Geography Matters in Yemen

Vintage map of Britain's Aden Protectorate which existed into the 1960s
Vintage map of Britain’s Aden Protectorate which existed into the 1960s (Flickr/Mamluke)

What was, until recently, a quiet war has, according to some commentators, quickly turned into President Obama’s greatest foreign policy challenge for the year ahead: the ravage that we call Yemen.

Since 2004 the Zaidis of North Yemen have been in rebellion against the country’s central government. The Zaidis, a minor sect within Shia Islam, are one of the most impoverished people of Yemen and feel discriminated against by their government. Thousands of people have lost their lives in the onslaught already with tens of thousands more on the run.

The Yemeni government accuses Iran of supporting the Zaidis while an Iranian Grand Ayatollah once legitimized their uprising by referring to it as a jihad. Yemen can boast the support of Saudi Arabia and, indirectly, that of the United States although its northern neighbor is, understandably, the most concerned about the violence.

As Curzon notes at ComingAnarchy however, geography matters and it is critical that the United States distinguish between the “two major yet unrelated conflicts taking place in Yemen” lest it be caught in a “real quagmire”. The aforementioned Shiite uprising in the north is “of little relevance to the rest of the world,” he writes. It is the Al Qaeda-linked “separatist threat in the central south of the country” that recently sparked Western interest in the situation.

Curzon blames Saudi Arabia for unnecessarily prolonging the northern conflict. “Wary of taking too many losses on the ground and unable to do much by air and sea,” the kingdom recruited one local tribe to combat another, infuriating long-standing feuds as thousands of people have been forced to leaves their homes and livelihoods behind. “No Western country wants to get involved in this fiasco,” and, according to Curzon, “we shouldn’t be baited into participating by either the Saudis or the Yemenis” even when they claim that Al Qaeda is communicating and coordinating tactics with the rebels. “All of this is nonsense.”

Al Qaeda is involved in the central south of Yemen however and that terrorist threat should concern the West. Yet the Yemeni government has been pretty successful in eradicating it. It is for its northern campaign that the capital lacks funding and public support. Curzon warns that if policymakers in Whitehall and Washinton fail to distinguish between the two different wars going on here, Yemen will pretend that they’re really not different at all and that in order to fight Al Qaeda, the West must pour resources into the rebellion along the Saudi-Yemen border as well. That, he stresses, is absolutely false while “the lack of analysis focusing on this in the media is alarming.”