Houthi Rebels Storm Yemen: a Possible Blessing for the USA?

The USA is getting overstretched again; the Islamic State (IS) is proving extremely difficult to degrade and destroy, Russia continues its proxy war against Ukraine, Boko Haram is on the rampage in Nigeria, the Sudanese conflict intensifies by the day and nuclear negotiations with Iran progress slowly. All this whilst the Obama administration attempts an awkward ‘pivot’ to East Asia to confront the rising power of China.

Given this, the toppling of the pro-American government in Yemen has come at a bad time. This is particularly so given that Yemen is home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which has claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in Paris amongst other atrocities and thrives on the insecurity of its host state. The overthrow of President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi by Houthi rebels has therefore been seen as yet another blow to US strategic interests in the Middle East.

Houthi rebels are likely to force a change in the political direction of Yemen
Houthi rebels are likely to force a change in the political direction of Yemen

On closer examination, however, this latest development may turn out to be a blessing for the US and its allies. Firstly, despite American financial and technical assistance, Hadi’s government was completely incapable of countering the rise of AQAP, with US drone strikes the only ploy to eradicate the blossoming terrorist organisation. Secondly, the Houthis are no supporters of Al-Qaeda, not by a long shot.

The Houthis follow the Zaidi Shia branch of Islam, in stark contrast to the radical Sunni version trumpeted by Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Shiiites form a minority in Yemen and the Houthis organised as in insurgent group in 1994, not long after the Shia-dominated North Yemen was amalgamated into the South.

Zaidism is a sect of Shia Islam named after 8th century Imam Zayd ibn Ali. In 740, Zayd led a failed rebellion against the Umayyad Dynasty, which had taken over the Islamic Caliphate in 661 and whose rule was deemed unjust by early proponents of Shia. Zayd was following in the footsteps of his grandfather Husayn ibn Ali (the third Shia Imam and himself a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad) who had refused to pledge allegiance to the Umayyads and was subsequently beheaded in 680 at the Battle of Karbala.

The shrine of Husayn ibn Ali in Karbala, Iraq
The shrine of Husayn ibn Ali in Karbala, Iraq

Zayd would also lose his life during the rebellion of 740, becoming a martyr like his grandfather. Yet his actions were not in vein for they exposed the corruption of Umayyad rule, weakening it sufficiently so that the empire had collapsed by 750.

The Zaidis, therefore, have an historical precedent for resisting the forces of injustice. Whilst the Houthis may lead Yemen away from another traditional US ally, Saudi Arabia, and towards Iran, they are likely to prove more effective than Hadi’s regime in resisting the advances of AQAP.

At a time when the US cannot fight every war that it may ideally wish, the prospect of the Shiites and Al-Qaeda tearing each other apart in Yemen may seem more appealing than a weak and unreliable Sunni ally.

AQAP has become an increasing security concern in the Middle East
AQAP has become an increasing security concern in the Middle East
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Japanese IS Hostages Expose Abe: Checkbook Diplomacy and the Desire to be ‘Normal’

Japan is the latest country to have its civilians held as hostages and threatened with execution by Islamic State (IS) terrorists unless a hefty ransom is paid. Shinzo Abe, the hawkish Japanese Prime Minister, has so far refused to pay the $200m demanded by the group. The crisis comes shortly after Abe announced nearly $3bn in non-military assistance for the war against IS.

Video footage of the Japanese hostages is horribly familiar
Video footage of the Japanese hostages is horribly familiar

Abe is determined for Japan to become a ‘normal’ country once again. That is, he wants to overturn the peace clause inserted in the Japanese constitution at the behest of America post-WWII, which forbids Japan from engaging in military activity unless its forces or people are directly attacked themselves. This means that Japan cannot even provide military aid to allies under threat.

During the Gulf War in 1990-1991, Japan gave some $10bn in financial assistance to the coalition forces fighting Saddam Hussein. This became known as ‘checkbook diplomacy’ and was the only option available for Japan to make a contribution befitting of its economic power.

This did not, however, translate into international prestige. Indeed, the Kuwaitis did not even acknowledge the Japanese contribution in the aftermath of the war, reserving their praise for those nations that had provided military assistance, which included countries as diverse as Luxembourg and Niger.

Japan was unable to participate in the military coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein
Japan was unable to participate in the military coalition that defeated Saddam Hussein

Japan’s constitution remains unchanged and therefore the checkbook is once more being opened for the campaign against IS. If Abe has his way – a large part of which will be overcoming the negative press being perpetuated by the Chinese and Koreans, who warn of a return to Japanese militarism – his country will deploy their extremely capable military personnel and highly-sophisticated hardware to the fight against global terrorism.

Unfortunately, the latest developments with the hostages will fuel the opposition at home to any constitutional amendment. Indeed, it will be seen as proof that a more visible Japanese role in international coalitions will endanger, rather than protect, its civilians. That the Japanese economy is enormously reliant on Middle Eastern oil will hold little sway in the argument.

Japan has paid heavily for its wartime legacy. It could be argued that the military restrictions placed on the country helped its economy develop into one of the most prominent in the world and swiftly turned a bitter enemy such as the USA into an invaluable ally, creating a bilateral relationship crucial to East Asian security.

Japan's Self-Defense Force is well trained and equipped
Japan’s Self-Defense Force is well trained and equipped

It seems counter-productive, however, for both domestic and international pressure to restrict Japan’s global role when its people and technology could provide so much help to combating terrorism, securitising the oceans and bolstering peacekeeping forces around the world.

A lot will hinge on the outcome of the hostage crisis. Knowing IS, the result is likely to be an unhappy one for Japan and Abe.