What We Get Wrong About Yemen

Foreign intervention in a local fight would be the worst course anyone could take.

And if history is a guide, foreign intervention will only stand to exacerbate the situation in Yemen. (Photo: AP)

Fast-moving developments in recent days reveal that Yemen appears closer to collapsing into a total failed state. Meanwhile the headlines have started to lump the conflict in Yemen–a country that President Obama only last September portrayed as an anti-terrorism success story–together with the sectarian fighting in Iraq and Syria; “Shia rebels” are said to be battling “Sunni tribesmen,” allegedly taking support from Iran as they fight Yemen’s Saudi Arabia-backed Sunni president. The implication is that the conflict-ridden Arabian country is just another front in an emerging, region-wide Sunni-Shia war, and that someone had better do something fast!

The truth is far more complex, and the solution right now should be more along the lines of: Just stay out of it. While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.

The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now–further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.

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