- Former President Saleh (security services, elite elements of the military)
- Current President Hadi (confederation of Sunni tribal alliances)
- Houthi forces (Zaydi Tribal confederation)
- Saudi Arabia: Hadi supporter, brokered deal bringing him to power, leader of “Arab Coalition”
- U.S.: Saudi supporter, helped broker deal bringing Hadi to power
- Iran: Houthi supporter, lower profile in Yemen than Syria or Iraq
- Al Qaeda in the Peninsula: Enclaves of support in the east of Yemen (northerners beyond wall)
- IS in Yemen: Potential to gain foothold in Yemen (White Walkers beyond wall -if they gain a foothold everyone is fucked)
Saleh’s allies in the security services and elite branches of the military are currently cooperating with Houthi tribal forces in a campaign that is moving outside of the formers natural zones of regional control.
Saleh was driven from power by a U.S.-Saudi backed plan to replace him with his VP, Hadi. Saleh ruled by balancing the many powers inside Yemen (he once called it, “dancing on the heads of snakes”), with the security services enforcing this peace. Hadi brushed aside the role these services played in promoting stability in the country. He instead relied heavily on Sunni tribal groups to run the country, shutting out Houthi and Saleh-supportive political forces. The current president has been unable to balance these forces and promote stability. Saudi Arabia will back him nonetheless, being the man they brokered in the 2012 deal to replace the former president.
Here lies the American contradiction. In Yemen, the U.S. is backing the Saudi candidate, despite his inability to promote the stable interaction of these many internal groups. In Iraq, when former Prime Minister Maliki could not do the same thing, Iraq’s institutions were pressured to rid themselves of his leadership. When Maliki lost Iraqi territory to IS, they sought his departure. Yet when Hadi has made the same mistake, losing Yemeni territory, the U.S. chose to stand behind his flailing presidency which could no longer hold onto major cities and installations.
Saleh is staking his comeback on the belief that, eventually, the Saudis and Americans will see that only he can re-balance these forces. His re-entrance into Yemen’s political affairs, with the backing of the military, an understanding with the Houthi, and a compromise with enough Sunni tribes, could talk the country down from a civil war. He may be correct.
Saudi Arabia likely disagrees, believing that Iran, still attempting to negotiate a nuclear deal with the U.S., will walk away from its position of support for the Houthi, leaving the Shia group to retreat from recent advances back into natural zones of influence. Saudi Arabia, using its air force and putting together a coalition, sees Yemen as its sphere of interest, so it is possible they won’t be ready to compromise with any “Iranian-backed” groups on its southern border. At the same time, they have essentially destroyed the Yemeni army, particularly the air force.
This may mean that Saudi Arabia sees no future compromise, and instead wants to exert as much damage on anti-Hadi forces to send a clear message to Iran. The destruction of Saleh supporters leaves Saudi Arabia with a clearer sectarian narrative it can sell to its coalition allies (who need little convincing), that the only enemy is the Iran-backed Shia tribes.
In zones of civil conflict there is always a possibility a vacuum will come about, creating space for Al-Qaeda or IS to breakout and threaten both parties to the conflict. This is the most worrisome scenario for the U.S. Avoiding it is less likely if a new compromise inside Yemen isn’t brokered soon. Saudi Arabia may disagree with the U.S. on this point, believing Sunni militant expansion isn’t as worrisome as Shia expansion. Only the playing out of this scenario can tell us if these contradictory positions between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are true.
Bottom-line: the sectarian narrative being promoted isn’t true, not yet, so long as Saleh and large swaths of government personnel (many Sunni) see their interests tied to the Houthi advance against Hadi. But the breaking down of this compromise, the destruction of Saleh’s power-base, or the expansion of AQAP or ISAP can all change that, leaving only a sectarian narrative. The winner in that scenario will be Saudi Arabia, AQAP, or ISAP.