Houthis emerge victorious in all of this, though, I suppose we'll see a continuation of the sort of setup their leadership has installed in San'a since last month.
What is one thing about Yemen everyone should know?
Yemen is the region's poorest country. When many people think about the Middle East, and especially the Arabian Peninsula, they tend to associate it with wealth and energy. Yemen has some energy resources -- plentiful ones, even -- but its wealth, natural resource-wise and otherwise, doesn't begin to compare with its neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Despite this, it's a crucial front for the U.S. in regional counterterrorism efforts, and is increasingly an important front in what many people fear a budding regional battle for supremacy with strong sectarian overtones.
Why do you think the US is dragging their feet evacuating American citizens from Yemen? In recent days, China, Russia, Pakistan, and even Egypt have made substantial efforts to evacuate their citizens. Is it simply because the US has moved muscle out of country, or because American military/govt casualties are too much of a political risk?
The U.S. has withdrawn all of its personnel from the country. The San'a embassy was closed (along with about a dozen other countries' embassies) in February, and the U.S. pulled its remaining 100 or so military personnel last month. There are probably some Americans still in the country; I'm not aware of efforts to evacuate anyone, though.
What is the likelihood of any national military forces (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc.) launching a ground offensive against the Houthis in Yemen?
Follow-up: if you think it's likely, what's your sense of the time frame of such an offensive?
Never say never in the Mideast, but it seems unlikely that the Riyadh-led coalition will launch a ground invasion. They saw what happened to Egypt's national army when they intervened in 1962 Yemen civil war - 40% killed before Cairo withdrew. Saudi is a far less-tested force and Egypt's military has also lost a lot of its luster since the 1960s and hasn't fought a large-scale ground war in decades. There's an answer above about Egyptian politicians and the population being very nervous about Cairo's involvement in Yemen so far - which has been very limited, with Saudi launching the majority of air strikes. And as we've seen with way more sophisticated US or UK military in Afghanistan or Iraq, insurgencies are not wiped out by airstrikes, if they are wiped out at all, it is done with ground forces. And even then, they end up persisting - the US is still fighting the Taliban 13 years after 9/11.
Hi, Egyptian here.
I'm very concerned with the lack of information about Egypt's involvement in this coalition. There is barely any details and I fear our current regime might repeat the mistake of the North Yemen civil war which resulted in death of 10000 Egyptian soldiers. So, do you predict that Egyptian soldiers will be involved again this time? Is there any information that the public don't know about our involvement in this coalition? And lastly, how do you see this conflict affecting Saudi Arabia in the long term and how long do predict it to last?
The Egyptian position vis-a-vis sending troops is unclear now, and it's hard to know how much of Sisi's involvement has to do with the tremendous financial support (more than $12 billion) he has had from Saudi and how much of it comes from a desire to secure Yemen that would exist even without those kinds of financial and political ties.
I'm no soothsayer, but Egyptian troops getting involved doesn't seem like a likely scenario right now. Saudi officials have indicated publicly that they don't currently plan a ground war, and they're relying on supporting sympathetic security forces on the ground to combine with the airstrikes and restore Hadi. One Gulf official we talked to said the initial expectation is that it could last something like five or six months, potentially.
How likely is it that Yemen devolves into another Syrian crisis? Do you think there is a chance that a stable government will be reinstated soon?
I don't think there's any chance of a stable government being reinstated soon. It's also tough for me to envision how that would happen. Yemen devolving into another Syrian crisis is what Yemenis fear most.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the role of Saleh and his units in this crisis. When did he join up with the Houthis, and about what percent of the armed forces would you say that he commands? His involvement in this seems to be quite confusing and I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit.
Also, I was wondering if you could just check out a map that I'm editing of the situation in Yemen. Does it jive with your view of the situation on the ground?
From Maria, who's an expert in this area:
Saleh was instrumental in reviving patronage systems during his decades-long autocratic rule, particularly within the military, to help the Houthis overrun the government. Saleh convinced units of the military and their officers, disgruntled with Pres. Hadi as he tried to sideline Saleh loyalists in the military, to turn the other way or actively fight with the Houthis. Of particular importance is the influence Saleh still wields over the Air Force - which was used to bomb Pres. Hadi in Aden last month - and the Reserve Forces, an elite force previously known as the Republican Guards which was led by Mr. Saleh's son, Ahmed, before he was ousted in 2012.
Edit: That map is great! It matches pretty well with what I've seen from other sources about the battle lines, though with Yemen I think it's extremely difficult to be precise with these things. You're probably already aware of this, but AEI has some of the most detailed and up-to-date geographical information about the situation, particularly areas of Houthi control.
Can you describe the degree of sectarianism that exists today in Yemen? Is it greater or less than sectarian divides that exist in countries like Iraq?
It's tough to measure sectarianism, but those tensions are certainly inflamed. Sectarianism didn't used to be much of an issue in Yemen at all and really is a more recent phenomenon spurred on by the rise of Sunni extremist groups and of course the descent of Houthi militants from the north of the country increasingly southward these past few months. Sectarian violence naturally will increase when there's a move to take power and land that's seen as having sectarian overtones. Iraq has a longer and more deadly history of sectarian violence, but I wouldn't necessarily say it's a useful comparison.
There are several efforts being made to raise awareness for Americans stuck in Yemen:
I hadn't come across these. Thanks for pointing me to them.
Do you think Egypt's military commitment to the coalition can/will have a substantive impact on the ground in Yemen, or is it more of a symbolic way for Egypt to repay its Gulf patrons for their support of President Sisi?
Every indication from Egyptian officials in private and the sentiment in the country from the man on the street to newspaper columnists indicates that Cairo does not want to be substantially involved in Yemen, and has joined Riyadh's coalition as a way to help their Saudi ally/bank-roller present a unified Arab front against Iran. Egyptians still remember the grave casualties their troops endured when they launched a ground invasion in the 1960s during Yemen's civil war. Before Cairo's withdrawal, some 40% of Egyptian troops were killed. With Egyptian security forces stretched fighting insurgents in Libya and at home in the Sinai, there is not much appetite to open a new front, other than symbolic gestures to appease Saudi.
I have to second everything above. After Nasser's failed intervention in Yemen in support of the republic in 1962, another Egyptian deployment would be a very tough thing to sell domestically.
I have 2 questions.
1)Can you explain for the lay person the importance of keeping the Bab-El Mendeb straits open for shipping and how this current conflict fits into this geopolitical strategy?
2) Are the shiites across the border in Saudi Arabia in SW Saudi Arabia feeling any incentive to join the fight in Yemen or contribute in some capacity?
From Maria, on the first question:
Bab el Mendeb has long been a worry for US and Arab officials. If Iran's Yemeni allies gain full control of the narrow crossing, which means "the door or gateway of anguish" in Arabic, it would enable them to affect most of the global shipping that is destined for the EU, China and the Mideast. If Bab al Mendeb's operations are influenced by Iran's allies, that, combined with the Strait of Hormuz - which Iran has shut down in the past - would give Tehran significant control over global oil shipments -- 22% of the world's energy supply pass through these two chokepoints. It has long been a concern for Egypt, as it is just south of the Suez canal, and would influence their trade as well.
On the second, I'm not sure, but this is always a huge concern for the kingdom. Riyadh has long oppressed its Shiite population and tightly restricted their activities whether social or political. Riyadh's greatest fear is an internal uprising, and both AQAP and Houthis have separately threatened to dethrone the house of Saud, seeing the monarchs as unfit to lead the Islamic world. The king is also known by the title of the "custodian of the two holy mosques" - for his role protecting mosques in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest mosques for all Muslims.
I was in Bahrain in 2011 when the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crossed the King Fahd Causeway. From 100,000 people in the streets, to a ghost town in two days. March 16th, GCC forces cross the bridge, March 18th Pearl Monument is destroyed, 1000 protesters in jail and GCC armored vehicles strong pointing major intersections. Bahrain and Yemen share many similarities. Large Shiite population, under a Saudi backed, Sunni head of government. Saudi attempting to control Iranian popular influence.
Having covered the conflict, how sincere would a Pres. Hadi government be in assisting our efforts in fighting AQAP?
On scale where 1 is a organic national movement, and ten is Iranian supported paramilitary a la Hezbollah, where do the Houthi's fall?
Thank you for the work you do.
On the first question, Hadi had been very supportive of U.S. efforts to root out AQAP, and the Yemeni army made progress against AQAP on the ground early in his presidency. There's no reason to doubt that support would change if he were restored to power, as the Saudi-led coalition hopes.
On the second question, it's hard to put a number on it, and we need to report more on this, but it's closer to 1 than 10.
So to what degree is the broader Arab coalition in Yemen held together for reasons other than Yemen, and how durable do you think it is? If the campaign runs into trouble, could Saudi Arabia be left holding the bag? It just seems that Saudi is the only one with a direct interest in a particular outcome and a clear rationale for military intervention. The rest appear to be more influenced by a combination of political interests (like Egypt) and/or a desire to present a united Arab front against Iran, particularly in light of developments on nuclear talks.
It's an interesting question. The mood regionally these days, at least among Saudi and its allies, seems to be one of projecting unity against common threats. There are certainly things other than Yemen that are holding them together. Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Kuwait's massive financial support for Sisi's Egypt is one of them. The situation with Iran may also play a role. But a lot has been invested recently in unity among these coalition members, which now includes the creation of an Arab military force, and at present that doesn't seem likely to fracture. Of course, the history of Arab countries cooperating and coming together to do things is littered with failures.
Hi Asa, thank you for the AMA. Do you believe that Iran has any grassroots support in Yemen, or is its relationship with the Houthis merely political? And to what extent does the Houthi ideology permeate Yemen's population? I.e. Is it more a political/tribal movement or is it an actual ideological, revolutionary movement?
We addressed the Iran-Houthi links elsewhere. The Houthis, basically, are a Zaidi revivalist group, and an estimated 30% of Yemenis are Zaidi. It draws support more from its ideology than tribal politics.
> Iran denies that it has given the Houthis weapons.
This was an excellent reply overall, but I'd just like to expand by pointing out that the above denial by Iran is simply false.
There has been a lot of controversy and uncertainty around these weapons shipments, and as far as I know nobody has conclusively shown that they were bound for the Houthis. Yemeni officials have certainly said the Houthis have received shipments of weapons, and it seems likely they have -- it's just not air-tight. There was a good synopsis of the difficulty with ascertaining these mechanisms of support recently on this blog.
Yemen is also a very large country. It looks small on a map, but by area it is much larger than either Iraq or Syria, which further compounds the crisis.
This is a good point.
What's your favorite human right and how do you celebrate it?
The right to...Reddit?
What is the sentiment about a Houthi government takeover?
And does Iran actually have much to gain by seeing Houthis win?
And do the arab states feel that threatened that they felt it necessary to intervene?
Sentiment in Yemen is divided. There's a lot of opposition to Houthi rule in predominantly Sunni provinces where the Houthis have been expanding. The government takeover was met with large anti-Houthi demonstrations and pro-Houthi rallies.
I'm not sure precisely what Iran's objectives are in Yemen, and that's something that could do with more reporting. We discussed Iran's support for the Houthis elsewhere, but it's not as straightforward as it might at first seem.
I think the threat that caused the intervention was mainly one felt by Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen. The coalition has drawn in other allies (including the U.S., which is providing support) who have always seen the GCC/UN-mediated transition that put Hadi in power as the legitimate political setup in Yemen.
For all the events and issues that could have divided the the P5+1 and Iran, it appears they've been trying their hardest to compartmentalize the nuclear issue from current events (avoid linkage with Ukraine, South China Sea, ISIS, Syria, etc). Does the crisis in Yemen put it all over the top? For example, making sanctions relief contingent on Tehran ending its support for Houthis in Yemen and/or Shia militias in Iraq?
I'm not aware of Yemen being a factor in the nuclear talks at all, but it's certainly a possibility worth considering.
For a light-hearted question, what's your favorite dish?
Maria, who's Lebanese but loves Yemeni food, says: I like Fahsa, honey from Hadramout province (considered the finest in the world and Saudi princes would fly private jets to the province to fill up on honey, back in more peaceful times). I also like lobster from Aden and their fried shrimp (Hakim will get that joke - he brought me a birthday present of fried shrimp during my last assignment there).
I have to second Maria's love for Yemeni honey. It's sold all around the region and can be very expensive, but is worth it.
Can we expect a ground invasion by the Saudi coalition into Yemen? is there a possibility the kingdom could go to war with Iran?
As Maria said in the answer to another question, it doesn't appear likely that the Saudi-led coalition will launch a ground war, but nothing should be considered outside the range of possibility in this region. A Saudi war with Iran is an even more distant possibility.
Have you read Nelson DeMille's thriller The Panther? If so, how accurate did you find the depiction?
I haven't read it, but I'll check it out. Thanks!
Has Russia been involved at all, or expressed support for either the old government or the new?
Russia has stayed out of it. After the Houthis took power, they sent a delegation to Russia to try to shore up support, but analysts I've talked to say Yemen isn't important enough to Russia for it to jeopardize its relationships with other players in the region by getting involved.
Have the Saudis sent in ground troops? Would they? Would their troops refuse to fight in Yemen?
Saudi is not yet on the ground in Yemen, and so far a ground operation isn't in the plans, according to Saudi officials. It could happen, however.
What do you think the Saudi and UAE's reaction to the recent events in Yemen?
Both aren't happy with the takeover by the Houthis and the flight of President Hadi, who they support.
Thanks for your reply. Another question that I had was related to the seriousness/threat of the secession movements in the South and where they would stand when it comes to Houthis vs Hadi/Saudi & also could they use this chaos to realize their secessionist ambitions?
The Southern Movement (the main southern secessionist movement) has lost a lot of its steam amid the recent conflict, and a breakaway for the south doesn't seem to be on the cards at the moment. As with many Yemeni political organizations, there's a lot of internal division within it, and it's more of a banner under which a bunch of disparate groups operate than a unified, centrally-led secessionist movement. In general, however, they would be supporters of Hadi.
Would you say the problems in Yemen have anything to do with the US involvement there? Is this a result of the US hunting AlQ on the cheap with drones, rather than committing to helping the population?
I'm sure U.S. involvement in Yemen has had an effect of some kind on the state of play there today, but I think the country is too fractured and complex to make any sweeping statement of this nature.